Amid a global pandemic and watershed moment in social justice it seems mundane to raise a parochial political concern like the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (nee IRRRB).

Over the years the IRRRB has been involved in many important, boring, and sometimes questionable investments in public works and economic development under administrations of both major parties. For decades this board held significant administrative power. But in 2016, an auditor’s report declared those powers to be potentially unconstitutional. Now the board is legally considered an advisory body to a state agency.

That hardly seemed the case at the IRRRB’s June 10 meeting, however. From several public works projects State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) targeted just one for criticism. The Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwa had requested a $250,000 grant to help build a water tower near Brookston in southern St. Louis County. This area lies within the IRRRB service area.

Staff explained that the water in this area is undrinkable and that the citizens who live in this small community needed the project. Most of the project funding comes from other sources. The IRRRB often helps local governments defray the costs of bigger projects with smaller supporting grants like this.

That is, unless politics enter the equation.

“I can’t remember ever having a situation where a local government came to us that was anti-mining and asked for mining tax dollars,” said Bakk.

See, the Fond du Lac band — which does not oppose iron mining — has officially protested the permitting process for proposed copper-nickel mines at Hoyt Lakes and Ely. And even though these mines don’t exist yet and don’t pay any production taxes to the board, opposing them is apparently such a sacrilege as to deserve unfit drinking water.

Other board members, including Reps. David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora) and Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin), joined in. Couldn’t they fund something else instead? They didn’t have anything else to fund, so that didn’t work. Commissioner Mark Phillips — who will make the actual decision — seemed apologetic for the whole thing, essentially saying that his boss the governor had suggested they help the project.

Despite the fact that the project outscored other public works proposals on the list, the water tower grant was pulled from the consent agenda in a motion by Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) and forwarded to the next meeting.

Here are two big rhetorical questions. Is the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency here to serve the common good of all residents? Or is it just the arm of an entrenched political establishment that uses funding to suppress dissent, control local governments, and project outsized power for a few politicians?

If the latter, it must be smashed. The board. The agency. The works. There are better, smarter ways to deliver taconite taxes to do public good. Time and again over the past 19 years I have defended the IRRRB’s model of using taconite taxes to strategically support Range communities. But if this board can’t separate its public mission from unrelated policy differences across a diverse population, well, it’s nothing more than a toxic political machine. I worry that perhaps it always was.

If you support President Trump, chances are it’s because he vowed to smash institutions you distrust.

If you support reform after the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, chances are you want to destroy the institutions of injustice, too.

The institutions of our society — government, business, and social — are proving incapable of addressing the mounting challenges of this tumultuous 21st Century. We need empathy, innovation, and real thinking about what comes next.

Why would it be any different at the IRRRB? Why tolerate an institution that seeks political retribution in the face of a reasonable request for a relatively small grant for a much needed water tower?

We shouldn’t, of course. The problem with Iron Range politics has long been what social psychologist Irving L. Janis called groupthink. Unity protected our communities from outside political attack but also kept us from innovating, growing or adapting to change. It was true when the Iron Range elected Republicans in the ‘20s, Democrats for years to follow, and now when we are nearly split on partisan preference.

On one level there’s this fact, one that will likely rule the day. If the IRRRB denies this grant the state will be exposed for a discrimination lawsuit that will cost the agency scads more than the grant request. That’s just stupid and wrong.

But more importantly this region must adapt to a changing world with many different opinions. This world will never provide bumper sticker solutions to our economic problems. So let’s stop the theater and get to work.

We may hope the board will see reason when next they meet. If they don’t, perhaps the people of the Iron Range will. It’s their agency and their money. When institutions fail they should be reformed. When they fail to reform, they should be smashed.

Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at aaronjbrown@yahoo.com.

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