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'No, I'm not going to': Nelson refuses to step down, keeps County Board chairmanship amid rotation dispute

Dozens of area residents attended a Jan. 17 meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners and voiced their opinions over Barry Nelson being elected chair during their meeting two weeks ago.

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Becker County residents fill the county board room before a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023. Many of the residents raised concerns over the process of electing Barry Nelson as county board chair for 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — In a standing-room-only meeting of the Becker County Board on Tuesday, Jan. 17, dozens of area residents showed up to voice their opposition to newly-elected board chair Barry Nelson.

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In a somewhat surprising move, Nelson was nominated and elected chair of the Becker County Board at their first meeting of the year on Jan. 3 after newly-elected board members Erica Jepson and David Meyer supported his candidacy. In years past, the previous year's vice-chair would become chair the following year; John Okeson served as vice-chair in 2022. Both Okeson and Richard Vareberg opposed Nelson's chairmanship, which passed on a 3-2 vote.

The November election changed the power dynamics on the five-member County Board: Retired Commissioner Larry Knutson, Vareberg and Okeson had formed a block of sorts, with Nelson cut out of the process. The election of Meyer and Jepson put the shoe on the other foot, which led to the chairmanship vote.

The Jan. 17 meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, quickly moved to make adjustments to the minutes and agenda, and then residents gave Nelson an earful in what many of the speakers saw as a violation of unwritten county board tradition.

"I believe this (board chair) rotation has been done for a long time and serves the purpose of keeping a check in power with no one board member having too much continuous rule," said Dennis Mois, a Becker County resident. "I found it odd that two new board members would want to make this change on the first day of the job."

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He added how disappointed he was in Nelson for assuming the chairmanship because he previously participated in the rotation.

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Carey Alger, a Becker County resident, voices his concerns over the County Board chairmanship process during a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Carey Alger, another Becker County resident, said he didn't understand why so many people showed up to the meeting in opposition to Nelson's chairmanship and added the two board members who didn't get their way were pulling a "power trip."

"There shouldn't be no 'good ole boys' handshake that's not how government is run," said Alger. "You take a vote and the one who gets the highest vote is the chair. That is the way it's suppose to be."

Another resident, Allan Stearns, asked a question of the two newly-elected board members.

"What did my representative do that was so bad that you got rid of him?" said Stearns.

Eric Jepson replied: "I was elected and I've watched the board meetings for the last several months and I haven't been happy with how the board has been handling themselves. And, I did my research, and I believe that the person that I nominated is the best person to bring some communication back to our board. It was nothing against Mr. Okeson. I have nothing against him, which is why I voted for him after he was nominated for vice-chair."

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Nicole Martinson, a Becker County resident, expresses her concern over the County Board chairmanship during a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Nicole Martinson, a Becker County resident, said she found it disheartening for Nelson to claim the chairmanship and that the move displayed no integrity.

"You've been a county commissioner for almost 20 years, you are well aware of how the chair appointment works, regardless of what the law is, and you are welcome to nominate whoever you want, if you wanted to change this, it could've been something you could've discussed with your colleagues and the board and maybe thought to change that moving forward next year," said Martinson. "You knew it was Commissioner Okeson's turn and you did it anyway. You were just chair two years ago. What if they did that to you?"

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Vicki Rudolph, a Becker County resident, spoke in favor of Nelson's chairmanship and praised the two new board members for voting how they felt, instead of abiding by an unwritten tradition.

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Vicki Rudolph, a Becker County resident, voices her support for Barry Nelson during an open forum centered around the County Board chairmanship dispute during a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"What I'm really mad about is the fact that this was planned," said Rudolph. "People were called and asked to come in here because they didn't like how the vote went, which is wrong. You don't set this up."

She added, if people were genuinely inspired to attend the board meeting, that would be one thing, but to plan for an angry mob to attend the board meeting is something else entirely.

"You know who you are, you know who you called," said Rudolph. "Shame on whoever you are, and I don't need to name names, but we need to respect the people that voted and were voted into for these positions."

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Larry Knutson, former county commissioner of Osage, voices his concerns about the County Board chairman dispute during a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

The last resident to speak during the open forum was former county commissioner Larry Knutson, of Osage, who apologized to Okeson for being denied the chair and admonished Nelson for giving the perception of rigging the chairmanship vote.

"The perception is that this was a rigged deal set up before the meeting," said Knutson. "Democracy doesn't come in when people collude, or conspire to get a result that isn't a correct result."

Knutson said that Nelson had "insulted" and "embarrassed" Okeson by accepting the chairmanship.

"This was shameful and it's not acceptable," he said.

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After the residents gave their opinions and the public forum portion of the meeting was closed, Nelson responded to the room.

"I respect all of your opinions and I respect John (Okeson)," said Nelson. He added the rotation of the chairmanship hasn't always been followed by board members since he was first elected.

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Barry Nelson, commissioner for District 5 and current board chair, responds to public comments about the County Board chairmanship process during a meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

During his remarks, someone shouted from the back of the room, "so, step down then."

Nelson responded, and said: "You asked for me to step down? No, I'm not going to. I've been nominated and elected and I will keep this position, and I will do the best that I can ... With that being said, I thank you for your comments and I will take them to heart. I recognize the disrespect I've caused and I apologize for that, but that is the only thing I will apologize for."

It took about five minutes for the residents to clear the room before the meeting could continue.

Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
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