Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan has been hired to run a new lobbying and trade group for the frac sand industry, triggering consternation in his hometown just as it begins considering what position to take in a sand-mining debate that is emerging at the State Capitol.
Egan said Tuesday he sees no conflict of interest and won't step down while he works as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council.
But Red Wing City Council President Lisa Bayley, a lawyer, said she has received many "complaints, questions and concerns'' from residents about the mayor's new job as a paid advocate for an industry that is at the forefront of local ferment.
The situation comes as the sand-mining industry is raising its profile at the Capitol amid a boom in silica mining to supply the oil and gas industry with a vital ingredient for a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.
The sand council, a consortium of aggregate and trucking companies with interests in frac sand and gravel, has hired Twin Cities law firm Larkin Hoffman to lobby its cause. Egan, a professional lobbyist, also has registered in St. Paul to lobby for the sand council.
But Egan's decision also occurs as debate rages up and down the Mississippi River corridor over the sand boom. In the past four years, more than 100 mines and processing facilities have been permitted in Wisconsin and Minnesota in a rush largely controlled by local units of government.
Bayley said the council will discuss the matter Monday at a regularly scheduled meeting.
"If the facts are as we think they are, it could prove to be a very serious matter,'' she said, declining to elaborate.
Egan said he talked to City Administrator Kay Kuhlmann before signing his employment contract last week with the sand council. He declined to say how much the group is paying him.
"She didn't raise any red flags at that time,'' said Egan, who was re-elected in November to a four-year term.
Kuhlmann did not return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.
Egan said there are no applications pending before the city for frac sand facilities. The city ordinance that will regulate the industry was "put to bed'' in October, and the sand council shares his position that "mining the bluffs on the Mississippi River is not a good idea.''
"In my mind, there's not a conflict,'' Egan said.
Bayley and fellow Council Member Peggy Rehder, however, said the frac sand debate is very much alive in Red Wing. The city is dealing with truck traffic issues and barge loading of frac sand from the city-owned bulkhead, or dock. Part of the agenda for Monday's council meeting, Bayley said, is to discuss what position the city should take on frac sand issues that crop up at the Legislature. No bill has been introduced so far regarding frac sand mining, but there has been talk behind the scenes of possible statewide involvement in the issue.
"The issue of local control is very important to us,'' Rehder said.
Throughout southeastern Minnesota and as far north as Scott County, local officials are trying to balance worries over air quality, water pollution, water depletion, truck traffic and noise against jobs and other economic benefits that the sand mining industry offers. Egan said part of the sand council's mission is to advance the best practices for mining, processing and transportation.
"It's not across the board that people are opposing'' the frac sand industry, Egan said. "This group acknowledges there are issues, but that they can be dealt with.''
Rehder said she wants the city attorney to issue an opinion for the council as to whether the mayor has a legal conflict of interest. Rehder is a former lobbyist who worked in Washington, D.C., and who used to represent Hennepin County.
"Would I ever be a lobbyist and hold public office at the same time?'' Rehder said. "No."
She said Red Wing is "in the heart of frac sand mining country'' and people are "very concerned'' about Egan's new position.
Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213