HIBBING — Earlier this week, St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson called into the WDSM radio station to ask for “help” over the board moving its next Tuesday meeting involving refugee resettlement from the Buhl Senior Center to the Virginia Government Services Center.
“What is happening in St. Louis County on this refugee issue is in my opinion unconscionable,” Nelson told Brad Bennett, a self-described conservative host of the 710 AM talk radio show based in Duluth, on Monday. “They’ve cancelled the Buhl meeting site. They’re going to move it to Virginia and close the doors, so that no one can get in.”
Nelson’s on-air comments were quickly shared on social media pages belonging to Iron Range residents, many of whom took his advice to contact commissioners with their concerns on the matter.
During a phone interview, St. Louis County Board Chair Mike Jugovich told the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Wednesday that he fielded hundreds of calls and emails asking him why the board relocated the meeting scheduled for May 26 in Virginia.
“We fully anticipated having people come into the meeting in Buhl to say their piece and then the coronavirus hit,” Jugovich said. “We want to keep the public, our staff and ourselves safe. We’re holding it in Virginia for the sole purpose that the building has better technology to give more people the chance to represent themselves at the meeting.”
Jugovich added,” Commissioner Nelson is absolutely right about us wanting people to have their say, but we just want to do it safely and moving the meeting has nothing to do with trying to sneak something through. People have the ability to join the meetings and call in and they’re put out on the internet.”
The county’s handling of refugee resettlement stems back to Jan. 7 when the board listened to 40 people testify in Duluth for more than two hours before voting 4-3 to postpone a decision to accept or ban the resettlement of refugees until this month. Nelson made the motion to table the vote. Jugovich agreed.
Nearly four months later, on May 12, the board voted 6-1 to relocate the meeting from Buhl to Virginia. Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said at the time “it would be difficult to be comfortable at a meeting with a lot of people,” according to an article from the Duluth News Tribune. Commissioner Patrick Boyle, of Duluth, said the “counties are the face of public health in our state and we have to have to set ourselves up for example.”
Nelson was the only commissioner to vote in favor of postponing the meeting until residents could attend in person. The other commissioners opined that the public had options to express their beliefs via email, phone or Webex in an immediate manner, especially since none knew when the county would once again be able to hold in-person meetings given the restrictions of social distancing.
This past Monday, Nelson took to the radio to talk about his ongoing frustrations with the move. “We promised the people of Greater St. Louis County they’re going to get an opportunity and now we’ve taken that away from them,” he said on the talk show. “...They’re going to try and run it through and I guarantee they have the votes or they wouldn’t have done what they did. Somehow they picked up a fourth vote. The three Duluth commissioners have picked up a fourth vote someplace and they, quite frankly, will hold that vote without hearing from the public.”
After receiving a flood of emails and phone calls, Jugovich told the HDT on Wednesday that all commissioners are encouraging input from residents on the topic of refugee resettlement.
The chairman said that commissioners have been following directives from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz in mid-March to close all government buildings to the public due to the spread of COVID-19. Like most other groups across the state, the board began meeting in a virtual format on April 14, streaming the gatherings via Webex to give the public the live access to listen, watch and talk to the commissioners.
“We keep 10 people or less in the room at all times,” Jugovich said. “That’s been the suggestion. It’s just very difficult to have large groups of people coming to the meeting. We’ve played by the rules and we’ve had closed meetings and we’ll continue to do so.” He added, “Hopefully we won’t be doing this much longer, but it seems as though we’re getting a rise in cases of the coronavirus. I think that’s due to the increase in the number of tests being administered. But public safety remains paramount. So, we’ll continue to follow the rules.”
Nelson was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
Refugee resettlement is back on the St. Louis County's agenda more than four months after the Beltrami County — set about 100 miles west of Hibbing — became the first county in Minnesota and the second in the U.S. to ban refugee resettlement under an executive order from President Donald J. Trump put the decision on local governments. The vote was largely a symbolic one since the county did not resettle any refugees in at least five years. The nation’s first county to ban refugee resettlement was Appomattox County in Virginia in December 2019. The Beltrami vote came one night before commissioners in Burleigh County in North Dakota voted to limit refugee resettlement to 25 people in 2020.
