Months after the Minnesota Historical Society took a stand against Gov. Mark Dayton over Civil War art in his State Capitol reception room, the governor is backing a bill to strip the state’s preservation agency from the historical society and move it under his control.

Dayton’s spokeswoman said the measure, which would move the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) from the historical society to the Department of Administration in the executive branch, is designed to reduce inefficiency and improve accountability. She denied it was connected to the art flap.

Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said he was asked by the governor’s staff to carry the bill because of impatience with the time taken by SHPO to sign off on projects — notably, some said, the PolyMet mine on the Iron Range.

“I really don’t believe this is a payback. This is a frustration that has been building for a while,” Ecklund said.

But Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) officials and other legislators said they were “stunned” by the move and that it made little sense.

“I think it’s generally worked pretty well over 50 years,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a retired history teacher who challenged Dayton’s efforts to remove the Civil War paintings.

“If there are problems they should find ways to resolve them, instead of doing away with an office that I think has been pretty successful.”

Last year the preservation office, in conjunction with federal authorities, reviewed more than 3,000 development and infrastructure projects to ensure that historic and cultural sites were identified and protected. They found issues requiring mitigation or additional planning in fewer than 1 percent of the cases, said Stephen Elliott, CEO of the historical society, who has forcefully defended the preservation work at legislative hearings.

SHPO has been under the auspices of the historical society since it was formed in 1969. It works with federal agencies to enforce the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and administers federal grant programs.

Elliott said that MNHS does the work more cost effectively than the state could and that more funding for technology could speed up the process.

“This is a regulatory process people don’t enjoy and it’s a process prescribed by federal law,” Elliot said. “SHPO responds, reviews and comments on decisions made by federal agencies.”

The historical society is a nonprofit which, while independent of the state, relies on it for nearly 60 percent of its $60 million-plus annual budget. About $2 million of that goes toward running the preservation office.

Bills are before committees in both the House and Senate to move the preservation office and its 20 employees to the Administration Department. The governor included the transfer in his revised budget recommendations.

The PolyMet case

Every state but Minnesota and Ohio has its preservation office as part of the executive branch, where there is more accountability to taxpayers, government agencies and businesses, said Jaime Tincher, the governor’s chief of staff.

Tincher criticized the preservation office’s work last winter at the potential site of the PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota. Issues raised under the federal preservation act involved the future of buildings related to historic mining operations and tribal access to several nearby sites, including 80 acres of maple and basswood trees used for maple sugar harvesting.

“Our office did have an experience where it seemed things were not being processed efficiently in the SHPO office,” Tincher said. While parties including PolyMet and federal and state agencies reached agreement in December, Tincher said SHPO staffers seemed to drag their feet.

“It felt like there were a lot of stall tactics happening,” she said. “We couldn’t get a signature on a document.”

But tribal leaders, who refused to sign the agreement, credited the preservation office with being one of the few entities keeping them in the loop on the evaluation of centuries-old cultural sites threatened by development.

“Far too often, the bands were kept wholly in the dark about revisions being made to the [memorandum of agreement] and only learned about the work from discussions with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation,” according to a Jan. 18 letter from Kevin Dupuis Sr., chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

MNHS officials acknowledged frustrations with the review process and timeline.

“This is a complex project involving many groups who are all working toward the goal of finding the best solution for preserving historic resources,” said spokeswoman Jessica Kohen in a written statement.

It was the second time in recent months that Dayton and MNHS have butted heads. Over his objections, the society’s executive committee voted last winter to return the State Capitol’s Civil War paintings to their original places in the governor’s reception room after the building’s extensive renovation.

Legislative division

Lawmakers are split on the future of the preservation office.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he agreed to carry the bill for the governor after some of his constituents working to establish the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center on the Gunflint Trail called him for help with the preservation office.

“They just had a miserable time with SHPO, couldn’t get anywhere and finally called me,” Bakk said. “I learned they are just not very accountable to anyone. [The historical society] is not a state agency.”

Bakk said Dayton approached him about it late last fall. He said the preservation office often takes the maximum 30-day time allotted to respond to even the most basic questions, which can mean lost construction time for large projects.

But other lawmakers, including Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, and Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, at a committee hearing doubted that rolling the preservation office into the state government would make it more efficient.

“I have some real problems with this. I think [the historical society] has a strong base in the state,” Masin said. “I really trust the historical society.”