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Is Something Fishy at the Rice Creek Watershed?

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

The best source for this information is from the Rice Creek Watershed District themselves.


RCWD Statement on Political Campaign Activity

Thursday, September 29, 2022


RCWD is aware of recent political campaign activities in the community regarding county appointments to watershed districts, the RCWD, and its Board of Managers. The RCWD Board of Managers takes care to conduct all of its business transparently and thoroughly in accordance with all legal requirements and best practices.

Manager Patricia Preiner was reappointed to the Board of Managers by the Anoka County Board of Commissioners in 2020. The City of Circle Pines challenged the process by which Anoka County made this appointment. While the district court and court of appeals held that the County’s process and appointment were proper, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that when there are three or more total city nominees for a watershed manager position, a county must make an appointment from the list of city nominees unless it finds that those nominees cannot fairly represent the various hydrologic areas within the watershed district. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court to consider whether Columbus validly nominated Manager Preiner, keeping in mind that the three-nominee requirement applies only to the aggregate list of city nominees, and to assess whether the County considered, when making the appointment, whether the nominees complied with the fair representation requirement. The Supreme Court did not conclude that Ms. Preiner was not lawfully holding her position, and the matter awaits further decision by the district court.


The RCWD issued a statement in 2020 that addresses other comments made in political campaigns:


STATEMENT of RICE CREEK WATERSHED DISTRICT

Regarding wetland banking and related issues in Anoka County – mailed campaign brochure of Dave Povolny

Adopted by the Board of Managers October 26, 2020


The Rice Creek Watershed District (RCWD) is a body formed under state law to improve, protect and manage water resources for water quality, flood management, beneficial drainage, recreation and all other public purposes. The RCWD encompasses all or part of 28 cities and towns within Ramsey, Anoka and Washington Counties over an area of 185 square miles. RCWD is governed by a board of managers appointed by the Ramsey, Anoka and Washington County Boards of Commissioners. Managers are citizens who receive a stipend for attending RCWD meetings and are reimbursed for expenses but otherwise volunteer their time and engagement. The RCWD board is composed of two managers appointed by the Ramsey County commissioners, two appointed by the Anoka County commissioners, and one appointed by the Washington County commissioners.

The RCWD has been made aware of a brochure mailed to City of Columbus residents by Dave Povolny for Mayor. The brochure contains a statement by John J. Waller, the Washington County representative on the RCWD Board. The statement puts forth several assertions of corruption by other board members and, in particular, by the two Anoka County representatives, each of whom resides in Columbus: Patricia Preiner, the board president, and Steven Wagamon, the board treasurer.

The RCWD Board of Managers takes care to conduct all of its business transparently, and scrupulously in accordance with all legal requirements and good practices with respect to matters such as manager conflict of interest and careful stewardship of taxpayer funds. Manager Waller's characterizations are misleading and his insinuations of corruption unfounded. This statement addresses each briefly.


Waller Statement: Managers Preiner and Wagamon "voted to spend $50,000 on an engineering study which ended up recommending property owned by both of their families be developed for wetland banking credits projects which would increase the value of their land immensely." They "voted for a budget containing $1.8 million over five years to fund development of their wetland credits and to market the credits for an estimated $7 million."


The RCWD is responsible to maintain an extensive network of public ditches throughout the watershed so that they continue to provide beneficial drainage for property owners and protect against regional and local flooding. Maintenance activities often involve impacts to wetlands. Under state and federal law, lost wetland area and functions must be replaced elsewhere. This may be done on a project basis, or wetland "credits" may be purchased from a property owner who has created new wetland, placed the land under permanent conservation restrictions to protect the wetland, and deposited the credits in a wetland "bank" maintained by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. This innovative "banking" program uses market concepts to achieve a better environmental outcome by encouraging the restoration of larger, formerly valuable wetland areas in place of project-by-project, piecemeal restoration.

In 2016, the RCWD reviewed its expected public ditch maintenance activities over a future planning period, and determined the amount of wetland replacement that this might require. On the basis of that assessment, the RCWD board tasked the RCWD engineer, an independent consulting firm, to identify sites throughout the watershed where the RCWD might undertake larger-scale wetland restoration to create credits that it then might bank for its own future use. This would allow the RCWD to plan its work better, and to meet its wetland replacement obligations cost-effectively.

Following notice published by the District, the engineer, working with a second firm that specializes in natural resource assessment, identified 14 potential sites for review. Reflecting the soil and water character and land use patterns within the RCWD, all sites but one were located within the cities of Lino Lakes, Columbus and Blaine. As Manager Waller indicates, two of these sites were large tracts in Columbus owned by Preiner and Wagamon family members.

