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Commentaries: Fear-mongering rules the day in Red Wing

The resignation of Mayor Dennis Egan is not about sand mining as much as it is about the disintegration of city politics into a mindless morass of mud-slinging and misinformation.

We have been close observers of local government for some 50 years and, generally, great admirers of it for being a wonderful custodian of the city's best interests. In all that time, we can't recall a previous incident when fear-mongering, demagoguery and character assassination have reached such a crescendo.

There is a legitimate discussion that can be had about the merits/demerits of whether the Red Wing mayor should represent a sand mining association, just as there might have been in the past when, for example, the mayor was in fact a nuclear physicist at the time the permits were being granted for the Prairie Island nuclear plant or when we had a union leader as mayor when critical contracts were being negotiated with city employees, etc. 

But in the current case, the prospect of an intellectual and reasoned discussion was never joined. It went straight to invective. 

Egan was tarred and feathered with fury on the assumption -- purely unproven -- that he had signed up to make Barn Bluff disappear into an endless convoy of dump trucks.

Here, let us make our prejudice clear: Anyone who says all sand mining is bad or, contrarily, who says mining is unconditionally an economic benefit is a fool.

Mining, highly regulated, has a place in our energy future. Mining which negatively impacts the bluffs, our transportation infrastructure, our waters -- either above ground or below -- or our air quality needs to be examined very closely. The regulators charged with those tasks seem to be firmly in place, as is being demonstrated clearly by the Wisconsin mining operation just across the river. The latter is a conclusion based on personal inspection.

Egan was run out of office not because he had actually done anything to promote mining locally. He was run out on the basis of guilt by association. 

The vicious technique was promulgated by the late Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin U.S. senator, near the middle of the last century. It's disheartening to see it return in the Red Wing council chamber.

To be sure, Egan brought some of this on himself. The benefit of hindsight allows us to speculate that an alternative path might have been to sit down with the City Council in an open meeting. He might have said that he was taking this job because it's a completely legitimate one in his profession and that, by the way, I need to feed my family. He might have invited the council to talk about the rules of the road and about how to avoid conflicts.

To be sure also, the council could have had the backbone to stare down the lynch mob and do something other than to declare its own incompetence at conducting an internal examination of the situation. 

Does anyone really believe that an unspecified outside investigator could come up with a better solution than a calm and reasonable conversation among locally elected officials? In the process, he might have gotten credit for being a highly constructive mayor and former Chamber of Commerce executive.

Everything in Egan's years as mayor suggests that he is an honorable person who listens carefully to constituents and keeps his word. He is a victim of the acceptance of voters of political leaders who find it insufficient to merely engage opponents with the intent not only to destroy their points of view but also to destroy them as individuals. In Egan's case, the invective spread to his family in cutting and bitter ways.

Let's look at Egan in the worst possible light. Let's say he joined the mining barons in a conspiracy to bulldoze the land, clog the roads and befoul our air and water. He would have been stopped in his tracks. The city has in effect an anti-mining position on record. By definition of the city charter, we have a "weak mayor" system. Egan knows that; he's not stupid. Besides, any sign of becoming a mining zealot would be dealt with by the voters. Give 'em some credit.

Being mayor of any small town is largely a thankless job; critics come in bunches and credits come infrequently. This episode has narrowed severely the talent pool for future mayors. Among the candidates will be those setting to prove themselves as more anti-mining than the next person.

Meantime, reasoned discourse on truly serious Red Wing issues will increasingly be forced to demonstrate that it has the ability to prevail against the interest group that shouts the loudest and is the most skillful at fear-mongering.