BEMIDJI -- A presentation on a goodwill campaign at the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners meeting led to a somewhat heated exchange about the intentions of the program's supporters and has sparked backlash on social media in the days since.
During a work session on Tuesday, May 4, the board was given a presentation by Kathy Ross, a representative for the Respect Minnesota initiative. The program encourages governments, businesses, organizations and citizens to pledge honor and respect the opinions of others.
Ross said Tuesday the initiative was developed during the planning and permitting of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement project.
The effort will build a new pipeline to carry an average of 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wis., where a terminal is located. The new pipeline is more than 1,000 miles long, with 337 miles to go through Minnesota.
Enbridge is investing $2.9 billion in the project. The new infrastructure is meant to replace the existing Line 3, which was built in the 1960s. It is now operating at half capacity because of its age and condition.
While Respect Minnesota was developed during the permitting phase of Line 3, though, Ross said Tuesday that the initiative is impartial and doesn't take a side on the Enbridge project or any other.
"It's been led and driven by the 49ers (the local operating engineers union) that represent a little over a third of the workforce on the project," Ross said. "We've now been sharing Respect Minnesota with chambers, businesses, city councils and county boards like yourselves."
When asked by District 2 Commissioner and Board Chair Reed Olson about her employer, Ross said she was employed by Velocity Public Affairs, a firm in St. Paul. Ross also said initial funding for the Respect Minnesota initiative was provided by the 49ers, but Enbridge and other companies have since given it support.
"We're a nonprofit-type," Ross said. "We're not an established nonprofit, but we're governed by private corporations and entities. We're really just a grassroots effort and a pretty small operation."
Olson had issues with the presentation and disagreed with her statement, saying, "I've been part of a lot of grassroots efforts. To see your videos, swag and websites maintained, that's not a grassroots effort. This is astroturfing, where a corporation pretends like it's doing something grassroots and is of the people, but it's really just corporate garbage."
Olson went on to say Respect Minnesota is an initiative shutting down dissenting voices.
"Reading your pledge, something that stuck out to me was 'respecting heritage and history of Indigenous People,' but I called a couple of our neighboring tribes' government officials to see if you've reached out to them at all and they've not been contacted," Olson said. "I think it's interesting the marketers who put this pledge together referred to Indigenous people in the past tense, not in their present and their future."
Ross replied, explaining that the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa -- the only tribal land the pipeline replacement will pass through -- did provide input on creating the Respect Minnesota pledge.
"We've worked with tribal liaisons and tribal contractors on the daily to continue bettering those relationships," Ross said. "I would add that this is wholeheartedly authentic. It isn't an attempt to squash anyone's right to freedom of speech... Rather, it's asking if we can all come together and respect one another at the end of the day."
In his comments, District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner questioned how Respect Minnesota was put on the agenda and asked if other local organizations can do the same in the future.
"I'm just curious," Sumner said. "We have several community members that are part of organizations that would also like to be on the agenda."
Sumner also said, "a lot of the message that I see is about Line 3 and I do know it is a hot topic, especially in our community. We haven't taken a position as a board on how we would like to address that. There are some of us that are for it and some that aren't."
Olson concluded his remarks on the subject by stating he disagreed with the Respect Minnesota initiative being on the agenda.
"I'm upset that you're here," Olson said emphatically. "That's not your fault. We are a very split board on Line 3, and you're here giving this presentation which I don't think is bringing people together. I really, with all due respect, wish you weren't here, your organization wasn't here and your organization wasn't on the agenda. I think it was inappropriate and a mistake that it was here at all."
Following Olson's comments, District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick pushed back and said, "everybody should be able to contact this county board and ask to come to a work session to provide information.
"For a county board chair to say 'I wish you weren't here,' I think that's a little bit rude. Everyone is welcome to come to that podium, and we've had many people come to that podium. We've never asked them how they're funded or how they get their paycheck. I think that podium is a very special place. It's a public place and I don't think someone shouldn't be able to come here to give us information."
Several people have posted clips of the meeting on YouTube and Facebook, sparking backlash in light of Olson's handling of the situation, with many referencing the irony of his lack of respect toward Ross in light of her presentation topic.
"It's obvious he has zero respect and did not listen to the video at all once Line 3 was mentioned," one Facebook comment read. "This is exactly what the video was about! Respect each other no matter their views or opinions! Bemidji should be ashamed if they do not adopt ‘Respect Minnesota’ especially since they are benefiting from all the pipeline money. Respect was lost somewhere along the way and it should be brought back. Reed is anti-pipeline and anti-pipeliner so what do you expect?"
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, as well as chambers in the Twin Cities, Grand Rapids, St. Cloud, Thief River Falls, Brainerd and Crookston have taken the Respect Minnesota pledge. More than a dozen businesses, including Enbridge and the Bemidji-based company LaValley Industries, have also done so.
Cities to take the pledge include Bagley, Carlton, Clearbrook, Crookston, Gonvick, Harris Township, Hill City, La Prairie, Leonard, Montrose, Park Rapids, Pequot Lakes, Plummer, Proctor, St. Hilaire and Thief River Falls. Counties to do so include Carlton, Pennington and Red Lake.
The Respect Minnesota presentation and following interaction can be viewed from the 20 to 37-minute mark of the May 4 meeting on the Beltrami County YouTube channel.