In early 2018, the RCWD engineer prepared a report assessing each of the 14 sites for its suitability to be restored and the cost-effectiveness of restoration. The report identified the five highest ranked sites. The Preiner and Wagamon properties were among these five sites.

At the time it issued the report, the RCWD engineer also presented its revised assessment that the amount of wetland replacement needed for the RCWD's ditch system work would be lower than previously estimated. On the basis of the engineer's assessment, the RCWD board directed staff to develop a preliminary banking proposal for just one of the five sites. That site was neither the Preiner nor the Wagamon parcel, but rather a RCWD-owned tract of land, also located in Columbus. There was no further consideration of the Preiner or Wagamon properties, or any other of the candidate sites.

If the RCWD were to partner with a private landowner, this would occur by means of a written agreement negotiated at arms-length as a public document. Were it to involve the Preiner, Wagamon, or any other Board member’s property, the manager with an interest would not participate in the board's decision and, by state law, the action of the board approving such an agreement would need to be unanimous.

Finally, Manager Waller suggests that an RCWD wetland bank project would increase the value of the Preiner or Wagamon property "immensely." This is not true. A landowner does not need the RCWD's participation to perform wetland restoration and create wetland replacement credits. Indeed, after the RCWD ceased its review and decided not to proceed with a wetland banking project, the Preiner family proceeded on its own to develop a restoration plan to create and bank wetland credits for sale, as has at least one other property owner on the engineer’s list. Each project recently has received state and federal approvals and is proceeding.


Waller Statement: Managers Preiner and Wagamon "voted for a $31,000 salary increase for the Watershed District administrator."


This statement concerns the salary of the former District Administrator, Phil Belfiori, and is essentially correct. As the result of annual performance reviews, Mr. Belfiori received a $10,000 salary increase in 2017, and a $20,000 increase in 2018. Mr. Belfiori received strong reviews both years, and indeed in 2017 received the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts award as watershed employee of the year. This salary adjustment followed a salary review for the Administrator position performed by an independent consultant, which indicated that Mr. Belfiori's salary was well below that for comparative positions in the metropolitan area.

The RCWD board approved the 2018 increase on a 3-2 vote. Manager Waller dissented, as did a second manager, who concurred in the positive review but believed the increase to be too large. However, the decision was entirely within the discretion of the board and was approved by a board majority.

Manager Waller appears to insinuate that this salary increase was related to the self-interest of the managers who voted for it. There was no link between the wetland bank and the former administrator’s salary.


Waller Statement: When Manager Preiner was under consideration for reappointment, "the Watershed District Administrator authorized tax dollars to pay for legal advice supporting Preiner's re-appointment. This memorandum was submitted to the Anoka County Administrator. Submitting this memorandum to the County Administrator could be considered a violation of the strict separation of a government body and political office. The Watershed Board of Managers cloaked this expenditure from public disclosure by invoking attorney client privilege."


Managers serve three-year terms and are subject to reappointment by their appointing county boards. Manager Preiner's previous term ended in late 2019. At that time, the attorney for the City of Circle Pines submitted an opinion to the Anoka County Board of Commissioners asserting that the commissioners could not re-appoint Manager Preiner, and were legally obligated to appoint a replacement from a list of candidates that the City submitted. At the same time, the City Administrator wrote to the head of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to make the same argument and seek its intervention in the county's appointment process.

The statute for manager appointment gives appointment authority to county boards, but contains terms for city involvement in the process. The statute is unclear and subject to different readings.

The RCWD legal counsel has represented watershed districts for over thirty years and has considered the meaning of the statute on a number of prior occasions. The Anoka County Attorney’s office contacted RCWD counsel to discuss the interpretation of this statute. Accordingly, the RCWD attorney was asked to draft an opinion and to share it with the Anoka County attorney. The County Attorney concurred in the opinion of RCWD counsel.



The expenditure for the work of RCWD counsel was not "cloaked from public disclosure." The opinion produced by counsel is a public document, and its preparation was an ordinary expense.


Persons with further questions are invited to contact Manager Michael Bradley at mbradley@ricecreek.org or Administrator Nick Tomczik at ntomczik@ricecreek.org.


Rice Creek Watershed District | 4325 Pheasant Ridge Drive NE #611 | Blaine, MN 55449-4539 | P: (763) 398-3070 | F: (763) 398-3088





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