Commissioners Barry Nelson, Richard Vareberg face criticism at Becker County Board meeting

“You lose your temper, you yell at constituents, you never give committee reports – I think you kind of sunk your own ship,” former Commissioner Don Skarie told Vareberg.

Becker County Courthouse
Sessions of the Becker County Board of Commissioners take place at the county courthouse in Detroit Lakes.
Detroit Lakes Tribune File Photo

DETROIT LAKES — Tempers were still a little hot during the public comment part of the Becker County Board meeting on Tuesday.

Recently retired Commissioner Larry Knutson blasted Board Chairman Barry Nelson for breaking the traditional leadership rotation and becoming this year’s board chairman with help of the two new commissioners – David Meyer and Erica Jepson.

“I didn’t want to have to come back here,” he said. He accused Nelson of being untruthful about the long history of the rotation, and of wanting to have the last word when residents comment at the open forum.

“Saying you’re sorry to (Commissioner) John (Okeson) doesn’t mean a thing if you keep doing the same thing,” he said.

Knutson was part of a group at the last county board meeting that unsuccessfully called for Nelson to step down as board chairman.


Another Becker County resident, Joe Stenger, took it a step further, saying at the open forum Tuesday that he has hired a private eye to investigate Nelson. “I’ve been in the area 78 years – 50 years in my own business,” he said. “I’ve worked for a lot of townships and I’ve gone to a lot of township meetings – I’ve never seen anything like this (chair controversy) in my whole life,” he said. “Barry, you did wrong – to pull the chair out on a friend,” he added. “That caused conflict in the county.”

But not everybody who commented was unhappy with Nelson being elected chairman.

Former Becker County Commissioner Don Skarie congratulated Jepson and Meyer on their election victories. “I think you two are a great addition to the board,” he said. ”I’m kind of hoping people can look forward instead of backwards, otherwise this will be a long year. John, I think you can do that,” he said to Okeson.

Skarie sharply criticized Commissioner Richard Vareberg for losing his temper during questioning during a recent talk that Vareberg gave to Becker County Republicans. A video of Vareberg’s outburst was posted online after that meeting.

“I’m not impressed with your Google spiel,” Skarie told him. “You lose your temper, you yell at constituents, you never give committee reports – I think you kind of sunk your own ship.”

Skarie cautioned Vareberg that “if you hold grudges, it eats you up inside, it doesn’t pay. I hope you take my advice on that.”

Becker County resident Carey Alger, who posted the video on his Facebook page, also spoke at the forum, telling Vareberg that the video of him losing his temper was “pretty embarrassing for Becker County.”

Things calmed down after the open forum, as commissioners conducted regular business that included adopting and implementing the One Watershed One Plan for the Otter Tail River basin.


With four part-time custodial positions open at the county, and those positions difficult to fill and retain, commissioners also agreed to create a full-time position out of two part-time positions.

They also approved a full-time cashier position in the Auditor-Treasurer’s Office, and agreed to fill a part-time cashier’s position there.

The board is considering revamping its hiring process to streamline the filling of vacant positions that are already in the budget.

“I think our hiring process has been very cumbersome,” Nelson said. “We spend enough time during budget sessions.”

Okeson agreed. “Our hiring process takes too long,” he said. “Three months to get an interview is too long.” Meyer also agreed.

The board also moved to pay half of the $15,000 cost incurred by snowmobile clubs in cleaning up summer storm debris that had blocked trails and forest roads. “The cleanup was done on county land and forest roads, so it improves our access to those sites, too,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “That was our rationale.”

The county will consider additional claims as they are submitted, noted Becker County Land Use Department Director Steve Skoog.

He said the county is also moving forward on a million dollar-plus grant application to improve its recycling facility.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made $40 million available to local governments (up to $4 million in each EPA district) to expand and improve their recyclable collections and management.

Because the county has a Feb. 15 deadline to apply, the county Environmental Services Committee acted fast and agreed to a $5,000 contract with Foth Infrastructure & Environment LLC to help staff put together a comprehensive grant application. The plan is to expand the Becker County Materials Recovery Facility into a regional facility.

The grant would pay for a fiber screen for paper sorting, a glass debris screen, a paper sorting line, a commodity infeed metering machine, and several robots for quality control over the aluminum and PET plastic conveyor lines – an estimated $2.75 million project.

No local match is required for the grant, but the Environmental Services Committee recommends that the county chip in up to 20% of the project cost to improve its odds of getting approved.That cost may be shared with regional partners such as Clay County and Moorhead if the grant is approved.

In other action, the county board authorized final acceptance of the Fern Beach Drive road construction project in Lakeview Township, and approved final payment of about $270,000.

Commissioners approved creation of a bereavement policy for employees, and talked about leadership training, exit interviews and employee recognition policies.

They also approved an aerial 3D imagery request from the Assessor’s Office — a tool that reportedly saves enough staff time to equal a 20-hour-per-week employee.

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