Four months after taking over as St. Louis County's director of planning and community development, Matt Johnson found himself in crisis mode this week.

He was scrambling to make sense of things following the County Board meeting Tuesday in Crane Lake. Commissioner Keith Nelson's diatribe about slow permit processing in Johnson's department hit like an unforeseen blow.

Due to county offices being closed, electronic permit filing and processing was delaying things such as onsite wastewater permits by as much as six weeks, Nelson claimed.

"I've got construction people out there wanting to work," Nelson said.

On Thursday, Johnson disputed Nelson's claims with the News Tribune.

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"His words are kicking the staff while they are already down," Johnson said. "This uncertainty is not easy on any of us. The frustrating part is I had no indication whatsoever there were any complaints, so to hear it at County Board that the sky is falling, it does take a toll on staff."

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

Johnson said he has no problem admitting to mistakes and getting to the bottom of issues, but that he "finds it ironic that Commissioner Nelson loves to tout fake news when in this case I feel like he's the source of it."

The county is down one wastewater inspector, Johnson said, at a time when it is processing what he called "a massive amount of applications" through its online processes.

"We have not seen a drop in permits, and we're as busy as we've ever been," Johnson said. "We are working diligently to get through them. But a six-week turnaround? I need to be proven on that point."

Permits can be slowed down with incomplete applications or when people send checks with the wrong amounts, for example, Johnson said.

Last summer, Nelson similarly attacked county staff when he was critical in an email about its use of Amazon when ordering supplies. During Tuesday's meeting, Nelson also had a message for what he termed "bureaucrats" in the county — that he'd be running for reelection again in two years.

Johnson said his department takes the County Board into account with everything it does.

"What the County Board thinks is our focal point," he said. "We know who our bosses are."