“Together in Silence”

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. –Frederick Douglass

A special advertisement appears in this week’s edition of Big Stone County’s newspapers. Signed, “Two Concerned Big Stone County Residents,” the anonymous ad calls upon community members to join one or more sessions of “silent prayer/meditation for healing in our community and ourselves.” (See ad below)

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I do not doubt that these concerned residents have good intentions. I think prayer and meditation can be useful tools for healing and reassessing one’s direction and role in community.

But, in my last few years in the area (handily coinciding, I guess, with the time frame of the community “becoming fragmented”), the biggest problem I’ve seen in Big Stone County is silence. Many long and short-term residents here have related stories to me about being silenced, shut down, shut out and told either directly or indirectly what they should not say and with whom they should not associate.

One can assume that the main “event” referenced in this advertisement is the proposed Strata Quarry project. Township, county, and regional residents raised their voices, held public meetings and listening sessions, and took to their keyboards to try to raise awareness of their struggle to save the outcrops, the quality of life along the Upper Minnesota River, their health and safety, and their community sovereignty.

But now that the city has annexed a portion of the township and unanimously passed a conditional use permit for Strata to begin quarrying there, we who have fought long and hard for justice, and even to be heard, should be silent? Get over it? Accept our fate and make Minnesota nice with the people and corporations who have been deaf to our testimony?

The message of the ad, that “we need each other,” is true. But the message coming from the county and city governments was ever that we “needed” Strata more than we needed those community members whose quality of life and, in some cases, livelihoods would be diminished or destroyed by allowing the quarry project to go forward.

We do all play a vital part in our community. But too often in Big Stone County, it seems that while all residents are equal, some residents are more equal than others. And those more-equal residents have too long held the power to determine the public face, reputation, and future of this county while silencing, vilifying, or ridiculing the voices of the less-equal.

How’s that going for us? At the city’s Strata quarry CUP hearing, I was the recipient of a lecture from one of the commissioners about “people who are not from here” failing to understand that “all we have is our rock.”

I was being schooled that, with our declining, aging, and impoverished population out here on Minnesota’s west coast, we are darned lucky that we have a corporation willing to come in and pay us a pittance to take…well, all we have. I mean, thank goodness they decided to come here when everyone knows how easy it is to push through industrial development in South Dakota! And here are these agitators making so much noise and trouble that could scare them away!

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce director gets on the local radio station, pleading with business owners and local folks to be nicer to those who’ve come to live among us during the retrofit of the coal plant across the lake.  It seems a few were actually leaving due to the treatment they received here. No wonder the old joke about Ortonville “eating its young” keeps resurfacing.

Of course, they don’t eat their young, and there are lots of friendly and helpful people in Ortonville and throughout our fair county. And the question about where all the young people go is easily answered by, “we send them off to college.”

So, how come we haven’t lost ALL our population by now? Well, a few natives do return to the area, but the studies about who moves to western Minnesota clearly indicate that it’s people looking for great quality of life, opportunities to be involved in their community, and people who appreciate the rural and small town atmosphere.

The reason that people move to western Minnesota isn’t because they were hoping to get to that glorious land to our west–the place of unfettered industrial development and low taxes–but their wagon broke down on the way. The vast majority of people who move here (and people who continue to live here) are here because they WANT to live in rural western Minnesota.

And they’re not blind. In fact, with an outsider’s perspective, they can often see much more clearly what makes Big Stone County an incredibly special place–our waters and wildlife and prairies and, yes, our rocks and our people. In many cases, these outsiders (as well as many local folks) have a vision of community and economic development that sustains rather than undermines those priceless resources. But that vision lacks vocal champions in local government and economic development.

So, back to the advertisement’s call for silent prayer and meditation. If you are so moved, what would you pray for?

While I tend to subscribe to Mary Harris’ directive to, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” I’d meditate on the same things I work for: A voice for the voiceless. Justice for the people of Ortonville Township. Individuals with vision, compassion, and courage to run for public office. Real public dialogue. Preservation and appreciation of our beautiful lands and waters. Community spirit that is about cooperation rather than control.

