Pro-mining group fills council chambers, council postpones decision on resolution

by Nick Wognum
The fuse was lit with a full house at Wednesday’s Ely city council meeting but the main event took place after nearly everyone left.
Pro-mining supporters filled nearly every chair in the council chambers and many stood along the walls.
That left some wooden chairs outside the room for those opposed. But when the sign carrying pro-mining group left midway through the meeting, Becky Rom and her group moved in and did the majority of speaking at the end of the meeting.
If Rom and her group were looking for the Ely city council to suddenly have a change of heart on supporting Twin Metals Minnesota and PolyMet mining projects, that didn’t happen.
Council member Al Forsman wore a blue “We Support Mining” shirt and the council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the two copper-nickel ventures.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said the resolution supporting Twin Metals and Polymet would normally be on the consent agenda and not read.
Novak went on to read the resolution word for word. A roll call vote was passed six to nothing with applause following. Angela Campbell was absent.
“Cmon folks this isn’t a rally,” said Novak banging the gavel.
Scheduled under “requests to appear,” Rom went to the podium and repeatedly asked for 15 minutes to speak.
Rom has admonished Novak for 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 the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (of which Bois Forte is a member) 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 that could last for decades.
Novak told Rom on Wednesday that normally the council asks citizens of Ely to speak on issues.
Council member Jerome Debeltz went further, telling Rom since she is a township resident she should go to the Morse board.
“I operate a business in Ely and I pay taxes in Ely,” said Rom, who never said what business she owns.
Rom is on the board of Save the Boundary Waters which operates out of a converted home at 206 E. Sheridan St.
However, that parcel ownership is listed as Steve and Nancy Piragis.
Rom did say two of the people listed to speak are city residents.
City resident Carol Orban said the group wants the council to pass a resolution that the city of Ely does not support a boycott of the Bois Forte Band casino or any other business.
Novak explained the council does not normally take action during requests to appear.
“This is going to be moved forward and brought up at a later meeting,” said Novak. “We want to discuss this with legal counsel.”
The council went on to pass a motion to have the clerk’s office and city attorney properly prepare the proposed resolution.
Council member Paul Kess asked if the resolution can be amended.
“We can amend it,” said Novak.
After the motion passed, Rom asked to continue speaking for 15 minutes.
“It’s up to 15 minutes, there’s no guarantee,” said Novak. “We’ve already disposed of the issue.”
Prior to Rom speaking, the council had heard from three people on the issue of non-profit organizations not being allowed in the Blueberry/Art Festival (see separate story).
“You allowed them to have presentations you are not allowing us. That seems like a discriminatory pattern,” said Rom.
This drew groans from the crowd holding pro-mining signs in the council chambers.
“Cmon out there, I don’t want to put another dent in my gavel block,” said Novak.
Rom asked to continue speaking. Novak asked the council what they would like.
“You already made your point,” said Debeltz.
Council member Ryan Callen said he agreed with Debeltz.
Council member Heidi Omerza said, “I’m under a time crunch tonight, I’m ready to move on.”
Council member Paul Kess said, “I’m looking forward to a discussion on this resolution that is developed. I’m not sure who will develop it and whether it will have the language you have. I think we can anticipate that at the next meeting.”
Council member Al Forsman said, “It would behoove us to make sure we are proceeding properly and I would want to refer this to our attorney.”
City attorney Kelly Klun said the time frame someone is allowed to speak is at the discretion of the council.
Peta Barrett and Rom argued the resolution should be voted on at Wednesday’s meeting.
Novak said, “The council has spoken, we’re going to take this up at the next council meeting. This isn’t a platform or whatever. We’re going to go according to the procedure that I follow in Robert’s Rules and with the pleasure of the council. At that point all I can say is we’re going to move on the agenda.”
This was greeted with catcalls from those standing in the doorway including “boo” and “chicken” and “vote him out.”
Fifteen minutes after Rom went to the podium, Novak called for a five minute recess and most of the people in the audience left the meeting.
At the end of the agenda the council has a section for “public forum” where people are given five minutes to speak.
Back to the podium came Rom. By that point Omerza had left the meeting leaving Novak, Kess, Debeltz and Callen at the tables in front.
Rom said Novak urged a boycott of Fortune Bay in the Feb. 14 tweet. She also claimed the Bois Forte band did not oppose taconite mining.
Rom said, “The tribe to the best of my knowledge has not taken a stand against taconite mining.”
However, the 1854 Treaty Authority has opposed U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine’s application to expand taconite mining operations.
The 1854 Treaty Authority is an inter-tribal agency governed by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
In a Feb. 10 letter to the Minnesota DNR, the 1854 Treaty Authority recommends the DNR “deny approval of the application” from Minntac.
