An Active Voice for Itasca County Residents

By: Grand Rapids Voice

When a public official, elected to office or otherwise, is involved in a conflict of interest, is always bad for the community. Any such conflict violates the trust put into the public official by the public. Minnesota Statute § 471.87 defines conflicts of interest and makes the violation of the statute a gross misdemeanor.

Minnesota Statute § 471.87 states: “Except as authorized in section 471.88, a public officer who is authorized to take part in any manner in making any sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal financial interest in that sale, lease, or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom.”

It appears that we, in Itasca County, have two on-going conflicts of interest. One conflict occurring in the City of Grand Rapids and the other in Itasca County.

In Grand Rapids, sitting City Councilman Ed Zabinski has presented a proposal to the city council wherein the City of Grand Rapids would spend taxpayer funds to modify Central School to permit Mr. Zabinski and partners to open a micro-brewery and restaurant which would directly benefit them financially. This proposal calls for significant modification of Central School and may require an addition to the building and possibly jeopardizing its Historic Building status. Not only has Mr. Zabinski presented this proposal to the city council, he is in a position to vote on the approval of the funding for his proposal. Even if Mr. Zabinski were to recuse himself from voting on the proposal, he would be able to use his position as a city councilman to influence the vote. The residents of Grand Rapids gain nothing on the success of the business and can lose their investment should the business fail.

Grand Rapids Voice believes that mr. Zabinski’s proposal far exceeds merely renting space from the city in which to operate a business. It is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that the proposal by Councilman Zabinski constitutes a conflict of interest contemplated by Minnesota Statute § 471.87 and 382.18 and must not be permitted.

In 2009, Mr. Rusty Eichorn served as County Commissioner and was on the board of the Itasca Economic Development Commission (IEDC). A question as to a conflict of interest was presented to the County Attorney’s office for a legal opinion. In response, Ms. Heidi Chandler, Assistant County Attorney, wrote a legal opinion and presented her opinion to the County Coordinator. In her opinion, Ms. Chandler stated that it was a conflict of interest for a sitting County Commissioner to also be on the board of the IEDC violating Minnesota Statute § 471.87 and 382.18. Thus, Mr. Eichorn could serve in one capacity but not both. This opinion was well known to County Attorney Jack Muhar as Ms. Chandler’s supervisor.

Now, six years later, Mr. Davin Tinquist is sitting as an elected County Commissioner and is also seated on the Board of the IEDC. Grand Rapids Voice does not believe that the law has changed and that Ms. Chandler’s opinion given in 2009 is still valid. Further, Mr. Tinquist, as with Mr. Eichorn, may be a County Commissioner or on the Board of the IEDC but not both.

How, then, has the County Attorney’s office permitted this obvious conflict of interest. This leads to other questions as to what else might be condoned or overlooked by the County Attorney that is adverse to the residents and taxpayers of Itasca County.

It is the position that both these instances constitute conflicts o interest and must not be permitted. These conflicts of interest are detrimental to the City of Grand Rapids, Itasca County and the wider community. We encourage you to visit our website to review the communications with the Grand Rapids City Attorney, the opinion written by Ms. Heidi Chandler and the text of the Minnesota Statutes and make your own determination as to whether or not there are conflicts of interest.

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