But, I will also demand them out loud, and I will do so because, as the ad indicates, we need to move forward in a way that is productive and healthy for everyone.

And we have been silent about what way that is for too long.

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A Broader Perspective for the City of Ortonville?

Late last week, I accompanied Ortonville Township officials to St. Paul, where they testified in favor of HF 1425, a bill designed to curb the abuse of annexation by ordinance by cities in Minnesota.

Along with their testimony, the township officials provided members of the House Government Operations Committee with a map of the proposed Strata quarry site parcels, as subdivided to allow the City of Ortonville to circumvent Minnesota state law allowing annexation by ordinance of only 120 acres per owner per year.

Ortonville Township was not the only township present to testify about abuses of annexation by ordinance by neighboring municipalities, but it turned out that their testimony, and especially the “reality of the map” was a key element in persuading the Representatives that some highly “creative” work-arounds are taking place in greater Minnesota.

Ortonville Mayor Steve Berkner was also present, and testified about how his city struggles to attract new development. It wasn’t clear from his testimony how the new developments described (except for the quarry) required more than 120 acres, but he didn’t field any questions on that point.

And since Mayor Berkner’s testimony preceded that of Ortonville Township Supervisor Al Webster (and the distribution of the city’s annexation map), it was Craig Johnson from the League of Minnesota Cities, who testified alongside Bradley Peterson from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, who ended up in the hot seat about Ortonville’s apparent end-run around the process.

Some excerpts of those questions:

Representative Hansen: “I understand what you’re saying about process and complexity, but then I look at this map, and I see…you know, I’ve seen some creative redistricting lines in the past, but this is really, really something, I mean in terms of creativity to have annexation. So, how do we deal…I think the bill is probably here because we’re dealing with the reality of the map and when we have a creative action to try to provide…getting around the process. So, how do you deal with this? How…if we don’t have a bill for the existing process, how do you deal with this? Because this doesn’t look right. This looks extremely creative, and when we have this much creativity here, I think people start asking questions. When people try to be as creative…if this was a redistricting map we’d say wow–quite something. For annexation…I say wow, this is…this is quite something. So how do we deal with this? How do citizens deal with this if it happens in Minnesota?”

Representative Freiberg: “I can see Representative Hansen’s point here because the map did really kind of jump out at me, and it does seem like it’s an effort to work around the 120 acre limit that’s in here, comparable to some kind of gerrymandering proposal, like he suggested. So, to me at least the issue is not just whether any potential legislation would fix this specific situation.  I have to imagine, though, when something like this happens once it seems like there’s the potential it could happen again. So it does seem like potentially there is the need for some sort of legislation just to prevent what appears to be an end run around the law from happening again.”

You can listen to the entire hearing on HF 1425 here. The portion I have referenced above starts at about 46:06.

In the past couple of weeks, Representative Andrew Falk (who authored HF 1425, and represented Big Stone County before the recent redistricting) has taken quite a drubbing from Mayor Berkner through various local media outlets and in the last city council meeting. According to Berkner, Rep. Falk has “attacked” the City of Ortonville through recent legislation and acted on matters that are outside his district.

But a wider perspective clearly indicates that the way in which Ortonville attempted to annex the proposed Strata quarry site ran afoul of the spirit of Minnesota law, and even the League of Minnesota Cities isn’t denying it. The question then becomes, how best to curb this kind of creativity-in-annexation and still allow for good development across the state.

While HF 1425 is tabled for the time being, Committee Chair Rep. Michael Nelson secured commitments from the Minnesota Association of Townships, the League of Minnesota Cities, and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities to sit down and work out a compromise to remedy the situation in Big Stone County, so that it might not end up affecting the entire state.

With a Strata quarry Conditional Use Permit public hearing scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 7th) at 7pm in Ortonville Public Library’s media center, we’ll soon have an answer to whether the City of Ortonville is as committed to negotiating as are the other parties involved, or if they will persist in a course of action that clearly violates the spirit of Minnesota law.