Trump’s order created heated debates in county commission meetings across the state as Walz joined dozens of governors consenting to refugees being resettled in the state. “The inn is not full in Minnesota,” he had said. The governor told the Star Tribune that he was “disappointed” in the Beltrami County vote, but that he “understood that this executive order was meant to be divisive [and] it should have never been [pushed] down to the county levels.”
Down in Duluth, the St. Louis County Board split its vote in January among rural and urban commissioners. Jugovich, who was serving in his first meeting as chairman, sided with Commissioners Nelson, McDonald and Keith Musolf based in rural Duluth, in tabling the decision on refugee resettlement. Commissioners Boyle, Frank Jewell and Beth Olson, all from Duluth, voted in favor of resettlement.
The commissioners from Duluth accused Nelson of postponing the vote in an attempt to garner support on the Iron Range.
“We’re going up to Buhl, so that Keith [Nelson] can gather a whole bunch of people from Buhl,” Jewell said at the time to the Duluth News Tribune. “I’m frustrated. We should have never delayed after making people wait for so long.”
Less than two weeks after the meeting, Jugovich told the HDT that he heard from more than 200 residents via email and phone asking whether the board planned to allow refugees to resettle in the county. Some of the questions posed: “Will the Iron Range be able to handle thousands of refugees?” and “Is the Buhl school going to be a refugee resettlement camp?” He noted the creation of private Facebook pages called “All Things Buhl, Minnesota” and “St. Louis County Against Refugee Resettlement.”
“I tell them we’ve only had one refugee come here since 2011,” Jugovich said at the time. “I’m not against refugees, but I’m all for our decision to delay the vote because I want people to have all the information.”
St. Louis County has resettled one refugee in the past six years and zero in the past five years, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services shows that Ramsey County has the largest number of resettlements in the same time frame at 4,215, followed by Hennepin, 1,345; Stearns, 662; Anoka, 430; and Olmsted, 377.
Nelson took to the radio this week to call out the board for “acting like the state Legislature has been acting where we just shut the public out and we make decisions and they have to live with them.” In response, Bennett said on his talk show that he thought “it is absolutely incomprehensible” that the board could approve refugee resettlement.
“Right now the general public is not in favor of refugees coming into our county,” Bennett added.
The Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio published a poll in February showing that 59 percent of 800 registered voters in the state were in favor of refugee resettlement, while 29 percent opposed accepting new refugees. Strongest support came from Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where 74 percent of voters were in favor of resettlement. Still, counties in northern Minnesota garnered 54 percent of supportive votes.
The poll found that more than eight in 10 registered Democrats supported refugee resettlement. About 60 percent of people identifying as independents or with other party affiliations were also in favor of resettlement. Yet 56 percent of Republicans voted in opposition of resettlement.
Nelson did not address Bennett’s statement and pushed on. “We need those commissioners and everyone to hear from the public whether it’s emails or phone calls or whatever because they’re not going to get the opportunity at a board meeting,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen. And next Tuesday they will do their best to get this through. The simple fact is that I believe we need, that people deserve the opportunity to speak their minds on this and what has truly pushed me over the edge on this is...your listeners are being shut out. They’re being told their voices don’t matter.”
This week’s on-air exchange apparently motivated residents of the Iron Range to reach out to commissioners on the subject.
Jugovich on Wednesday said that he has received “more emails, phone calls and in-person stops on the topic of refugee resettlement than I have on anything else in my tenure.”
The chairman explained that he “doesn’t want to see families separated.” He noted that “having large numbers of people move into the area could be problematic with us anticipating a $15-$20 million hit in county finances.” But he circled back to the point that “we just don’t get refugees here for whatever reason” moving into Duluth or on the Iron Range.
When asked why the board continues to pursue a vote on refugee resettlement in light of the court injunction, Jugovich replied, “It’s something that I don’t think we should address right now. Maybe we can address it some time in the future if it does come down to us having a say in it.
“Right now, it’s a symbolic vote,” he added. “I don’t want to take symbolic votes.”
Anyone interested in testifying live at the county meeting on May 26 can do so via Webex or by calling 218-726-2109. Citizens can also comment by calling the county board at 218-726-2110 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.