On Friday Fortune Bay’s Brian Anderson issued a statement on the issue:
“On February 10, 2020, the 1854 Treaty Authority submitted a letter objecting to U.S. Steel’s request to expand its Minntac mining operations. While the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Bois Forte Band coordinate on resource management issues, the 1854 Treaty Authority does not speak on behalf of the Bois Forte Tribal Government. The Bois Forte Band has not objected to U.S. Steel’s request and does not intend to do so.“
Rom went on to say Novak’s Twitter feed had exploded and that people intend to boycott Ely because of what Novak wrote.
After five minutes, Novak told Rom her time was up but she continued speaking.
“You always say one more thing and you’re here for hours,” said Novak. “Go ahead, finish.”
“I encourage the city of Ely to host an event at Fortune Bay to compensate for the loss of business incurred by the Bois Forte band,” said Rom.
Novak took issue with Rom’s statements and noted his Twitter account is a personal account.
“I suspect you and your posse weaponized Twitter,” said Novak.
He said some of the responses had nothing to do with copper-nickel mining including comments on big oil and fracking.
“These are people who are your supporters. I don’t know what they’re being told but to me that doesn’t sound like factual truth to me,” said Novak.
He said his support of Senator Bakk was because of the trades.
“I would think as good Democrats you would like Senator Bakk to move that event, begin his fundraising, and support his efforts to take Democrat control of the state Senate. But I guess your issue is more important than that,” said Novak.
He then addressed the charges of boycotting and racism levelled by Rom’s group. At a previous council meeting, both Barrettt and Betty Firth made the case that there were racial overtones in Novak’s remarks.
“I’m not boycotting, I never used the word boycott,” said Novak. “And another epithet thrown at me that I found extremely offensive.
“I’ve got to tell you, being referred to as being racist doesn’t get any more personal than that…and you want me to respect your sole opinion…I’m tired of the insult. Always the insult, the insult, and that’s your tactics. So I’m done with this issue at this point. If the council wants to admonish me that’s their choice. That’s all I have to say I’m done with it,” said Novak.
Orban asked that the council to seriously consider the resolution.
“If you don’t vote for this it will leave this issue unresolved in the public spirit and I would appreciate as a resident of Ely that the council shows that they don’t want people in the city of Ely to discriminate against any business,” said Orban.
Debeltz said he’s been on the council now for 27 years.
“I have a real problem because I sit here and listen to one side of the issue. One of you people called him a racist. Are you going to apologize to him for saying that? Or are you going to say we don’t have to apologize. If you do something wrong you should apologize too,” said Debeltz.
Barrettt spoke next but didn’t respond to Debeltz’s request for an apology.
“I’m here to support our neighbors to the west the Chippewa tribe,” said Barrett. “To support a boycott …seems real counterproductive.”
Debeltz again responded and said he used to work at Fortune Bay and has friends there.
“You can’t come up here and say you want the mayor to apologize but if you guys do something we don’t have to. If you lose an argument, that’s the first thing you say is are you racist? You don’t win an argument by calling people names,” said Debeltz.
Steve Piragis addressed the council next and did addresss the racism charges levelled by Barrett and Firth.
“When you call for a boycott of a Native American owned casino that issue is going to pop up,” said Piragis. “I don’t believe Mayor Novak or Senator Bakk is racist.”
He said the discussion should be on the word boycott.
“If there’s a misinterpretation of what we thought I apologize for that,” said Piragis.
Kess said, “I don’t think the mayor used the word boycott.”
Forsman said just like President Donald Trump, the mayor has a right to speak for himself.
He added the resolution is already addressed in the city’s mission, vision and values statements.
“We are a welcoming and a fair council I think. Yet we are individuals,” said Forsman.
Ely resident Mike Banovetz was one of the few holdovers from the large group of pro-mining supporters and was the last to speak.
“I’m here to voice my opinion about the careless and thoughtless use of calling people racists or using the word racism. The anti-mine zealots have created a significant amount of community divisiveness with what I feel is there mean, derogatory, and disgusting comments from the likes of anti-mine leaders Becky Rom and her husband Reid Carron.
“Now we have very disturbing use of race baiting by other anti-mine zealots Peta Barrettt and Betty Firth. There is no condemnation or repudiation of these people’s reckless use of racism accusations by any of the other anti-mine zealots, and thus, at minimum, they give this repugnant behavior tacit approval.
“To be clear, I’m not here to defend comments by Mayor Novak and I’m also not here to criticize him. And I’m not here to condemn Fortune Bay for their unfortunate stance about copper nickel mining projects, it is their right to do so. But I also do not need to reward the Fortune Bay casino and nor does anyone else who disagrees with what the Tribal Council did, it is our right to do so. I also do not need to reward any other business for the same reasons.
“I will fight tooth and nail for the legitimate and legal process established by the National Environmental Protection Act and will fight against those who thwart the environmentally responsible advancement of these projects, it is my right to do so.
“I do not want the city council kowtowing to these environmental bullies, especially since they have gotten to the very low, offensive and disturbing new low of mouthing off racist comments,” said Banovetz.