Call it healing or damage control, but it dominated the end of two eras and the start of a new one on Friday at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw.

Following a tumultuous week for the local corrections beat, chief probation officer Wally Kostich was unanimously approved by the Arrowhead Regional Corrections executive board to take over leadership of the five-county operation formed in 1976.

Meanwhile, both St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson and ARC Executive Director Kay Arola attended their final meetings with the ARC board. Just days earlier, Nelson and Arola butted heads at the St. Louis County Board meeting in Duluth after Nelson disparaged ARC and its adult male detention facility, the Northeast Regional Corrections Center — a picturesque campus on the southern edge of Nelson's 6th District.

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

Kostich said he was “humbled” to be appointed to the job, and later dove into a monthly report to the board. He’s expected to take over from Arola beginning next month.

Nelson spoke only to vote on Friday. But his allegations from Tuesday lingered as the topic of the day.

His silence was a contrast to his leveling a series of allegations earlier in the week, saying drug use was unchecked at the facility, and that he was receiving staff members at his home to hear complaints, including about staff dealing cigarettes to inmates and mishandling prescription drugs. Nelson also publicly lamented ARC’s reliance on $16.6 million in St. Louis County budget funds for 2020 compared to a fraction of that from the other joint powers — Carlton, Cook, Koochiching and Lake counties.

“It was a blow,” Katy O'Sullivan, a supervisor of treatment and programming at NERCC, told the News Tribune about how Nelson’s comments were received at the facility. She described how the allegations struck at the credibility of nurses, case workers and others.

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O’Sullivan asked for a letter of support for corrections staff, and the NERCC board acquiesced with no sign of resistance. The board agreed unanimously to draft a letter and all sign it.

“This has been a very difficult week for staff at NERCC,” said the outgoing director Arola, who was attending the last ARC board meeting of a 42-year career in corrections. Arola said she encouraged staff to watch the full County Board meeting on YouTube, citing many positive things said by commissioners about NERCC and its staff.

“Some of (Nelson's) comments were inaccurate or mischaracterizations of the good work being done here,” Arola said. “There is no personnel or misconduct issue that we do not investigate or take very seriously.”

St. Louis County issued a statement to the News Tribune late in the week saying, in essence, that it wouldn’t be taking up Nelson’s accusations in any form of review. “Any further concerns would be best directed to ARC’s leadership or board,” the county said.

After the meeting, Nelson reiterated it would be his last meeting with the corrections board after 18 years. He applauded the unanimous decision to elevate Kostich.

“He’s a leader,” Nelson said, while refusing to back off his comments that reform at the facility was necessary.

Nelson had two allies in the audience at the meeting, including Lisa Holm, who resigned from NERCC in August after 15 years. She attended the meeting with a female former colleague who had also left the facility, after 19 years.

“There are a lot of very dedicated people who work here,” Holm told the board. “There are also a lot of very dedicated people who have left here. There is a lot of dysfunction.”

Like Nelson did Tuesday, in asking St. Louis County to investigate its relationship with ARC and the NERCC facility, Holm called on the board to “take a look at what’s going on here — what’s going on at NERCC.”

St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, chair of the ARC board, described Nelson’s list of offenses as imperfections and not indicative of the body of work.

Commissioner Rick Goutermont, of Lake County, agreed.

“Everyone of us has our own opinions,” Goutermont said. “But we're guiding at 10,000 feet. It's the staff that's doing the work."

At the heart of his complaint, Nelson argued that four of the five counties that pay into NERCC are hardly using juvenile and adult corrections. The facilities are operating at a fraction of capacity compared to historic highs while facilities elsewhere remain full or even overcrowded. Numbers shown at the meeting seemed to bear out that adult and juvenile corrections numbers were considerably under capacity.

ARC proponents say its work in probation and specialty courts are effectively helping to remake the system in a dynamic time for corrections — when housing inmates is less of a priority.

“I work with a very professional group of people and they are often contacted as a resource for other agencies,” O’Sullivan, who supervises case workers, school staff and the medical office on the NERCC campus, told the board. “They are respected for the work they do and they receive accolades from others in the community, and they take a lot of pride in what they do within the community.”

A native of the Iron Range, Kostich brings over 32 years of corrections experience with ARC to the executive director position, including as division director for court and field services since 2012. He is a 1981 graduate of Martin Hughes High School in Buhl, and attended then-Moorhead State University, earning a criminal justice degree with a minor in sociology, an ARC news release said. He began his career as an intensive juvenile probation officer in 1987.