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Ann Sullivan gives a county update and talks about the role of the Cook County Board of Commissioners
Kirsten Wisniewski

Ann Sullivan gives a county update and talks about the role of the Cook County Board of Commissioners

The most recent Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting included robust conversation about what the role of the Commissioners entails. The question was raised around several subjects, including planning and committees during the meeting on May 28.


One function of the Board of Commissioners is to give final approval of Conditional Use Permits (CUPs). The applications often come with a recommendation from the Cook County Planning Commission to either grant or deny the request. Some requests also include endorsement by the township where a property is located. At the May 28 meeting, the board discussed a CUP that would allow a property owner to build and use a small cabin as a vacation rental. The request also included a yurt on the property in which the property owner would reside. The property is located outside of Lutsen, and the request was recommended for approval from the Planning Commission.

Before the commissioners voted to approve the CUP, Commissioner Dave Mills raised a concern that approval would mean another short-term rental to the county, when there is a well-established need for long-term housing in the area. Mills questioned whether the county should approve additional vacation rental units at this time. Land Services Director Tim Nelson said during the meeting that the Planning Commission deferred to Lutsen township, saying that the proposal does fit into the existing township plan.

Ultimately, the board voted to approve the request. Commissioner Ann Sullivan told WTIP that “The conclusion is that we’re balancing the rights of a property owner to develop their property and create a business, create an income, if you will, from that vacation rental. And that, in fact, that vacation rental was not likely to have a huge impact on housing, overall in the county.” The conversation did raise the question, however, of how the township plans fit in with county concerns. Commissioner Ginny Storlie said during the meeting that some of the township plans were written about a decade ago, so they may not reflect the most current issues facing residents now.

In a WTIP interview, Sullivan said, “I think what other great thing this conversation led us to discuss is the fact that we constantly need, whether we’re a township or the county, we need to be updating our plan. We need to be thinking about today. But we also need to be revising those plans to create a community that 20 or 30 years from now, is a great place to live.” She said that updating plans across the area could be one of the county’s next big tasks. Individual townships write their own plans, but Sullivan said that the county works closely with townships to craft zoning policies that work for everyone.


Commissioners also sit on a variety of committees and boards as representatives of the county. During the May 28 meeting, both Commissioners Stacey Johnson and Deb White expressed that given the complex subject matter discussed in some of the committees, they do not always believe themselves to be the best or most effective conduits of information between boards or to the public. Johnson serves as the county board representative for both the North Shore Health Board, and the Public Health Advisory Board. She said that with the complexities that surround health care, she thought it could be more efficient for those organizations to work together more directly, instead of information being passed through her.

White serves on the Emergency Communications Board (ECB). During the “commissioner updates” portion of the meeting, she asked MIS Director Rowan Watkins to provide a direct update to the board. The update included specific technical information that was shared during the ECB meeting. She said that she wanted to make sure that the information being conveyed to the board was accurate, and that board members would have the chance to ask questions that she may not be able to answer.

Sullivan said that commissioners can serve on as many as 30 different committees. She said that this can keep the commissioners from becoming subject matter experts for every group. She said, “I think what’s important for all of us as commissioners to know is that we learn a lot of things. But we don’t become real experts in those things.” She commended White for seeking Watkins out in order to improve communication between MIS and the board.

When it comes to defining the role that commissioners play on each committee or board, Sullivan said that it can be additionally difficult. She explained that the role is determined not only by the county, but by the bylaws of each group. Committee assignments are discussed annually, but Sullivan said that the questions raised by White and Johnson were important to discuss throughout the year. She said that exploring how to ensure that commissioners are effective in their roles on the different boards and committees may be a topic for an upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting.

Association of Minnesota Counties.

Establishing specific ways that the Board of Commissioners play different roles can shift depending on the duty. However, Sullivan said that the county is currently working on writing a job description in order to identify the primary functions of the job. She said that the county is working with the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) to create that description. She said that commissioners across the state are also able to access training through AMC on what the role entails. Beyond defining the role, Sullivan said that AMC is an important way for commissioners to connect with their counterparts in other counties to better understand the issues that impact all of Northeast Minnesota.

WTIP’s Kirsten Wisniewski spoke with Sullivan after the meeting on May 28. They discussed topics including agenda items, the role of the county commissioner, the Capital Improvement Plan, and the Community Orchard. Audio from that interview is below.