GREENWOOD TWP— St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson traveled outside his district to lecture Greenwood township officials and criticize the Timberjay for a July 21 report that aired local …
GREENWOOD TWP— St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson traveled outside his district to lecture Greenwood township officials and criticize the Timberjay for a July 21 report that aired local criticism of the commissioner for voting to back a controversial after-the-fact permit on Lake Vermilion’s Isle of Pines.
Nelson, who was angered by the story, had asked to be on the town board’s agenda, but Chairman John Bassing had him speak under the public comment section of the agenda. Nelson started off by criticizing the township’s past handling of planning and zoning matters.
“It is a storied history,” he said.
In a somewhat combative tone, Nelson issued what appeared to be a veiled threat to the town board, telling supervisors that if the township wants the county to continue to work for them, “we need to develop a relationship where I am not being questioned by the board. Where the board clearly states to us, not just to send no comment, and not have one supervisor represent themselves to us.”
Nelson said if the remarks made by Bassing to the newspaper were representative of the board that such actions do not serve to create a good working relationship between Greenwood and the county planning department.
Nelson also resorted to name-calling, twice referring to the Timberjay as “The Enquirer,” and admonished those who chose to air their differences in the newspaper, rather than privately with the county. “This commissioner will never present business in the newspaper,” he said. “Newspaper stories usually sensationalize and do not contain a great deal of facts.”
Nelson did not take issue with the facts presented in the Timberjay story, although he seemed to imply that he had not advocated for issuance of the permit when he presented the request on behalf of the applicant, as some critics had charged. The Timberjay had given Nelson the opportunity to present his side of the story, but he used the opportunity to attack the newspaper instead. “I love when people make up stories, when you become a reporter they call it news. No fact checking necessary,” wrote Nelson in his response to an email from the paper’s publisher Marshall Helmberger seeking comment. The Timberjay subsequently published an editorial detailing the exchange between Nelson and publisher Marshall Helmberger.
Nelson said he has no particular interest in having jurisdiction over the township’s zoning. “If this body wants to take back planning and zoning,” he said, “I would do cartwheels. I’ve been up here for the better part of a day talking to people on planning issues, and trying to head things off before it comes to an issue.”
But Nelson faced some pushback. Joanne Bassing, speaking in defense of her husband John, noted that if the public listened to the tape of the county planning meeting in question, John was speaking as an individual, and not speaking for the township.
“So you are guilty of not getting the facts,” she said to Nelson. “He was not questioning the authority of the after-the-fact permit…but was concerned there were some conflicts.”
Greenwood resident, and former local zoning board member, Lee Peterson said the county planning board suffers from a lack of member turnover. “There are too many of the same faces for too many years,” he said. Peterson also questioned why the county was using the same members for both the board of adjustment and the planning commission. “It gets to be too much of a closed game,” he said.
Peterson went on to say, “Everybody likes a fairy tale every once in a while, and what Nelson said tonight was a fairy tale.”
Some supervisors were concerned that the town board not get involved in planning and zoning disputes, which is one reason they opted against commenting on the recent permit request by Rodney Jola. Greenwood Supervisor Mike Ralston said he felt the headline in the initial Timberjay story, “Greenwood troubled by county planning decision” suggested that the town board had weighed in, when it had actually voted to remain neutral on the issue. The Timberjay did clarify that Bassing was speaking for himself, not the town board, in a followup on Aug. 4.
Nelson told the board he is the county representative on the planning commission, though he does not normally take a seat as a decision-making member on the board, because sometimes that has raised some legal issues in other parts of the state, since he is also a county board member. At the July meeting, he said, he assumed a seat to ensure there was a quorum, since without him, the meeting could not have been held.
Bassing, along with several other Greenwood residents, had questioned Nelson’s taking a decision-making seat on the board, since he had presented the variance request to the board for the property owner in question at a previous meeting.
“I believe the citizen board is an effective board,” Nelson said, noting, “but as an elected official I have appeared before the board on at least two other cases…at the request of the property owner.”
Nelson noted that he, along with commission member Sunny Pineo (who had recused herself at the previous hearing in April) had asked the other members of the planning commission for their permission to take a seat on the board for this issue. He also noted that the decision of the board would still have been in favor, in his opinion, if he hadn’t voted, since the vote was 4-1.
“I do consult with our planning department to make sure the actions we are taking are legal,” he said.
Nelson said the planning commission felt that the fact that the property owner had come back to the planning commission with a plan from an engineer, as requested, was the basis for final approval. But county planning staff had recommended that the board not approve the permit, since the alterations do “not meet the criteria for granting a conditional use permit,” according to the meeting minutes. In addition, county staff recommended that an engineered plan be required “to rectify the land alteration violation that has occurred.”