County administrator resigns, mine cave-in on KRC test course, board protests PLLB work pace
Houghton County Board, Sept. 14, 2021
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In a brief update, Commissioner Tom Tikkanen shared with the board that about 10 tons of refuse have been diverted from the landfill into the new recycling option at the county transfer station. Later, he also informed the board that the EPA was moving in to clean up the contamination in Calumet from the major fire earlier this year. He thanked all the parties who contributed to the effort, which is an unusual arrangement made for the benefit of the surrounding community.
Commissioner Glenn Anderson shared a breakdown of the 2020 Houghton County census, showing that 8 of 14 townships in Houghton County grew, and acknowledged the county marketing effort to get a complete count. The county commissioner districts may be changing as a result.
During Commissioner Roy Britz’s update, he said the trustees of Portage Township did not want to approve the annexation of a strip of property into the city of Houghton to facilitate the county’s new justice center plans. They’re concerned that if the plan falls through as it has before, they could lose valuable taxable property to the city. They said they’d approve the annexation if the jail project is completed. A more complex, conditional agreement will have to be made.
Commission Chairperson Albert Koskela revealed that a mine had been discovered on county property after it had caved in, then turned it over to Dennis Hex, airport manager, for more details. The mine was discovered on the Keweenaw Research Center test course, which is leased from the county. It’s being investigated and the estimate is the shaft is 500 feet deep. The airport is currently looking for funds to cap it or fence it in. Hex also said the airport was doing well currently, and a Sun Country Airlines charter will be coming to the airport in November, with bookings already open.
County Administrator Ben Larson submitted a letter of resignation, (notably withheld from the board packet released to the public on Monday). The board accepted the resignation, with Chairperson Koskela dissenting with a laugh. They also moved quickly to post the job opening and hold interviews to give Larson as much time as possible to train in his replacement. The deadline for applications was set for Sept. 28, the applications will be reviewed at the special meeting at noon on Sept. 29 (originally for the public hearing on the budget), and interviews will be held on Oct. 5 at 1 p.m.
Larson declined to interview in-person with me, but did offer this written statement further explaining his resignation (hyperlink added):
It is good for my family as it will allow for me to get back into a game that I love. That game is sales and business development. REL, Inc. President Josh Loukus and I had a great talk late last week about a way that I can get back into the game, and he convinced me how I could help him and his company to move forward and possibly grow if I am successful. They have given me a great offer to join them, and, as hard as it is to walk away from a great job at the County, I am happy and satisfied with my decision to do so. I have given everything that I have to my position with the County on each of the days that I came in. I took over for a great leader in Eric Forsberg when he handed the keys to me, and I am hoping that I can do the same for my successor. The County is in great shape, we have survived an interesting pandemic year, we have initiated some great new efforts and have changed a couple of things that I thought were worth doing, we have made some needed changes at our two enterprises with investments that happened at our marina and transfer station, and we have a great team in place across the County. All of the ingredients are here for someone to step right in to take over from me, and for the next person to have their own success. I have offered to stay until October 29th, and the commissioners are happy with that and agreed. I will now work super hard to get a group of solid candidates for my Commissioners to consider, and, if we can get the right person here soon I am happy to tutor, mentor, and teach them the many things that they will need to know and learn to find their own success.
Administrator Larson introduced a draft letter asking for restrictions on when the Portage Lake Lift Bridge will raise for pleasure craft. Several local government bodies and organizations are working together to try and get 1-hour bans on raising for non-commercial craft during rush hour traffic. The board unanimously approved sending the letter. Later in the meeting, the board approved a motion by Commissioner Glenn Anderson to implore MDOT to prioritize finishing the current bridge construction, bid future projects for 24-hour work, and refer the issue to the bridge committee for them to consider emergency procedures and the potential for a second bridge to eliminate the bottleneck.
Barb Manninen and Becky Bruin-Slot were re-appointed unanimously to their position on the Canvassing Board. This is the board responsible for canvassing and certifying elections in the county. Reappointing them signals tacit approval of the job they did during the 2020 election by the board.
A request for money to update and maintain the MDOT overlook on Quincy Hill. Opinions on the matter differed, with some of the board saying it was an asset to the county’s tourism industry, while others said they couldn’t see support in their district for investing there. Eventually, they agreed, 4-1, to seek the opinion of the attorney to see if giving money for such a purpose was allowed.
This Friday at 4 p.m., county commissioners and Hancock City Council members will be touring the county arena in Hancock. There is an ongoing discussion about whether to sell the arena to Hancock.
During public comment, Roger Sullivan stood to “drop off” his resume for county sheriff, which was not submitted before the deadline for applications. He proceeded to conduct a self-interview during which he made non-specific allegations of corruption in the county.
After Sullivan’s five minutes expired, Mike Mangan stood to address the board about establishing wind energy in Houghton County. He said he was knowledgeable about wind energy and had seen “devastation” wrought by them in Wisconsin. He recommended the county make a formal declaration that wind rights are locally, publicly owned. He also said he believed wind power could be beneficial to the area if it was done through local decisions, not out-of-area developers.