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Cass Sheriff, commissioner concerned with Eelpout mess

WALKER — Kevin Beal of Hackensack came to the Cass County Board Tuesday to ask, “Who is in charge of cleaning up Leech Lake following (the annual) Eel-pout Festival?”

Having already met with the city of Walker’s Park Board, he said it is his view that no one seems to be in charge.

He described Leech Lake as “the mother lake” of Leech Lake watershed. The watershed covers a large area of central Cass County where many lake associations make a major effort to keep their waters clean.

In his view, the trash, garbage and human waste left on Leech Lake following Eelpout Festival only gets worse each year.

Sheriff Tom Burch, who issues a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit each year for the event activities held on water (ice), said current event owners have been more receptive to a solution than earlier owners.

The city also issues a permit for activities held on land, but not the water (ice).

However, the sheriff’s responsibility is mainly to enforce public safety, not to manage garbage collections, Burch said.

“I think we’re at a point where enough is enough,” said Commissioner Jim Dowson, who is a former sheriff.

He described those attending Eelpout Festival as 95 percent people who are drunk — who came to party, not to fish.

“You can’t tell a drunk what to do,” he added, referring to efforts to get attendees to use garbage receptacles and portable potty facilities provided.

“We issue a permit for one of the biggest drunks in the state,” he added.

Dowson noted this is in conflict with the extensive programs the county offers to help people conquer their addiction to alcohol use such as the Wellness Court, family counseling services, detoxification, alcohol treatment services and compliance checks of businesses to make sure they don’t sell alcohol to minors.

Burch said his deputies jailed 45 people during this year’s Eelpout Festival for various offenses.

Dowson also said Eelpout Festival draws a different clientele than Moondance Jam, the summer music festival held near Walker annually under a county mass gathering permit. That event pays the sheriff $12,000 per year for law enforcement service and provides its own security personnel.

While noting that Eelpout Festival has a positive economic impact on Walker, Dowson said the cost to the sheriff and the impact on the lake may no longer make sense.

“The businessmen need to step up (to solve the garbage problem), Commissioner Jeff Peterson said.

Viewing the problem as a solid waste issue, Administrator Robert Yochum advised the board that Environmental Services Director John Ringle has offered to work with the sheriff and Eelpout event owner to draft a solid waste disposal plan before next winter.

That clean-up plan would have to be followed or the sheriff would have grounds to deny any future DNR permit application for Eelpout Festival, Yochum said.

In that case, the event owner could instead apply for a mass gathering permit, which has stricter criteria and requires a greater expenditure of money to comply.

Currently, the county’s mass gathering ordinance requires either the DNR permit or a mass gathering permit to hold an event where large numbers of people are expected to attend an event on water/ice.

Until about six years ago, all larger events additionally did require a mass gathering permit even if the event also required a DNR permit.

In other business relating to the sheriff’s office Tuesday, the board authorized Burch to install additional cameras in the jail at Walker and to wire those so the dispatchers can view all jail areas from the dispatch center. Current cameras can only be viewed by jailers within the jail.

This change will enable the county to hold more inmates at the jail in Walker without adding more jailers.

Burch reported he has started a pilot program to have deputies stop at the schools in Remer and Pillager during the day when they are not on a call to walk through school buildings and to write some of their reports in a room at the school.

It is a way to increase law enforcement presence at schools without taking officers away from their job of responding to calls, he said. Other schools may be added in the future, he said.