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Tractor tussle splits county board

FAYAL TOWNSHIP -- The St. Louis County Board engaged in a north vs. south battle Tuesday over a 26-year-old piece of farm equipment, argued about scheduling more public hearings on a proposed smoking ordinance and tossed out a few personal attacks.

FAYAL TOWNSHIP -- The St. Louis County Board engaged in a north vs. south battle Tuesday over a 26-year-old piece of farm equipment, argued about scheduling more public hearings on a proposed smoking ordinance and tossed out a few personal attacks.

They then voted 5-2 to put off discussing a code of ethics for themselves.

Commissioners Keith Nelson and Peg Sweeney clashed over the proposed county donation of a 1981 International Harvester tractor to the South St. Louis County Fairgrounds. County public works officials said the tractor, which hasn't been used in three years, is worth about $1,000.

But Nelson said he e-mailed photos of it to two tractor dealers, who said it's probably worth between $4,000 and $6,000. He asked that $5,000 from a county forest recreation fund be given to the northern fairgrounds in Chisholm so that each fairground is treated fairly.

"Give me a break," Sweeney said. "We have to get over this, 'If we are given a piece of equipment, then do we need to give something for the Northern St. Louis County fair?' This is all St. Louis County property. It sounds like a couple of kids at the playground saying 'You got more than I got.' "

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Nelson's request passed 4-3 with support from Dennis Fink, Mike Forsman and Steve Raukar. Nelson, Forsman and Raukar are from the northern half of the county.

"I believe it's high time this board had a code of ethics," said Commissioner Bill Kron of Duluth, who offered a four-page ethics code based on an Association of Minnesota Counties model. "It's time to come up with something that holds us to a higher standard."

The proposed code of ethics came after a controversy over slavery comments Nelson made in February in response to a question from Kron.

In making a point about how far an elected official would go to represent his constituents, Kron asked Nelson whether he would support slavery if his constituents wanted it. Nelson said he would, if the vast majority of his constituents supported slavery -- just as he would support their views on a countywide smoking ordinance.

Kron, who took over in January as chairman of the board, said Tuesday that he has been planning for months to push for a code of ethics.

But Nelson blasted Kron for bringing the ethics code proposal forward, saying it's directed at him.

"There was not a person in the room that day who didn't know what I was saying," Nelson said. "You are pointing it [an ethics code] at me because it's an effort to deflect attention away from you."

Commissioners Fink and Forsman said they have issues with some of the language in the AMC code.

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"There is just so much verbiage in this thing, it doesn't even make decent toilet paper," Forsman said.

Kron said the AMC code would provide a starting point for the board's own code.

"For you to believe that a county board would consider you important enough to have it directed at you, you are indeed wrong," Kron said to Nelson. "Any board worth its salt would support a code of conduct. To think that it's directed at you is paranoid."

With the exception of Nelson and Forsman, the board voted to discuss a code of ethics later this year at a County Board workshop.

"I hate to see this thought of as a knee-jerk reaction [to Nelson's February comments]," Raukar said. "The discussion shouldn't be contentious when talking about a code of ethics, it should be civil."

The board, on a 4-3 vote, also added three public hearings on a proposed smoking ordinance.

The new hearings, in addition to eight already scheduled, will be at 5 p.m. May 14 at Hoyt Lakes Community Building, 5 p.m. May 15 at Floodwood's Downtown Fair Center, and 5 p.m. May 24 at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. A May 22 hearing at Hibbing City Council Chambers is rescheduled to 5 p.m. A final opportunity for public comment would be at 9:30 a.m. June 5 at the courthouse in Duluth.

By that time, the state may have enacted a statewide ordinance.

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"Everybody in this room is wondering whether this [scheduling more hearings] is about a delay or about getting it done," Fink said.

Sweeney called the hearing schedule "ludicrous," saying that the large number of hearings is making it difficult on commissioners' schedules.

Raukar, Nelson and Commissioner Steve O'Neil said the additional hearings would offer an opportunity for more public input.

LEE BLOOMQUIST covers the St. Louis County Board. He can be reached weekdays at (800) 368-2506, (218) 744-2354 or by e-mail at lbloomquist@

duluthnews.com.

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