Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering ousted as board chair

Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken makes a successful motion at the start of the Tuesday, Aug. 11, board of commissioners meeting to make first-time Commissioner Steve Barrows the new county board chair and Commissioner Doug Houge the new vice chair, effective immediately, to the apparent bewilderment of then-Board Chair Paul Koering who publicly supported Houge’s primary opponent in Houge’s re-election campaign.

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering (center) turns to Commissioner Bill Brekken at the Tuesday, Aug. 11., board meeting during Brekken's motion to appoint Commissioner Steve Barrows (lower left) as the new board chair and Commissioner Doug Houge (right) as vice chair, effective immediately, which would replace Koering and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen (second from right) as chair and vice chair, respectively. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering began the board of commissioners meeting as chairman. He did not end it that way.

Commissioner Bill Brekken made a startling motion at the start of the Tuesday, Aug. 11, meeting to appoint commissioners Steve Barrows and Doug Houge as chair and vice chair, respectively, effectively unseating Koering as chair and elevating Barrows from vice chair.

“I guess I was surprised. But on the other hand, I was not surprised because, you know, I’ve been saying this all along: You’ve got these three that are in essence running the county board,” Koering said by phone about Brekken, Barrows and Houge during a closed meeting recess.

Koering endorsed Michael Starry, a first-time candidate in the three-way race in District 5 in Tuesday’s primary and one of Houge’s opponents, the other being Tom Nixon. Koering’s vocal support of Starry did not sit well with some of the commissioners.

“How my motion came about is that I truly believe that choices and actions have consequences, and that’s really why I thought I needed to make that motion — to bring change about,” Brekken said by phone during the recess of the livestreamed meeting that was plagued by technical issues.


Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken finishes making a motion at the Tuesday, Aug. 11, board meeting to appoint fellow first-timer Commissioner Steve Barrows as chair and Commissioner Doug Houge as vice chair, effective immediately, which would unseat Commissioner Paul Koering and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen from those respective yearlong positions. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

August surprise

Koering appeared taken aback by the first-time commissioner’s desire to appoint another first-timer as chair of the five-member board. The motion was for the change to be effective immediately and last throughout the rest of Koering’s yearlong term.

“Mr. Houle, help me out?” Koering, a two-term county board member, asked County Administrator Tim Houle after Brekken made the motion, which was before the recess to address the technical problems the county was having during the meeting.

Koering represents District 1, which includes the southern portion of the county, and the South Long Lake resident has served as county board chair before in his eight years on the board, according to Houle, who went into more detail about the role of the chair during the recess.

“They help to set the board agenda, so if I have a question about anything that’s going to go on the board agenda, I would take that up with the board chair and they make committee appointments for things that are not statutorily defined,” Houle said by phone during the break.

Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle provides the county board at its Tuesday, Aug. 11, meeting with some guidance regarding the procedure to select a board chair and a vice chair. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch


Koering has said — based on talks he had with Starry — he believes the 49-year-old candidate “would be right for Crow Wing County.” Koering, who defines himself as a fiscal conservative, said he shares Starry’s disdain for governmental interference.

“They want more staff, they want to levy more taxes on people, more control of people’s lives. That’s what these three are all about. And me being the chair, I kind of was in their way, I guess, for their agenda,” Koering said of Brekken, Barrows and Houge during the meeting recess.

Barrows said after the meeting, “I don't like to compare my leadership with anybody else's. But what I will say about my leadership is that it is to be respectful to each other. It is to provide equal opportunity for each one of them to speak on the issues.”

Starry said last month Commissioner Rosemary Franzen told him she hopes he wins the election and that he had received advice from her, including how to file for office and the benefits of using campaign signs. She denied, however, supporting Starry in an email to the Dispatch, beyond directing him on how to file.

“I hope things calm down a little bit, but I probably don’t expect that in the near future,” Barrows said after the meeting.

