Mayor in a “Tweetstorm”

Anti-mining activists slam Novak for comments about Fortune Bay

by Tom Coombe
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak faced the wrath of several area residents Tuesday, in the wake of public comments in which he supported a boycott of Fortune Bay Resort Casino.
Several prominent opponents of copper-nickel mining projects used the public forum opportunity at the end of the regular city council meeting to blast Novak - both for a social media post and comments in an article that appeared in the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
Novak praised State Sen. Tom Bakk’s decision to move an annual political fundraiser from Fortune Bay and urged organizers of the Fun Run snowmobile event to do the same, after the Bois Forte Band joined tribal partners in supporting legislation that could doom the Twin Metals Minnesota project near Ely.
But Novak’s comments struck a nerve with several who spoke at City Hall.
Becky Rom, an area resident who is leading a national campaign to derail the Twin Metals project, called for the city to disavow Novak’s remarks and make a statement that it does not support the boycott of any business.
Race was also injected into the controversy, with Ely resident Betty Firth charging that “I believe this underlies with racism.”
Ely business owner Peta Barrett said she was “appalled” by Novak’s statements and added “I feel it was very racist move to suggest we promote a boycott of the Bois Forte Band.”
At issue, at least in part, was a Feb. 14 Twitter post from Novak that said “Thank you Senator Bakk for canceling your annual event at Fortune Bay and moving it to Giants Ridge. IRRRB and the trades should follow suit. The Fun Run should follow suit.”
Novak was also quoted in a Hibbing Daily Tribune article that covered Bakk’s decision to move his annual fundraiser, and controversy on the Iron Range over Bois Forte’s support of legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum. The bill would ban copper-nickel mining on a large swath of national forest land in northeastern Minnesota, including the area where Twin Metals plans to build an underground copper mine that promises hundreds of new jobs.
Ely resident Carol Orban cited the article and challenged Novak on his comments, asking “are you saying you didn’t say they shouldn’t spend their money to profit an organization that doesn’t support their way of life?”
While Novak said the article included some inaccuracies and was written by a reporter new to the area, he defended his comments.
“If I’m working in the mines and you don’t support the mine, I’m not spending my money there,” said Novak. “It’s as simple as that.”
Orban called Novak’s remarks “a slap in the face to our Native neighbors. They have every right to advocate for their point of view.”
“I just feel like it’s unnecessary,” said Orban. “Why do this? Why create more conflict and bad feelings up here? I’m disappointed.”
Novak responded that his remarks were “in support of labor and good paying jobs at $80,000 a year. That’s an important facet for this city.”
Others attacked Novak from different angles.
Barrett, who lives outside the city limits but operates an outfitting business in town, questioned if others who oppose Twin Metals would face a similar stance.
“To cherry pick businesses to be boycotted, to advocate that the rest of us as a city should jump onboard with that is not right,” she said.
Barrett said she makes an effort to buy locally and added “I don’t judge any business in town based on their opinions.”
Barrett added that “not 100 percent of this community agrees with you, Mayor Novak, on copper-nickel mining being the savior of the town.”
Both Barrett and Firth made the case that there were racial overtones in Novak’s remarks.
“I don’t quite buy that you’re supporting labor and jobs,” said Firth.
Firth also told Novak that speaking on the issue “was outside the domain”of Ely’s elected officials.
Rom pointed that the stance by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe was part of a “government to government” relationship.
“I don’t feel that’s where our city wants to be,” said Rom, who lives in Morse Township. “I don’t think we want the head of our city government to be advocating for the boycott of any business, particularly for a tribe that has a government to government relationship.”
Rom added that “Canada has also objected to Twin Metals” and urged the council to take a stand disavowing business boycotts.
Piragis, who pointed to his longtime opposition to copper-nickel mining projects in the region, agreed.
“Talk about boycotts should be off the agenda for anyone who represents the people of the city,” said Piragis. “When you start talking about boycotts it becomes a whole different level of vitriol.”
Piragis said “anytime you mention the word boycotting a business, boycotting anything, it’s kind of a dirty; word. My business has been taken in that frame of reference and it hurts.”
“Whether you’re a casino run by an Indian tribe or a small business run by a family, that is not a thing that politicians should be involved in,” said Piragis.
Council members as a practice don’t take action on open forum items that night, and the group - other than Novak’s brief response - did not address the series of remarks.
Novak said the council has “a lot to ponder” but did not indicate any formal action would take place.