Whether a Public Comment portion will continue to be included on future Polk County Board agendas is unknown, as Chair Chris Nelson has voiced the possibility of discontinuing.
Nelson opened the meeting with a warning about not using foul language during the meetings. There were situations in July and August that prompted the September statement from Nelson. “I have talked to I.T. If anyone gets out of line in Public Comment, you will be muted,” he said.
When Public comment began, the first to speak was Soon Guenther of Alden Township. “I am here to speak as a Polk County Citizen and as a member of Amery United. Amery United is working to identify and address racism and violence in our community and educate ourselves and others around these issues,” said Guenther. She said another member of their group; Reverend Martinson had spoken at the August County Board meeting. Guenther said Martinson spoke of the, “Deep concerns many Polk County citizens have about the unending, violent and vulgar behavior brought to bare on our community by the man you appointed to represent us on a very important commission,” she said.
Guenther said she was referring to Tom Magnafici who was appointed to the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. She said, “Imagine a man like Tom Magnafici representing the good people of our County. Rev. Martinson read just one of his many revolting social media posts last month, there are countless more. He also uses vulgar and threatening behavior at public meetings. Unfortunately concerns raised by Rev. Martinson have been nearly ignored. Like so many racist fear-mongers, Mr. Magnafici apperars to be empowered by this board’s lack of action.”
Guenther said she could read Magnafici’s public posts, but chose not to, instead telling the board they could read for themselves.
She said as far as she could tell, there had been only one response from the board concerning “Magnafici’s threatening behavior.” She said the only response was Chair Chris Nelson’s statement that he may stop taking Public Comments because people like Rev. Martinson use foul language. “Chairman Nelson blamed a minister for using Magnafici’s words when Nelson was the one who recommended him to represent Polk County. Amery United wants to work with you to eliminate the kind of violent, racist behavior Magnafici reigns down on us nearly every day. We recommend that you hold your commissioner to a higher ethical standard. People make mistakes and can grow from them if given the opportunity. But standing quietly by is effectively advocating for Magnafici to continue to cause harm. Chairman Nelson, please speak publicly to the process of accountability that your board will take,” said Guenther. “If you do not have the authority to stop his continued ‘show of poor character’ as you said yourself, we ask that you end Magnafici’s term and finding someone who truly represents the wise and caring people of Polk County.”
After Guenther’s words, all other public comments shared revolved around Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).
Patrick Mcelhone Sr. of Eureka said he had a question for Supervisors Nelson and Olson. He asked, “Why have you made these oppressive resolutions? Is it because of fear of a lawsuit from a CAFO conglomerate?”
He told them if they allow a CAFO, it would get expensive real fast when there is water pollution or a large spill. “Are you just going to lay down without a fight? Grow a pair,” said Mcelhone.
To which Nelson said, “Shut him off, you are going to be muted sir.”
Mcelhone responded, “Whatever.” He then walked out.
Nelson threatened to end Public Comment if people chose to use certain language. He then asked the next speaker to be more professional and said the previous speaker will be put on a list and not allowed to make Public Comments ever again.
Ken Nichols of St. Croix Falls spoke. He said he had concern over a resolution being brought forward without scientific evidence; which was required. “The fact that you are trying to move things forward without a scientific study stuns me,” he said. “I am an attorney and I would like to know what criteria the chairman has to shut people off? You have to be really, really careful. I get people swearing and doing things like that is inappropriate, but we need full and robust comment and the chairman just cutting off people, just because he chooses to, is not a good way to do business.”
During his Chair report Nelson said, “First off, I always offer this-if anyone wants the job (of chair) I’m always open to change. At Executive committee we talked about public comment. I set the stage to say we are going to be professional. Clearly tonight I thought we had a little bit of unprofessionalism. I am going to set this out for the board, but if this is going to continue where people feel like they can just let it rip, and say what they want, we are not required to allow public comment.” He said they could switch to written comment and said, “That may be coming.”
Nelson then said he had contacted Magnafici about his inappropriate language. Nelson said he does not look at Facebook and Magnafici’s social media was not part of the portfolio they reviewed when choosing him as a commissioner. He said Magnafici has apologized. “Not to make fun of it, but I know Tom’s wife has actually taken his Facebook privileges away and his cell phone for one week. So I believe that will stop and I hope he understands he is representing Polk County now,” said Nelson.
Supervisor Amy Middleton said, “I’m a little concerned we are heading to a place of shutting off public comment. Obviously we cannot control what people say.”
Nelson responded, “We have looked at our Rules of Order. Malia (Malone, Corporation Council) said our rules say we ‘may’ have public comment.” He suggested maybe it was more appropriate at committee level.
“Last month we had a Pastor use the F-word several times, hiding under the umbrella that she could say it because she was repeating what someone else said.” Nelson said he felt she could have handled it a different way. “But she had to emphasize the F-word. That was fully unprofessional,” said Nelson. “Tonight we had someone say ‘Grow a pair.’ Men know what that means. Maybe women aren’t offended by that comment, but I thought that was very inappropriate tonight after I laid the ground rules.”
Supervisor Russ Arcand said, “We are in a new era here. It used to be you either come to the meeting or you did not know what happened except for maybe through the press. Now it’s live. It’s new to us and the public.” He said there could have been children that heard those comments.
Nelson said, “I don’t want to cut off Public Comment. I don’t want any assumption of that. Executive committee said ‘We have a problem, maybe it is time for written public comment.’ We will not read a letter with the F-word.”
He then said that it would happen next month and that he was actually proposing it after what had happened earlier that evening, especially after he gave a warning. He then said they were done discussing it and told Supervisor Middleton her residents could call her with comment anytime. Even though he said previously that he was putting it out for the Board, he ended with, “It is the Chair’s position that there will be no more public comment. It will be read by the clerk- that is where we are going.”