County board candidate Michael Starry. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

A Houge factor

Houge seconded Brekken’s motion at Tuesday’s board meeting, which was not followed by any discussion by the commissioners, and it proceeded with a roll call vote. Brekken, Barrows and Houge voted for the motion while Franzen and Koering voted against Brekken’s motion.


“OK, I guess I’m no longer the chair. I don’t know what that’s all about but,” Koering said before swinging the gavel for the last time after the motion passed for him to step down. “OK, so, Commissioner Barrows, you’re the, you’re the chair.”

Houge has served 13 years on the board and returned as chair of the board in 2017 following a 4-1 vote. His then-reappointment for a second consecutive year was a departure from recent county board tradition, which most often resulted in the elevation of the vice chair to chair.

“I don’t editorialize or anything when I’m running a meeting. I don’t believe that’s the chair's position,” Barrows said.

Traditionally, the board has rotated the chair position among the board members.

“Once a year, they have to do this, so by statute they have an organizational meeting. It’s their first meeting of the year … and the first order of business is to elect the county board chair and vice chair — typically it’s for the year, so this is very unusual,” Houle said during the recess.

Former Commissioner Paul Thiede served as vice chair in 2016 and was the only one who opposed the motion made in 2017 to reappoint Houge. Former Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom made the motion to appoint Houge as 2017 chairman and Franzen as vice chair.

That motion, which called for unanimous approval, was seconded in 2017 by Franzen and defeated at the board’s first meeting of 2017 when Thiede voted against it, but a second motion seeking majority approval of Houge's nomination passed 4-1.

“It certainly will create new challenges,” Houle said by phone of Tuesday’s change in board leadership. “But we’re always up to new challenges. We’ll figure it out.”


Brekken represents District 2 and he said he contacted Barrows to see if the District 3 commissioner would be willing to serve as chair before the motion was made to appoint him.

“After the article in the Brainerd Dispatch, where I was very clear of my support for Michael Starry for commissioner in District 5, I’m assuming that they probably all three got together, which is a violation of the Open Meeting Law … to remove me as the chair, which I guess I’m really not surprised by it,” Koering said during the recess about Brekken, Barrows and Houge.

After the board meeting, Barrows said he and Brekken talked Monday at StoneHouse Coffee & Roastery in NIsswa about Brekken’s idea to make the motion to remove Koering as chair. Barrows said he tried to talk Brekken out of the motion. And Barrows said it was only the two of them and therefore not a violation of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.

“And I said to him I would not second the motion, especially because in his proposal I would have been put in the chair position, and I don’t want anybody to think that I was trying to self-serve my being put in that position,” Barrows said after Tuesday’s board meeting.

Crow Wing County Commissioner Doug Houge, who represents District 5, faces two other opponents in the Tuesday, Aug. 11, primary election in his bid for re-election. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Starry’s alignments

According to commissioners’ emails, Franzen and Koering may have first aligned with Starry when he led the charge for a resolution that would have declared Crow Wing County as Second Amendment-dedicated. That resolution did not ultimately receive majority support.

“I guess I don’t know what their point was in removing me in the middle of the year. But I understand what it is: It’s retribution against me for trying to get rid of one of their cohorts,” Koering said during the recess.


The rest of Tuesday’s meeting continued without disagreement, with one notable exception by Koering, who asked Franzen about Houge’s attendance at a couple of meetings of the Natural Resources Advisory Committee. Franzen replied Houge was not at certain meetings.

“OK, that doesn’t surprise me any,” Koering said.

Soon after is when Koering and Barrows began talking over one another — the former chair and the new chair.

“I’m going to say as the chair that at these meetings we need to show respect for one another at every opportunity,” Barrows said before telling Koering later he was out of line.

Koering replied, “You didn’t show respect for me when you removed me as the chair. I’d like to know what the reason is! What is the reason? ... Bill, what is the reason? It’s retribution, it’s retribution because I’m supporting somebody else! And that’s what it is.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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