In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the Crawford County Board’s Finance Committee changed an agenda submission from another standing committee for the Tuesday, February 21 board meeting. The change stopped the board from taking action on a proposed frac sand mining moratorium.
The Crawford County Land Conservation, Planning and Zoning Committee had proposed a six-month moratorium on expansion or creation of new silica sand and non-metallic mining operations in the county, while information was gathered to allow them to respond to the rapidly expanding industry in a way that best protected the interest of citizens.
The proposal was the culmination of several months of work by committee members. The proposal went through two meetings of the full committee and a number of meetings between the committee chairman, Henry Esser, District 2, County Conservationist David Troester and Crawford County Corporate Counsel Thomas Peterson, as they compared existing moratoriums and mining law legalities.
Moratorium proposal shortened
“Most of the other moratoriums are a year,” Esser said. “We felt that was too long. But this mining (of frac sand) is not like other mining. It involves moving a couple hundred feet of dirt. It does a lot of damage to the land.”
According to Harriet Behar, a Crawford County citizen member of the Land Conservation committee, the committee initially opted for a one-year moratorium. It was reduced to six-months under advisement of Peterson.
“The corporate counsel advised us that it was harder to defend a one-year moratorium,” Behar said. “We looked at various moratoria in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Most are one-year. And we drew heavily of a draft template put out by the Wisconsin towns association.”
According to Behar, the legal framework of the proposal was drawn from four existing ordinances that the committee tailored to fit the county needs.
With the wording of the moratorium having been approved by corporate counsel, the committee sent it to the finance committee to be entered on the county board meeting agenda as an action item. While a vote on the frac sand mining moratorium was expected, it did not happen.
The finance committee made a decision to reword the agenda item. They changed it so it was not a proposal to vote upon, but an item to discuss.
When the finance committee altered the agenda entry, they were within their rights, according to both the county’s corporate counsel, Peterson, and the county board chairperson, Flesch. Both noted that it is not specified by county ordinance that the finance committee had to place agenda items from other standing committees on the agenda as received. Yet, this appears to be the first time they have chosen to alter an item in this manner.
“Usually standing committees submit to the county clerk, who presents their submissions to the finance committee,” Crawford County Chairman Peter Flesch explained. “It’s usually put in as is. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has happened.”
Agenda procedures County prerogative
Rules for creating the agenda are not particularized by the state, according to Peterson. They are set by county ordinance. The only thing the Crawford County ordinance specifies is that the agenda will be physically prepared by the county clerk and finance committee.
“I am usually at those meetings,” Flesch said. “I made Wednesdays my office day because that’s when the everyone meets.”
However, Flesch was unable to attend the meeting that set the most recent agenda. It was only when the Crawford County Board had convened and reached the item that the alteration could be addressed.
County Supervisor Phil Mueller (District 8) spoke against the finance committee’s changes to the agenda at the board meeting last Tuesday, when he referred to those changes as the “procedural neutering” of the moratorium proposal.
“I know it is their prerogative, by accepted precedent, that they (the finance committee) approve the agenda for county board meetings. For something as important as this, they should not be altering items,” Mueller said. “It was a stalling or delaying tactic.”
“The process had gone through the committees as any other item (to vote upon) would have,” Mueller continued. “In the time I have been on the board, I have never seen an item come up as a discussion item only. The idea of titling something as discussion when we haven’t done this before—we have sent items back with questions so they could be clarified before voting on them in the past. This is inconsistent with what we have been doing.”
“I fear there was some background dealing to delay this,” Mueller said. “I will be watching to see who comes forward with permit applications before the April meeting. I think that may be telling.”
The discussion that occurred in the meeting revolved almost entirely around the procedural anomaly and it’s effect—a two-month delay in the moratorium vote until the next board meeting, when presumably the finance committee will enter the moratorium as an action item.
Discussion of the moratorium itself consisted briefly of: a statement from Edie Ehlert on behalf of the Crawford Stewardship Project supporting the moratorium as an opportunity to allow townships an opportunity to revisit their zoning and as an opportunity for the county to learn more about the industry and its impacts; a short statement of the intent of the moratorium to give the county time to study the issue made by the county conservationist; and a statement from a representative of Pattison Sand, regarding the lack of negative health effects from blowing silica sand.
After the meeting, the Pattison Sand representative stated that Pattison was not interested in the open-pit mining that was raising concerns in Wisconsin. Yet, Pattison has some pit mines already in operation in Iowa. However, their primary operation in Iowa is underground. Pattison has also made local news over concerns raised by Prairie du Chien residents about sand dust in residential neighborhoods as a result of Pattison filling railcars in the city.
“We will discuss this at the next Land Conservation meeting on the second Tuesday in March (March 13),” said Esser. “I presume we’ll send it right back to the full board to vote on.”
It can be assumed the item will appear as it is given to the finance committee by land conservation, planning and zoning committee.
Agenda item's should not be altered
“As I opined at the meeting,” Peterson explained, “putting it on as given (to the finance committee) is the best practice if the agenda item is submitted by a standing committee.”
Flesch supports the standard of entry as given.
“I think this is an issue of trust and respect for the other county board supervisors,” Flesch said.
Members of the finance committee could not be reached for comment on the decision to alter the agenda entry.
And if trust and respect are not enough?
“We operate on ‘Home Rule’, which gives counties carte blanche on how they choose to operate county meetings,” according to Peterson. “I am not looking to stir anything up but the ordinance could be clarified.”
In the meantime, proponents and opponents alike will have two months to contact their county supervisors with their views.
Peterson, the corporate counsel, expressed some relief that the moratorium was delayed as he felt the wording was detrimental to existing business.
“We want to be properly prepared to address this issue,” Peterson said. “The (currently) prepared moratorium ordinance would stop new permit applications for all sand miners. This includes existing non-frac sand miners from being able to open new spots.”
Those mines he referred to are gravel and sand quarries already in place and permitted by the state and county.
With county elections the first week of April, and only two seats contested, most districts will retain their supervisors. Only Larry Kapinus, District 17, and John Karnopp, District 16, face contenders for their seats. Both also happen to be on the finance committee.