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By LeAnn R. Ralph
HUDSON — The St. Croix County Board has approved a resolution ratifying a proclamation by the county board chair declaring a state of emergency due to riots and civil commotion in Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington Counties in Minnesota.
After George Floyd died on May 25, there was concern that activity “across the river” could spill over into St. Croix County, said Patrick Thompson, county administrator, at the the St. Croix County Board’s June 2 meeting.
Thompson said he notified David Peterson, chair of the St. Croix County Board, along with Scott Cox, St. Croix County corporation counsel.
A resolution was drafted, and Peterson signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency May 29, he said.
A county board chair can declare a state of emergency by proclamation, and then the county board must confirm the state of emergency by resolution at the next county board meeting for the state of emergency to remain in effect, Thompson explained.
The duration of the state of emergency is limited to the time the emergency conditions exist or are likely to exist, he said.
The state of emergency will end when law enforcement determines the emergency has ceased to exist, Thompson said.
George Floyd’s death was “tragic and sickening,” said St.Croix County Sheriff Scott Knutson, who added that he was “at a loss as to how or why it happened.”
Floyd’s death was “something that should not have happened,” and it was “the flame that started the powder keg” of protests in the Twin Cities, he said.
Local law enforcement agencies were on heightened awareness because of the protests and riots in the Twin Cities, and Facebook “chatter” indicated there was some threat to western Wisconsin as well, Sheriff Knutson said.
The Minneapolis officer involved in Floyd’s death lives in Oakdale, which is eight miles away from Hudson, he noted.
Cars coming across the river stopped and told local law enforcement officers there were plans for the protests and riots to come to Hudson, Sheriff Knutson said.
The St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department responded by adding additional patrols to the St. Croix crossing and Hudson area, he said.
According to “classified information” he had received, the protests and riots were not going end in the near future, and protests have been planned out until June 13 so far, Sheriff Knutson said.
Protesting is a first amendment freedom, but sometimes people no longer want to remain peaceful, he said.
Sheriff Knutson said he did not know what to expect and that there is always a concern if protests reach a flashpoint, riots could come to Hudson.
The sheriff’s department is committed to being vigilant and watchful to keep the citizens of St. Croix County safe, he said.
Right to rescind
One county board member asked if the county board has the right to rescind the resolution at any time.
The state statute is vague and says the state of emergency exists during the time which the emergency exists or is likely to exist, Thompson said.
If the emergency still exists, the St. Croix County Board can still rescind the action, Cox said.
The statute is silent on rescinding, but Cox said in his opinion, because the county board is given the option to not approve the resolution, then the county board also has the power to rescind the resolution after the county board has approved it.
One county board member said he would be more comfortable with having a two-month time limit and then re-approving the resolution when necessary.
“I am uncomfortable with it being open-ended,” he said.
“We are not through this yet,” said county board supervisor Scottie Ard.
The protests and riots started in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but no one knows how people are going to respond when the trial phase starts, she said.
With a declared state of emergency, law enforcement can respond immediately and not have to wait for the county board to meet and approve a resolution again, Ard said.
This will not end until there is a verdict, and St. Croix County must be prepared, she said.
Judy Achterhof, county board supervisor, said she had been receiving telephone calls from people who were worried that the declaration of a state of emergency would mean all of the businesses would have to close down again.
Communication has to be better, she said.
The state of emergency allows the sheriff’s department to do emergency road closures, to direct traffic for people who are marching, to clear the streets for emergency vehicles, and to close the roads for county maintenance vehicles, Sheriff Knutson said.
The state of emergency also would allow, if the situation “becomes dire,” to set a curfew and also allows the National Guard to be called in if local resources are exhausted, Cox said.
There was confusion about curfew the previous weekend because of the curfew in Minnesota, Sheriff Knutson noted.
St. Croix County cannot remain in a state of emergency until a trial takes place, said Shelly Tomtschik, who is a county board supervisor and a defense attorney.
The situation will die down and come back, but it will not be an emergency for the duration until there are court hearings for the defendants, she said.
One county board supervisor suggested that if the board could not agree on an ending date for a state of emergency, then the resolution could be amended to state the county board has the right to rescind the resolution at a regular county board meeting.
A motion for the amendment died for the lack of a second.
Another county board member said he agreed with the emergency declaration and asked if the county board could be kept informed.
Bob Fiedler, county board supervisor and chair of the public protection and judiciary committee, said Sheriff Knutson is in close contact with the committee, and that as chair, he will report to the county board.
If an end date is included in the resolution declaring a state of emergency and something disrupts the ability of the board to meet, then the sheriff has no flexibility. An end date would not be helping to protect the public, said another county board supervisor.
The St. Croix County Board of Supervisors approved the resolution declaring a state of emergency for the time emergency conditions exist or are likely to exist on a voice vote, with one county board member voting “no” on the resolution.
According to the resolution, “St. Croix County, including but not limited to the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office, shall do whatever is necessary and expedient for the health, safety, protection and welfare of persons and property within the local unit of government in the emergency and includes the power to bar, restrict, or remove all unnecessary traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, from the highways, notwithstanding any provision of Wis. Stat. Chs. 341 to 349.”
In other business at the June 2 meeting, the St. Croix County Board approved five amendments to the county board’s rules and bylaws.
One amendment pertained to meeting dates and times, and the county board agreed to keep the morning county board meetings in November, December, January and February so county board supervisors do not have to drive in hazardous winter conditions after dark.
Another amendment changed the order of business on the agenda so that the annual department reports will be moved to after the “business” items. The change in the agenda order will allow members of the public who attend the meeting because they are interested in a business item on the agenda to not have to sit through the annual reports first.
Another amendment removed the requirement of a Council on Aging and Disabilities because of a change in state law.
Another amendment changed the number of county board supervisors on the fair board from three to two.
The amendment that generated the most discussion pertained to limiting the total time for public comments at county board meetings to 30 minutes.
A number of county board supervisors expressed concern about limiting public comment.
If members of the public come to the county board because of an issue, the county board, as elected officials, should be willing listen for as long as it takes to get through the number of people who want to talk, they said.
The county board chair can already limit an individual’s comments to three minutes, and if there are a large number of people who want to speak, the county board chair could change the time limit to two minutes, they said.
The St. Croix County Board approved an amended amendment to the bylaws that removed the 30 minute time limit for public comment and granted the chair of the board the discretion to limit individual time for comment.