By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The Morrison County Commissioners discussed the Memorial Day Mud Fest event Monday, at a planning meeting. It was hosted by Ron and Ralph Rinkel and Hillman American Legion Post #162.
Sheriff Michel Wetzel had presented his after-action report at the June 6 County Board planning meeting. “We asked the sheriff for an after-action report and he provided us that,” said Commissioner Rich Collins. “This has been standard procedure for the last three years.”
The report described a more orderly Mud Fest than in years past, but highlighted some concerns and noted the fact that some of the conditions to the permit were not met.
Mud Fest started in about 2000, with the Rinkel family taking the helm in 2004. “Our goals are health and safety first, then the environment and then looking out for our customers,” said Ron Rinkel. “The attendance at this year’s event was 752.”
Rinkel and Sheriff Wetzel agreed to specific conditions to the permit prior to this year’s Memorial Day event and the County Board approved the amended permit, but all of the conditions were not met.
As stated in the report, the staging area immediately adjacent to the mud pit was used poorly or not at all. When asked about this problem, Rinkel told a deputy that he did not have to use the staging area until more than 500 people were on the grounds.
The concern was Rinkel’s staff steering people away from deputies who were conducting preliminary breath tests (PBTs) at one of the mud pit’s exits. “This was not accidental; it was deliberate,” said Wetzel.
“Carl’s son was escorting drivers to the other exit,” said Deputy Rich Mattison. “I asked him to close one of the exits and he told me he didn’t have the manpower.” Once outside the pit the participants would go the long way back to their campsites, even though the exit where PBTs were being conducted was much closer to the camping area.
“What really alarmed us were the trucks driving back and forth to campsites,” said Wetzel.
“By Saturday afternoon, we had probably 70 percent of the trucks in the parking area,” said Rinkel. “We had to let people take trucks back to their campsites; they put a lot of money into them. We said we would try our very best to follow the conditions.”
County Attorney Brian Middendorf said, “An amended permit doesn’t allow for 60-70-80 percent compliance. A condition does not state a percentage of compliance. All conditions need to be followed to be in compliance.”
“Conditions are put on a permit to be adhered to — not to be tried,” said County Administrator Deb Gruber.
“Maybe we made a mistake if we agreed to 100 percent compliance,” Rinkel said.
“I don’t want to waste my time on a dog and pony show,” Commissioner Don Meyer said to the sheriff. “This isn’t working right anymore.”
“I anticipated your demeanor would change once we got into a Board meeting,” said Wetzel. “You were perfectly calm, reasonable and measured in a meeting in my office last week with Commissioner Johnson. What you refer to as a ‘dog and pony show’ are actually facts as they were observed at the event and as heard today by the Rinkels’ admissions. The real question is what this Board will decide to do with a case of willful disregard of the conditions of their permit. I would presume the adversarial nature of our current working relationship shouldn’t enter into the Board’s consideration.”
Mud Fest planners and participants questioned the presence of a number of law enforcement vehicles at one time on Sunday evening, given the sheriff’s office concern about not having enough manpower to cover the event.
“This happened right at a shift change,” said Wetzel. “Fresh Morrison County deputies were arriving to take over while others were still there. There was also a Mille Lacs County vehicle there since we had asked them for help.” Also on-site at the same time was the unmanned water patrol truck that was parked at Mud Fest for the entire weekend to provide four-wheel drive access if necessary, as well as the sheriff’s office command post camper.
“The event was still being staffed by only two people,” Wetzel said. “The taxpayers were not paying for any of the security coverage; the Rinkels, as event planners, paid for the security.”
“This has been a difficult event to work with,” said Wetzel. “Over the years, we have tried to get it into a condition where it would be safe for everyone.”
Those at Monday’s meeting wanted decisions made at that time regarding future Mud Fest events, but as it was only a planning meeting, that was not an option. “To take action, we would need to be at an official Board meeting,” said Gruber.
Options the Board will consider include: disregarding the sheriff’s concerns of noncompliance and allowing the event to continue as it did on Memorial Day without the sheriff’s approval of a safety plan; allowing the Labor Day event to continue under the permit issued but amending the conditions that meet the sheriff’s approval for a safety plan; and revoking the Labor Day permit since conditions for the Memorial Day event were not adhered to and asking that they reapply, starting the process over.
The Board will address Mud Fest issues at its regular meeting, Tuesday, at 9 a.m. in the Board Room of the Morrison County Government Center in Little Falls.