Red Wing mayor defends sand mine lobbying job

Dennis Egan
Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan. Since the mayor publicly acknowledged his lobbying role with a silica sand mining industry group, some residents and city leaders have said the position poses a conflict of interest.
MPR photo/Elizabeth Baier

The Red Wing City Council is calling for an independent investigation into Mayor Dennis Egan's new position as executive director of a lobbying group for the silica sand industry.

Since the mayor publicly acknowledged his role with the industry group last week, some residents and city leaders have said the position poses a conflict of interest. Red Wing is one of a number of Minnesota communities where silica sand mining has become a contentious issue.

At a City Council meeting with dozens of residents present, Egan defended his position on the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, a group of companies with interests in silica sand mining. As a lobbyist who has represented other clients at the State Capitol, he said his critics were being "unreasonable."

"For me to pick and choose my livelihood and a client of mine, versus the mayor, in my eyes -- and I understand there are other people that disagree with me -- I don't think that's a reasonable request," he said, adding that he had nothing but the "upmost respect" for Red Wing's citizens and community.

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Still, the Council voted unanimously Monday night to hire an outside investigator to gather more information on Egan's contract and pay with the sand council, and to look at other potential conflicts of interest that his lobbying work may pose for the city.

While Egan's new position on the sand council does not appear to violate either the city's code of ethics or code of conduct, Council President Lisa Bayley said the public's perception of conflict may need to play a role moving forward.

"I'm very concerned about your ability to continue to operate and represent the city" with what she called "shaken public confidence," Bayley said. "I just don't see how these two positions are compatible."

Silica sand
A truck dumps a load of silica sand at Modern Transport Rail loading terminal in Winona, Minn on Feb. 13, 2012. The stockpile has become an icon that frames the local debate about the sand rush -- and the complex decisions and opinions of all parties involved. The arrival of silica sand-related businesses to southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin has sparked controversy and discussion across the region.
AP Photo/The Winona Daily News, Andrew Link

Bayley asked Egan to choose between his role as mayor and executive director of the sand council. She said the city shouldn't need to spend money to investigate the mayor's position with a lobbying group.

"A week and a half ago, we didn't even know about this issue. I really kind of resent being put in this position -- that we're the ones being made to make this call," she said. "We'll do what we can within the limited confines of state statute and our code of ethics and go from there, and really just keep an open mind about how we go forward."

For his part, Egan said he will recuse himself if the city gets any formal silica sand mining requests.

Although the city is not currently considering any sand mining proposals, residents like Marlene de Boef questioned Egan's ability to balance the two jobs.

"If you are mayor, you are mayor every day, all day. You are the face of Red Wing for the outside world. And you can't say, 'Well, this afternoon, I am not going to be mayor,' because the perception is, you are mayor all the time," de Boef said.

It's unclear how long the city's investigation into Mayor Egan's position will take. A group of citizens has also started to gather signatures for a petition to recall the mayor.