ELY – St. Louis County commissioner candidates Bernie Mettler and Paul McDonald found many areas of agreement during a candidates forum held here this past Thursday. Both men are vying for the …
ELY – St. Louis County commissioner candidates Bernie Mettler and Paul McDonald found many areas of agreement during a candidates forum held here this past Thursday. Both men are vying for the Fourth District seat being vacated by the retirement of Tom Rukavina and they used last week’s forum, hosted by the Ely chapter of American Association of University Women and the Ely Rotary Club, to air their views on current issues. The candidates each had an opportunity to answer about a dozen questions during the hour-long event at Vermilion Community College.
Mettler, 55, of Embarrass, and McDonald, 60, of Ely, were the top vote-getters in a crowded field of seven candidates in last month’s primary and are facing off ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.
McDonald, a retired teacher, coach, referee, and athletic director at Vermilion Community College, introduced himself as “a union guy.” He said he is endorsed by Teamsters and Steelworkers unions, and various education groups, but will also be “an advocate” for everyone. “I have a passion for northeast Minnesota, and I want to continue, like my dad said, to work hard and help others.”
Mettler said he too is “passionate about this area.” He said he sees his candidacy as a continuation of his life in public service, retiring earlier this year from a 28-year career as a St. Louis County sheriff's deputy. “I grew up on a farm, was also a truck driver, worked in construction, was an auctioneer and am a small business owner,” he said. “I’m also a union man.”
Both men agreed that the Fourth District hasn’t seen the amount of county resources and jobs that its size and valuation justify. McDonald argued that the district’s taxpayers, who represent about 13 percent of the county’s population, pay nearly a quarter of the property levied by the county, are paying more than their fair share. “We have to do a better job of selling what we have here in northeastern Minnesota,” he said. “We need economic development here. The jobs are going to come to Duluth and Hermantown, so we need to have economic development people from St. Louis County come to our area because this is where we need it. We need small business, we need internet access. We want jobs. We want more than 28 kids in a kindergarten class.”
Mettler agreed that the Fourth District “has been getting the short end of the stick” for a long time. “We have 60 percent of the geographical area of the county and we are only one-seventh of the population,” he said. “We have more need for infrastructure improvements.”
As many as 1,100 miles out of the 1,600 miles of roads in St. Louis County are still gravel, he said. “We have 48-percent of the total roads. The tide is starting to turn, but a lot more work needs to be done.” He also added that economic development can be improved through Broadband, “and just fixing stuff.”
McDonald stressed that some St. Louis County jobs could be moved to Ely or Tower, “where the people want to live.
Mettler warned that those jobs should be existing jobs, and not just newly-created for up north. “Are we going to raise taxes so we can move four or five more people to Ely or Tower of Cook?” he asked.
Forum-goers found little daylight between the candidates on the subject of copper-nickel mining. Mettler asserted that St. Louis County’s role is to be a watchdog over the state’s environmental laws. “As far as the process itself, from the research I’ve read and the people I have talked to, I do believe the state has the most stringent guidelines and process set forth in the country and probably in the world, and I do believe it can be done following the guidelines as they exist,” he said.
McDonald noted that the county board doesn’t have much to say whether or not copper-nickel mining occurs, although he noted that the county board did pass a resolution in support. “I am a supporter,” McDonald said.
McDonald talked about a recent tour of the proposed PolyMet mining site. “I was amazed at the amount of wildlife that is out there,” he said. “I observed swans, geese, ducks, deer, wolves, you name it. It is like a wildlife preserve.”
McDonald also touted the state’s environmental standards. “Do we want people in third-world countries mining (copper and nickel) and polluting the air that spreads across the world?” he asked. “We can have it here and do it right, and follow the laws. Our country is based on exploration. We sent a man to the moon with exploration.”
Mettler agreed with McDonald about the abundance of wildlife he saw at the proposed PolyMet site and he expressed confidence in the ability of regulators to protect the environment. “This is in my backyard,” he said. “I can’t see how it can’t be done properly and safely.”
McDonald said the region’s history shows that mining can be done right. “We’ve been mining here for 135 years and with the deposit we have now, we could easily mine for another century. We have got to be able to bring people here. We need economic development.”
When asked about recreational opportunities in northern St. Louis County and the impact on the county’s economy, both candidates focused on motorized trails for ATVs and snowmobile, barely mentioning non-motorized activities.
“We should work with the existing clubs to enhance what we have for ATV trails and snowmobile trails and bike trails,” Mettler said. “I’m an ATVer. I’m a snowmobiler. Those people spend money, ATVers especially.”
McDonald said recreation is another leg for economic development. “It brings in money to our communities,” he said. “Those people are staying in our motels, eating in our restaurants and using our gas stations. That is an economic factor that we can’t forget about. Families are doing these ATV rides, and the people are fabulous.”
Asked about the St. Louis County Board’s role in enforcing the 1963 law ensuring equal pay for equal work for all workers, not just union members, Mettler addressed county employees and said his department “went out of their way to make sure people were equal and tried constantly to get an appropriate diversification. “That’s a new one on me,” he said.
McDonald said unions have a role to play in the issue. “The unions can help make sure that these things are followed,” he said.
When asked if he supports the #Me too movement, McDonald said, “We want to make sure that everybody is treated the same. It is in our country’s values to be able to treat people no matter what race, what gender, whatever it happens to be, we want to be able to treat everyone equally.”
Mettler added, “Everyone should be treated the same. There are no if, ands, or buts about it. I have nothing else to add.”
The general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 6. District 4, covers much of the northern half of St. Louis County, including Babbitt, Crane Lake, Cook, Ely, Orr, and Tower.