RED WING, MINN. - Minnesota's frac sand debate spilled into City Hall here on Monday night, with citizens pledging to recall Mayor Dennis Egan and the City Council launching an investigation into his involvement with a sand-mining trade group and lobbying organization.
At an intense City Council meeting attended by about 50 people who applauded the harshest rebukes of the mayor, two City Council members directly asked Egan to resign as mayor or step down as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. He steadfastly refused either option, saying he has no conflict of interest that can't be managed on a case-by-case basis by recusing himself from city action on sand-mining issues.
"I deeply care about Red Wing,'' said Egan, who was elected in November to a four-year term before he went to work for the sand council.
But Council President Lisa Bayley said Egan's post with an industry that has encountered public opposition in its plans to expand sand-mining operations in Minnesota has taken a negative toll on the city and could hurt economic development.
"The public confidence has been so severely shaken,'' Bayley said. "What we have here is a pretty massive inherent conflict.''
Council Member Michael Schultz drew applause when he asked the mayor, "Do you want to be the mayor of Red Wing or the executive director of the sand council?''
Egan said it wasn't reasonable for the council to ask him to resign, partly because he is a professional consultant and lobbyist and the sand council is only his latest client. The six companies that comprise the sand council don't have projects in Red Wing, oppose mining the bluffs along the Mississippi River and maintain good relationships with the communities where they do business, he said.
Council members said the conflict appears to be more ethical than legal, but voted 7-0 to investigate Egan's ties to the sand-mining group. The council directed that the investigation be conducted by an independent, private firm.
The council also agreed to ask the Minnesota attorney general for guidance on the legal structure and possible grounds for a petition drive that Red Wing resident Dale Hanson pledged to pursue as a way to remove Egan from office. Hanson said a recall petition needs a minimum of 1,900 signatures to prompt a citywide vote in which Egan, a former Red Wing Chamber of Commerce president, could be ousted.
"We won't have any difficulty getting the signatures we need,'' Hanson said. "I will pursue the matter until Mayor Egan resigns'' or the issue is resolved in another way.
Amy Nelson of the Save the Bluffs organization said she's concerned that Egan's job as a spokesman for the sand-mining industry will lead people to assume that Red Wing has been "purchased" by the mining industry. "My main concern is one of perceived corruption," she said.
Among those calling for Egan to resign has been Steve Murphy, a former state senator from Red Wing. In an open letter, Murphy wrote that it is unethical and a "breach of public trust" for Red Wing's mayor to work as a paid lobbyist with the sand-mining industry.
Red Wing is in the heart of frac sand territory, which ranges throughout southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. The rush to mine the ancient quartz started about four years ago with a national oil and gas boom using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing. Egan has said that Red Wing finished writing a frac sand ordinance last fall and is not currently the target of any mining or frac-sand facility proposals. But Bayley has said the issue of regulating the industry is very much alive in the city, including ongoing transportation issues involving truck traffic and barge loading. "I really kind of resent being put in this position," she said.
Local officials throughout the Upper Midwest are trying to balance worries over lung disease from sand dust, water pollution, water depletion, truck traffic, noise and negative impacts on tourism against jobs and other economic benefits that the sand-mining industry offers.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213