In September of 2020, the commissioners were continuing to move along on the Perham to Pelican Trail – Highway 34 portion, coming out of Perham. I inquired of my friends along the route, and they said there had been no communication with the county since their Zoom meeting with the district court judge who said she thought it was possible a recreational trail did not rise to the level of using eminent domain. The judge wanted to consider that for two months, but the landowners had not received any update on her decision, although the two months had passed. They said they had received no phone calls, no mail, no in person visits, and had seen nothing in the newspaper. They had even called the lawyer, Mr. Bigwood’s office, on three occasions, and had not heard back from that office. So I then called his office myself on three occasions, left messages with his office staff, to no avail. I also knew of another business who had hired several lawyers to protest this portion of the trail, so you can see that when it was stated that no one had protested the proceeding forward of the trail, I found that impossible to believe. That is, if those people had been given proper notice of how to make that protest. Chuck Grotte sent me a communication from the judge dated July 22, which does indeed say she has now given the people who protested at the July 2 Zoom meeting 60 days to present evidence supporting their protests.
So here’s the question: Is it possible the district court dropped the ball, and did not send that notice to the landowners? And is it possible Mr. Bigwood had also dropped the ball and was avoiding phone calls because of it? I will let you be the “judge,” in light of new information from the May 25 board meeting. The following is the best I could do, considering the quality of the recording. Excerpts:
At Hour 2, Minute 46 of the public meeting recording, County Attorney Michelle Eldien is speaking: “The only other update I wanted you guys to, um, Chuck’s not on any more, but Chuck and I did meet with Mr. Bigwood on the trail project in hopes that if Betty had some questions a while ago about maybe some of the transactions going on, and so just an update in that regard just so you know that things are happening, more than you just know, but we are trying to move things like, what else could be done to help the process? The one hang-up, if you remember hearing about the commissioners — a little confusing because — it’s not the commissioners yourselves, commissioners under the court system for, you know, what’s the value of those properties … .
For some reason that the court, and in this particular case, the judge, has not issued that order. It’s from last summer, and so my suggestion was that maybe we go back and say something and get back on that ... . It really is coming down to just an issue of the value … . I just wanted you to know there are things moving, and things are moving in the right direction ... .”
Chief Commissioner Lee Rogness: “Any questions?”
Commissioner Kurt Mortenson: “Well, this is just to update myself on this process — so the condemnation commissioners have made recommendation to the court.”
Eldien: “They haven’t even been.”
Commissioner Wayne Johnson: “They haven’t even been appointed.”
Eldien: “That’s the hold-up. As of July of last year there was a court action and that was my concern – what’s happening, and I went into the court case … and I couldn’t see it … there’s nothing happened with the attorney, so we met and then made some strides. I don’t know why – with the court - if they dropped the ball. It’s not something they see all the time and it wasn’t quick-take action...”
Mortenson: “But there’s statutory timelines that come into play.”
Eldien: “It didn’t happen.” (Further discussion.)
Rogness: “Any other questions?”
Commissioner Betty Murphy: “I think you answered it, but the trail continues on, regardless of where the process is, right?”
Johnson: “We’ve been granted the land, the ownership, it’s just, they’re arguing over the value.”
Eldien: “What they’re owed for our taking of their lands . ...”
(Talking back and forth … .)
Rogness: “Question I would have in that, in that context is: If we start stirring in the soil, if you will, and we haven’t gotten the values determined, what kind of a recognition will we be seeing — in a public way?”
Eldien: “That it’s not you, the commissioners, or anybody, that is sitting here not doing anything, or our county, it’s just not … .”
Johnson: “It’s wholly sitting in the judge’s lap.”
Eldien: “As far as I understand, and I have no reason to doubt that.”
There you have it – perhaps not the commissioners’ fault, but certainly fault on the part of the court system, and lawyer Bigwood, for not following through. (I encourage you to send for the recording of the meeting if you are interested, as there is more.)
Marcia Huddleston is the founder of Otter Tail County Conservative Coalition.