LaPlante's presentation delayed after spirited debate and 5-2 vote in favor of tabling it until the city attorney can weigh in.
The day after Crookston Mayor Guy Martin, elected just last November, resigned and walked out at the beginning of Monday evening’s Crookston City Council meeting, City Administrator Shannon Stassen said the council will officially declare a mayoral vacancy when it next meets on Oct. 14 and determine its next steps. The council is not obligated to call for a special mayoral election, Stassen added, and could simply appoint someone. The council is currently in the process of filling the Ward 6 council seat, vacated when Cindy Gjerswold, also elected in November 2018, moved out of her ward and outside city limits.
The Times reached out to Martin Tuesday, asking him to further elaborate on his reasons for leaving and asking him how difficult it was to work with the current council and deal with apparent friction between City of Crookston and CHEDA leaders. The Times had not heard back from Martin as of this story’s writing.
The Times also reached out to City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds, but had not heard back from him as of the writing of this story, either. After Martin resigned and walked out of the council chambers, with “have fun” as his final, parting words, Brian LaPlante was due to, at the subsequent Ways and Means Committee meeting, continue to present his concerns he first voiced at the council’s meeting two weeks ago about the long-term viability of the biofuels industry and, thus, the long-term sustainability of the proposed soybean crush and biodiesel facility, Epitome Energy, in Crookston.
Reynolds was in attendance at the council meeting, but when that concluded, he exited before the Ways and Means Committee meeting got underway. When it was LaPlante’s turn on the agenda to begin his presentation, which approached 40 pages in length and detailed multiple threats to the long-term future of the biofuels industry, Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee said he felt it was more appropriate for LaPlante to speak to the CHEDA Board, since CHEDA has been the lead local agency working with Epitome Energy founder and CEO Dennis Egan since the beginning. At Large Council Member Bobby Baird agreed, and Fee subsequently made a motion, which Baird seconded, to delay LaPlante’s presentation until Reynolds could be consulted on the appropriateness of it occurring at a Ways and Means Committee meeting.
After a spirited exchange with Fee, LaPlante said he’d be OK with coming back in the future once the city attorney had weighed in. During the exchange, Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook, who, as vice mayor took over for Martin after his resignation, repeatedly said that he didn’t think the open meeting law would prohibit LaPlante from speaking at the meeting, and there was no legal standing that he was aware of that would give the council the ability to prevent LaPlante from making his presentation right then and there. LaPlante’s presentation was included on the committee meeting’s agenda, which Fee and Baird said they never approved. While there was never a vote to approve the Sept. 23 Ways and Means Committee agenda – there never is such a vote – when LaPlante addressed the council during its open forum two weeks ago, Mayor Martin said he’d be included on the Sept. 23 committee agenda to continue the discussion on his concerns over the biofuels industry.
On Sept. 9, LaPlante, who cited his past and current business background that he said has him researching future transportation models and advanced biofuels, said that taxpayers should be concerned about what they’re being forced to commit to a massive facility whose success is based on an industry that already has a shrinking market and whose current and future successes are based mostly on the government-mandated Renewable Fuel Standards, which, LaPlante said, is alone not enough to ensure long-term viability.
While commending LaPlante for all of the work he put into his presentation, Stainbrook asked him why he hadn’t spoken up sooner. There have been numerous discussions at multiple meetings, he said, and an advisory committee has been meeting almost weekly at Valley Technology Park. There was also an open-house/meet-and-greet event at VTP on Sept. 5 with around 80 people in attendance, Stainbrook noted, and LaPlante wasn’t there, either.
Essentially, LaPlante said he is a busy businessperson, and that he “counts on those hired to do this work, to do the work I did and others did.” It’s their “fiduciary responsibility” to taxpayers like him to conduct such due diligence on such a big project, he added. LaPlante said Crookston taxpayers aren’t being given a say on investing their money in the Epitome Energy project and that they’re being forced to invest their money before the farmers that would benefit from the plant can decide whether or not to buy-in. Then, addressing the 15 or so farmers in attendance in what appeared to be a show of support for the project, LaPlante noted that the growers have a choice to invest in Epitome or not, while taxpayers do not have that choice. He then asked for a show of hands regarding how many of the farmers in attendance had invested in Epitome Energy. It appeared one of them raised his hand.
“All of you farmers want this project, but I don’t think most of you have a good feel for it,” LaPlante noted.
Briggs then asked how many of the growers in attendance wanted to hear LaPlante deliver his presentation; it looked like two or three indicated they wanted to hear it.
Fee said Ways and Means Committee meetings are meant for people on the agenda to address the council, but it appeared that LaPlante wanted to simply speak to Crookston citizens. “You have every right to talk about this, but you need to speak to the right people,” Fee said to LaPlante.
With a motion on the floor and seconded Monday night, the council had to vote on whether or not to let LaPlante speak before the city attorney had a chance to offer his opinion on the situation. In addition to Fee and Baird, voting in favor of tabling the presentation were Ward 4 Council Member Don Cavalier, At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten and Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson. Voting against were Ward 3 Council Member Clayton Briggs and Stainbrook (the mayor/vice mayor cast votes at Ways and Means Committee meetings; they only vote at council meetings in the event of a tie council vote).
Resignation right away
As soon as he convened Monday’s meeting, Martin read a prepared statement, in which he said he’d heard “rumblings” that “they would like to see me step down” as mayor if he couldn’t publicly support the Epitome Energy project. He said he wanted to see “this thriving business” come to town, but then quickly corrected himself, saying he wanted to see “a thriving business” come to town. Martin said not every angle had been looked at in regard to Epitome Energy. Citing his career in farm seed sales and his contacts in the industry, Martin said concerns about the future sustainability of biofuels are real and legitimate.
Martin said his vision for Crookston’s future successes “cannot be reconciled” with the current council, so he was resigning. He thanked council members Briggs, Stainbrook and Cavalier, saying they had been “wonderful to work with.” Martin also thanked Stassen, Finance Director Angel Weasner, Public Works Director Pat Kelly, Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle, Fire Chief Tim Froeber, Police Chief Paul Biermaier, Building Official Greg Hefta and Information Technology Director Philip Barton, saying they had all been “wonderful to work with” as well.
“My time is up,” Martin said. “I’ve had enough.”
That led to the open forum that starts every council meeting, during which LaPlante said he’d probably never been more disappointed in the City of Crookston than he was at that moment.
“It’s gotten to the point in this town, apparently, that if you have an open discussion of the facts like reasonable people do, and which is expected in a democracy like we have in our nation, when you discuss the pros and cons, they put pressure on you if you don’t agree, and you shouldn’t be mayor,” LaPlante said. “I’m extraordinarily disappointed.” He added that if this was going to be the “tone and tenor going forward,” people and businesses won’t want to locate in Crookston, and no one is going to want to run for City office. “To have a mayor step down, that’s BS, and I’m disappointed in this town,” he said.