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Ordinance to govern public gatherings sparks debate

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No one in the audience spoke up during a public hearing at Tuesday’s Carlton County Board meeting regarding an ordinance that would govern public gatherings in the county. But commissioners and department heads had a lot to say about it nonetheless.

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The proposed ordinance, patterned after ones already in effect in Aitkin and other Minnesota counties, would require anyone planning an assembly of 300 or more people to first secure a permit through the county. The cost of the permit, as currently proposed, would be $500.

There are plenty of exceptions to the assembly ordinance, however. It would only apply to areas of the county outside the cities of Cloquet or Moose Lake, as well as Thomson Township, all of whom have their own zoning ordinances. Events such as weddings, township festivals or reunions held on private property would also be exempt, as would any event held in permanent structures such as churches or athletic facilities.

The Board would also have the right to waive the cost of the permit for an applicant, or the permit itself could be waived entirely.

The reasoning behind the ordinance, according to Carlton County Transportation Director Mike Tardy, is ultimately to protect public health, safety and welfare. The permit would require that anyone hosting such an event would have adequate facilities and safety precautions in place before it is held and notify whatever necessary law enforcement and/or road officials of their intent.

“An event of that size places a burden on the public for extra security, signage and traffic control,” explained Carlton County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert in justifying the cost of permit.

Planning and Environmental Services Director Heather Cunningham added that of special concern would be any events that create a large amount of traffic in and out of the event venue and/or which serve alcohol.

Commissioner Bob Olean said he’d had a few calls from constituents voicing concern that the county may be crossing the line regarding people’s constitutional right of assembly with the proposed ordinance.

Land Commissioner Greg Bernu suggested that the ordinance might sit better with the public if the word “assembly” was replaced with some other verbiage such as “public gathering” or “event” in the wording of the ordinance.

Sheriff Kelly Lake pointed out that Carlton County would not be the first to enact such an ordinance, saying that many counties and cities throughout the state already have such laws in place.

Assistant Carlton County Attorney Jesse Berglund said that his office believes that the legality surrounding such an ordinance is more a matter of how it is enforced.

“It’s important that it is enforced in a fair and balanced way,” said Berglund. “If a politically popular group such as the Boy Scouts is having an event, they can’t be given any different consideration from a group that’s not so popular such as the Hell’s Angels. I would urge the Board to get the county attorney’s office involved if there’s a matter of concern.”

Commissioner Dick Brenner questioned if the proposed ordinance would affect assemblies on the Fond du Lac Reservation, and Cunningham explained that it would not, because the reservation operates independently under its treaty rights.

There was additional discussion over if or when the county should consider waiving the permit fee for some who apply, and a few of the commissioners felt that nonprofits should be given consideration over those whose events are designed to make money for the event-holder. Others disagreed, saying that many nonprofits also plan to make money off their events, if only to support a stated cause.

The public hearing on the ordinance came to a close with no further discussion, but commissioners agreed to discuss it further and act on it, possibly as early as their 4 p.m. July 28 meeting.

In other business to come before the Board, Bernu informed commissioners that representatives of Kennecott Minerals will hold an informative meeting on mineral leases in the county at the Transportation Building on Tuesday, July 22, with a time yet to be determined.

Bids were awarded to Ulland Brothers for a road construction project at Highways 45 and 61 in Scanlon and new turn lanes at the intersections of Brevator Road and Trettel Lane along County Road 7 (Big Lake Road).

The Board unanimously endorsed legislation to allow for a recreational levy in Sawyer Township in support of the Four Seasons Sports Complex.

Employee service awards were presented to Sheriff Kelly Lake for 25 years, David Hufford of the Transportation Department for 20 years, Joseph Mattinen of the Sheriff’s Department for 20 years and Peggy Erkkila of Public Health and Human Services for 20 years.

The location of the Aug. 12 regular session of the Board was changed to the Carlton County Community Services Building in Cloquet at 8:30 a.m. in the St. Louis River Room, due to the need to use the regular meeting space for primary elections.

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