The Pine County board could have heated meetings in the months ahead, according to one commissioner, if it allows an electronic sign on land owned by the county.
Commissioner Stephen Hallan of Pine City brought forward a request for a group to lease space in front of the old county courthouse in Pine City to advertise community events.
The sign would cost $30,000 and the group would pay for all costs associated with it. Hallan said the fundraising would probably be spearheaded by Kevin Anderson and the Pine City Chamber of Commerce. Hallan said the sign would be used for advertising events such as the Lions pancake breakfast, fishing contests, fair and Arts in the Park.
Fellow Commissioner Mitch Pangerl of Pine City stated he was against the proposed lease of land.
Having an electronic sign in the community has been controversial in the Pine City school system, which formerly had a sign outside the elementary school that was used for community events. In 2000, the sign was erected, with $10,000 coming from the Greater Pine Area Endowment, to promote school and community events.
It was used by more than 20 community groups until this year when Pride in the Park wanted space to promote their event on the sign. Soon thereafter, the school board decided to only use the sign for school events, stating that some members of the public did not support the Pride in the Park message in front of the school.
Pangerl, who said “one bad apple that advertised on that sign,” said he got 30 phone calls on it. The school district, after limiting the message on the sign, refunded the $10,000 donation.
“They (the school board) have had a lot of heated meetings,” Pangerl told his fellow board members. “It turned into a pretty big ordeal.”
Pangerl said the board should be very cautious in allowing a sign on county property, saying the county would not have any idea what would be on the sign.
New board Chair Curt Rossow of Willow River asked if the county would be starting a precedent in allowing other community organizations to use county lands to help promote their events.
County Attorney John Carlson was asked for his input on the issue. He said the county could not discriminate against any group, saying, “It would then be the government supporting only one side of the message.”
“When the government becomes involved, how do you control the message?” asked Carlson. “Everyone would have access to that sign.”
Hallan said the county would not be the content filter on the sign and said “some had heartburn” when the gay pride picnic was advertised.
County Administrator David Minke said the issue was a difficult, complex conversation that needed a legal answer.
“Can you craft a lease (for a sign) that would withstand a court challenge?” Minke asked the board.
To date, Carlson said he has found no other county that has allowed a community sign on its land.
“Just one bad apple would wreck this whole thing,” Pangerl said.
“We would get right in the middle of the fight,” added Commissioner Matt Ludwig of Sandstone.
“At some point, someone will be offended on what is on the sign,” Minke added.
Carlson added the group asking him questions about it clearly wanted to promote the gay pride festival if a sign was put on county property.
“Some people would say don’t put it on. Others would say put it on,” Carlson said.
“They clearly want to put the gay pride festival on a sign on county land,” Carlson said.
Hallan said it was unfortunate that one group having a sign on the property for three days would offend others.
“That piece of property is in the center of the community and it’s a great place to have that sign,” Hallan said.
The board agreed to have Carlson investigate to see, if the county were to lease the land, how it could reduce the county’s exposure to legal action. It was unanimously approved.