As most of you know, our public commissioner meetings are much less public than some of the constituents desire. When our questions and comments regarding using eminent domain for a trail, questionable spending of our tax money, problems with audits in the Department of Human Services, budget concerns, etc., became problematic to the commissioners, the chair, Lee Rogness, simply stopped calling on us during meetings. Therefore, we asked several times for a time that they would answer our questions, or listen to our concerns. So they came up with an open forum time. This would be just before the regular meetings, so they would not be in the minutes, and the commissioners would hear concerns, but not make any decisions or perhaps not even offer any comments, nor answer questions. Well, that was better than nothing, I figured.
The rules for the open forum were that the public would send the subject to the commissioners through an online form, well ahead of the meeting, so the commissioners could investigate the matter if needed. As soon as the form was available, I sent a subject through. The request was to speak about this subject: “Ethics of Commissioner Huebsch buying 80 acres of land along the Perham to Pelican trail route on Highway 34 last June 28.” I received a reply on March 16 saying that unfortunately the open forum would not be held on March 17 because of the state of emergency. I then asked if the meeting was going to be held or if we would not have any public access to it. The reply was that the meeting would go forward using social distancing. This was the last meeting we attended before they began online only meetings. So we could use social distancing for the meeting, but we could not do that for the open forum 15 minutes before the meeting. In any case, there were bigger problems to deal with, so I dropped the matter for the time being, thinking it would be soon enough to bring it up after the crisis passed.
The people who had court dates scheduled in April, to discuss their objections to this trail on their land or the payments offered, were sent notices that their court dates would be postponed until some time in the future. This seemed a good thing, as I thought then the people, some of them elderly and in the high-risk group, would be able to just worry about COVID-19, and not worry about losing their land until the emergency had come to a conclusion. I was wrong. The county went ahead with the process, and earlier this month, a judge condemned the land of all the people who had not agreed to have the trail on their land. The condemnation in effect gives the land to the county by eminent domain, and entitles the county the right of way they need to begin the project. So during this emergency, the people lost their land. If they wish, they can request a court date and pay to have an independent appraiser come and give them a value that they can then take to court to fight the amount of money they are being offered for their land, their tree groves, landscaping, etc. Meanwhile, it’s a done deal. “Their” land now belongs to the county, like it or not. In spite of protests against taking peoples’ land, and even though they did not receive all the grants they applied for, and are therefore using millions in our tax money, the commissioners have gotten their way.
Five commissioners were fine with using eminent domain for a trail. But at least one commissioner decided to profit from it. On June 26, 2019, 80 acres of land was recorded as a purchase on County Highway 34, on the Perham to Pelican trail route, 2.5 miles from Perham. The following is totally public information, all on the internet. This land was purchased by Huebsch’s company, for a total of $170,000. Remember this is all public info, not private. On Sept. 16, 2019, his company opened two Facebook pages: Pond Farm, and Pond Farm Development. The date is there, the contact info is there, even the three people involved in the development are listed with pictures. According to this Facebook info, the development has 14 parcels listed for sale for a total of $789,600. Their photo ad includes this wording: “Lots will have access to natural gas, high speed internet and bike trail.” Huebsch must have been pretty sure this project would go through. There is a sign on Highway 34 that says “Pond Farm.” All of this shows a blatant unconcern. Obviously the commissioner does not think what he has done is wrong. He isn’t hiding it at all. Now make no mistake, I am all for capitalism, but in my opinion, there is a conflict of interest when a commissioner makes this kind of move, and then continues to vote on all aspects of the trail.
Marcia Huddleston is deputy chair of the Republic Party of Otter Tail County.