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Crow Wing County commissioner remains mum, supporters speak up

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Doug Kern of Brainerd defends Commissioner Paul Koering's character during the open forum portion of the Tuesday, April 9, meeting of the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
Doug Kern of Brainerd supports Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering during the open forum portion of the Tuesday, April 9, board meeting. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch 3 / 3

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering didn't say much at the latest board meeting, but his supporters had plenty to say after his comments regarding methamphetamine addicts last month incurred the wrath of others.

The elected official was subdued during the open forum Tuesday, April 9, as residents spoke on his behalf and about his earlier remarks about the county's drug problem.

Koering's defenders believed the former Minnesota state senator's statements at the March 19 committee of the whole meeting were blown out of proportion in a Sunday Brainerd Dispatch editorial taking Koering to task for his comments.

"I don't know why we're in such a big hurry to save somebody that's like this? I guess it sounds kind of harsh, but—I don't know—it kind of gets rid of a problem, in my mind," Koering said at the March 19 public meeting.

"I'm here to support Paul Koering—100 percent," said Myrta Crackel, a 76-year-old from Brainerd who went on to say she was considering canceling her subscription.

According to data released last month by the Minnesota Department of Health, suicide and opioid overdose deaths rose in the state in 2017, continuing a trend started in 2000 and reaching record levels.

Koering controversy

Koering didn't publicly elaborate on his comments at last month's informational meeting, which included other county officials—nor did he, after Tuesday's meeting, deny making them.

"We have elected entities like yourselves making decisions for us," said Marian Kapusta, 78, of Brainerd, during Tuesday's open forum at the county board meeting. "Well, Paul's comments could and were taken offensively. Some people in the media did just this, but I support Paul bringing up issues that others may not or have been reluctant to do so. Let's not crucify him because he brought up these issues."

Crow Wing County native Koering faced criticism locally and from outside the region, particularly on social media, for the seemingly callous or indifferent remarks he made about the methamphetamine problem in the county.

Crystal McCormick of Crosby and Tashya Swenson of Brainerd shared their struggles with addiction at the March 27 board meeting and spoke again at Tuesday's meeting. They belong to Sober Squad, a support group for those struggling with drugs, alcohol or any other addiction.

"Aitkin County is doing a drug forum, an open drug forum, so basically the community is getting together and discussing solutions to the drug problem, and I think that would be something that we should do here in our community, get the community more involved," Swenson said.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of deaths due to overdose has been on the rise since 2002, from more than 20,000 in the U.S. to more than 50,000 in 2015.

The Brainerd Dispatch's editorial Sunday took issue with Koering's expressed views at last month's committee of the whole meeting. Editorials are written by the Brainerd Dispatch editorial board as a whole, without the reporting staff's participation. Editorial board members include Pete Mohs, publisher; Terry McCollough, former publisher; Matt Erickson, editor; Renee Richardson, managing editor; Nancy Vogt, Echo Journal editor; and Miranda Anderson, community representative.

"At best Koering's comments were made out of a lack of knowledge regarding meth, but we don't buy that, especially not when considering his long tenure as an elected official, including a stint in the Minnesota Senate," the Dispatch editorial stated. "At worst, Koering's comments reveal a lack of compassion and understanding—not only of the drug itself, but of the values of this community."

Doug Kern of Brainerd is a business owner and was among the more than half of a dozen people who spoke up during the open forum in support of Koering.

"I read this article, here, from the Dispatch ... and when I read it, it really, really irritated me, to say the least," Kern said about the editorial, from which he read aloud passages. "Paul has seen the effects of drugs in our community, and I don't know if the no-name opinion column writer has that history in this community."

Kern told the commissioners he has eight sisters and five brothers, and more than 60 nieces and nephews, and said because of his extended family, his family has been "touched by meth."

"I remember the day that Paul came to an apartment where me and my sister were standing there waiting for my nephew to be carried out. He overdosed on meth here in town," Kern said of Koering's previous county work of transporting the deceased to the coroner. "I remember Paul standing there, trying to hold himself together, trying not to bawl, because this is a young man. And when he stood there, he still comforted my sister, still comforted my nieces and nephews that were there. I mean he took the time to just be decent."

The average number of children last year in the county in out-of-home placement per month was about 180, and the expenditures for out-of-home placement rose from about $2.5 million in 2014 to almost $5.5 million last year in correlation with parental meth use.

"Right now, we've lost one nephew, one brother-in-law, had a niece that overdosed at Walmart. ... Something's wrong with that. ... I do understand Paul's frustration. ... I understand the frustration of 'How much money is enough to fix the problem?'" Kern said. "But what really, really bothers me—more than the comment that was made (by Koering), it was an off-the-cuff comment—what really bothers me is the no-name editorial by the Dispatch that enjoys selling papers more than creating community."

Dispatch editorial

The Dispatch editorial stated about community: "Ignoring the problem is not a solution. Turning our backs on the problem is not a solution. Wondering if it would be better to let someone addicted to meth die is not a solution. We certainly hope that is a lesson Koering will learn."

"When you write an editorial like that without even putting your name to it, talk about causing division," Kern asserted of the editorial that called for "empathy, not our derision."

Edith Schuppel of Brainerd also came to the embattled District 1 commissioner's defense, especially against his critics on social media who called for his recall or removal from office.

"I did live in Paul's district. In fact, we just moved. Anyway, I came to support Paul because I've watched his work through the years. I know he's a competent, responsible representative—no matter what position he has taken," Schuppel said. "One comment among a discussion in a colleague situation just doesn't represent a person. Those comments are made sometimes to get a reaction, sometimes to initiate some discussion, sometimes out of frustration, but one comment doesn't represent a person."

Commissioner Steve Barrows got in the last word about Koering's controversial comments about letting drug addicts die before the meeting was adjourned. The former Baxter City Council member worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Services for almost three decades.

"We must not turn a blind eye to these individuals and families but continue to strive to find initiatives that will have a positive outcome for those individuals, families and for our county," Barrows said. "Every one of us is important. Are we perfect? No. But let's not give up and be thankful for the second, third or more chances we were given in our life."

Frank Lee

Voted most likely in high school ... "not to be voted most likely for anything," my irreverent humor (and blatant disregard for the Oxford comma) is only surpassed by a flair for producing online videos to accompany unbiased articles about Crow Wing County about, say, how your taxes are being spent, by your elected officials, on issues or topics that matter to YOU.

Writing local feature stories about interesting people in the community, however, and watching and discussing movies are among my passions. ... Follow me on Twitter at either of these accounts: @DispatchFL (for news) or @BDfilmforum (for movies).

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