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County hires Mattson to process soil, erosion permits

ESCANABA — The Delta County Board of Commissioners approved hiring a familiar but often controversial face to take over the processing of soil and erosion permits this week.

“I’m only doing it for the landowners in this county so they can get those permits and get them quick,” Former Delta Conservation District CEO Rory Mattson told the commissioners during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting.

Mattson was the only person to respond to the county’s request for qualifications. However, the timeline for RFQs to be submitted was short, with the original language of the request approved by the board at the meeting held the evening of Feb. 6 and the RFQs themselves opened at 3 p.m. on Feb. 13.

Mattson, who has managed the county’s soil and erosion permits for the last 15 years through his role at the conservation district, stated there were only four other individuals that he was aware of that had the necessary certification to handle the permits in Delta County. He said none of the other individuals were interested in filling the role.

Despite Mattson’s extensive work with soil and erosion in Delta County, his hire is not without controversy. Mattson’s conduct with the conservation district and the county forest — which the conservation district managed until the end of 2024, at the same time Mattson was retiring from his role with the district — has often been called into question. Concerns over his leadership led to a complete reorganizing of the conservation district’s board in what was the most-highly participated in election the district has seen in recent memory; a yet-unresolved dispute over grant funding with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund; and the new conservation district board requesting the state Attorney General look into whether or not Mattson had violated any laws related to the forest and the modification of an easement across property he owns adjacent to the property.

“There’s controversy sometimes with the position Mr. Mattson was in before, but his qualifications are well noted here above and beyond anyone else — well, nobody else applied — so I just wanted people to understand that this is something the county needs and we have someone that stepped forward and the cost will be determined later,” said Commissioner Steve Viau, referencing the fact compensation for the permit work has to be discussed by the county’s finance committee.

None of the specific controversies related to Mattson were raised Tuesday, other than a commissioner requesting an update on the county’s negotiations with the DNR Trust Fund be added to a future agenda and another commissioner stating he was responsible for a gate at the forest being locked last month.

“I’m the one that went up there and locked the gates. I drove up there and the two side gates, I went up there and the roads were tore up pretty bad and I know it’s expensive to fix those roads — you can’t just run a grater up and down them because they’re not gravel roads,” said Commissioner Bob Petersen, who added the county’s administration had been notified and the gates had historically been locked when the roads were at risk.

Since the opening of the county forest, residents have raised concerns over gates accessing the forest property being locked. On Aug. 14, 2018, the day the forest was dedicated, a small group of residents picketed outside the forest over the gates.

Mattson taking on the soil and erosion permits was primarily questioned by Commissioner John Malnar, who ultimately was the only commissioner to vote against Mattson’s hire. He pointed to a prior plan to have the Delta County Road Commission manage the permits until a permanent county employee is fully-trained to do the permits in-house.

“Yes, the road commission volunteered, but as you well know, road commissions are APAs, they’re authorized public agencies, they do their own work when they put in for a permit and things like that. It’s a lot different than dealing with private landowners,” said Mattson.

According to the commissioners, the plan has been to have an in-house county employee responsible for the permits in the future. Until training for that employee can be completed, Mattson would serve in the role as a contractor.

“I don’t want to get paid for one second I’m not working. So before I even accept this and meet with the finance committee and (Delta County Administrator Ashleigh Young) — whoever I have to, it’s going to be based on the site visit, but I’m … getting paid by the site visit. If I’m not doing a site visit, there’s no cost,” said Mattson.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the commission voted to move forward with a plan to make upgrades at Fuller Park. However, not long after the motion to begin the project with up to $15,000 worth of work and send the entirety of the project to the finance committee for review was passed by the board, residents began raising concerns that the area in question was a wetland.

“It would be a shame to just plow ahead, because once you do that and you find out it’s a wetland, you just have a big mess,” said Mike Segorski, of the conservation district, noting the county should seek permits from the state and for soil erosion prior to cutting trees.

Mattson disagreed, saying if the project was taking place where be believed it was the land was not in a designated wetland. He went on to say that even if there were approaches to the area that crossed wetlands, there was nothing that prevented removing trees during the early part of the project.

“If you take out a rotary chopper, there’s no law in the state of Michigan that you can’t remove trees, you can’t remove brush, you can’t remove anything — as long as you don’t dig the roots out,” he said.

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