Crow Wing County commissioners are waiting for Monday’s scheduled decision on the alleged conflict of interest issue at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
Commissioner Doug Houge said Tuesday if the city of Brainerd postpones the issue again, as it did earlier this month, the county should step in to resolve the matter.
“We’ve got an interest in the airport and this thing has drug on for so long,” Houge said. If the city of Brainerd has an answer Monday, Houge said that’s great and if not the county needs to try to resolve it. “That’s the frustration that I see with this whole deal. It should be black and white and it’s been gray for months. Let’s determine if there is a conflict and move on and deal with other issues.”
Brainerd City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick on Tuesday afternoon said he is prepared to provide his opinion to the Brainerd City Council at Monday’s council meeting. He said he wouldn’t be releasing his opinion until council members receive it.
The airport is jointly owned by the city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County. At issue is an allegation of conflict of interest when the engineering firm the airport commission voted to hire in turn hired the firm of an airport commissioner, Doug Kuepers, to work as a construction manager for the airport terminal remodeling and expansion project.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, the board’s airport liaison, who was absent at the last airport commission meeting, brought the subject up Tuesday. The city of Brainerd is providing the legal opinion because the airport commissioner is a city appointee.
“If there is a rare concern about a possible conflict of interest it deserves to be investigated but my bigger fear is the chilling effect it has on the hundreds of men and women who serve on committees, commissions, boards,” Nystrom said. “And in my opinion they deserve our respect and our support and I can see a lot of people serving in those volunteer capacities for the betterment of our community saying, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ I don’t want to be put through the wringer like this.”
The only other option, Nystrom said is to find willing people who are not connected or have business or social relationships.
“So who’s left — drifters, grifters and loners,” Nystrom said. “I think Crow Wing County deserves more than that.”
Nystrom said she’s cast hundreds maybe thousands of votes in a little more than four years as commissioner and often knows someone involved in an issue on one side or the other. That’s part of living in a small community, she said.
Nystrom said the issue struck a chord with her since someone raised the issue when she was appointed to the Kitchigami Regional Library Board and her sister worked two days a week at the Brainerd Public Library. Nystrom doesn’t serve on the personnel committee and abstains from votes involving employees.
She noted her former doctor lives on the proposed all-terrain vehicle trail near Fort Ripley and has made an opinion known about it. She said a representative for an engineering firm bidding on work at the airport used to date her former college roommate.
“Does that make it a conflict of interest?” Nystrom asked.
Nystrom offered numerous examples, finally saying they could be considered conflicts of interest but she thought of it as a benefit of living in a close-knit community where almost everybody knows your name and your business.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen then read from the state statute on conflict of interest, pointing out it specifically lists a conflict as a personal financial interest or financial benefit. Financial benefits didn’t come up in Nystrom’s examples.
Nystrom said she couldn’t believe some of the concerns stemmed from an anonymous letter and said if she received something unsigned like that it would be in her trash bin.
“Oh, my word, don’t try that on me,” she said.
Houge said the letter, which Brainerd council member Bob Olson made public and called, in part, for an air traffic control tower and radar coverage at the airport, was a separate subject from the conflict of interest allegation.
In reaction to Nystrom’s comments, Board Chairman Paul Thiede said: “The coarsening of public discourse is very frightening because more and more people are being less and less inclined to submit themselves to it.”
Thiede continued to say he hasn’t signed the civility pledge during political campaigns not because he didn’t intend to be civil but if someone is uncivil to him and he responds then he violates the pledge.
“It’s very difficult for me to say I’m going to commit to that when I know that the public can and will and does sometimes pry into places in my life that I don’t believe they have any business prying into ...
“I think it is a sad part of our society today that less and less people are going into elective office for the reason that they want to provide a public service and more and more of them are going into it because it’s a nice job they can have a lot of fun at and promote their personal agendas.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.