Flag redesign commissioner signs onto lawmakers’ report criticizing new flag and seal

Aaron Wittnebel, who represented the Ojibwe Community on the State Emblems Redesign Commission, joined Sen. Steve Drazkowski and Rep. Bjorn Olson in pointing out "defects in the process and outcome."

Sen. Steve Drazkowski, left, and Rep. Bjorn Olson, right.

Two Republican lawmakers who served as non-voting members of a commission that redesigned a new state seal and flag late last year have authored a “minority report” criticizing the process and outcome of designs the body submitted to the legislature on Friday. And they weren’t alone in airing their displeasure.

One voting member of the 13-person State Emblems Redesign Commission signed onto the 29-page minority report that points out “defects in the process and outcome of the commission’s work that led us to reject the flag and seal proposed by the commission or portions thereof as indicated.” That came the same day the commission submitted its official report to the legislature, as required by statute.

Last month, Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and Rep. Bjorn Olson, R-Fairmont, told members of the commission they had planned to write a minority report they wanted submitted with the commission’s official report to the legislature. That announcement came as the commission had wrapped up its final modifications to a new flag and seal design that will become official on May 11.

Aaron Wittnebel attached his name to the minority report. He was appointed to the commission by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to represent the Ojibwe Community.

Wittnebel signed onto the report after he repeatedly expressed his frustration with the process during commission meetings, which were held weekly beginning in September.

That was highlighted by comments he made in person and then on social media during a Nov. 21 meeting as the commission was in the process of choosing a handful of finalists from more than 2,000 design submissions it had received from the public for both the seal and flag.

Wittnebel criticized his colleagues as they began making changes to the number of finalists they would select for a new flag design during an almost eight-hour meeting.

Following the commission’s vote to expand the finalist pool to six flag submissions, and its vote to cement the six finalists to present to the public for feedback, the commission took a break before it began working on the state seal submissions. During that time, Wittnebel, who abstained from voting on a final six, took to social media where he blasted his fellow commissioners for changing their rules and criteria on the fly.

“This is the most absurd meeting of a public body that I have participated in here in Minnesota. #SERC (State Emblems Redesign Commission) has continuously changed rules and created a disarray of problems that will prevent the adoption of any State Flag. Colossal waste of time for those submitting flags,” Wittnebel wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Walz, Flanagan appointees had ‘outsized role’ on commission

The State Emblems Redesign Commission was created by DFL-sponsored legislation signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz in May. The body began its work of remaking the state flag and seal in September after its membership was assembled in August.

The makeup of the commission was spelled out in the legislation and included several appointees from ethnic and cultural organizations recognized by the state along with a handful of commissions and boards, and three members appointed by Gov. Walz. Four legislators (one from each Senate and House caucus) served as ex-officio, non-voting members.

The minority report crafted by Drazkowski, Olson and Wittnebel acknowledged the hard work of commission members, administrative staff and those who submitted flag and seal designs that were ultimately selected. But it contended the overtly political makeup of the 13-voting member commission, too short of a timeline and a lack of resources to conduct meetings and public feedback sessions resulted in a flawed redesign process.

Minnesota’s new state flag

“This (report) is in no way to disparage the extraordinary efforts of the staff of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) or other members of the commission personally,” the minority report states. “We believe they were handed a challenging task without the proper resources, including time. We believe that the legislature delegated tasks and responsibilities to them that they should have taken upon themselves.”

The minority report alleges that rendering the four appointed legislators from both the DFL and Republican caucuses as non-voting members “gave an outsized role to the Walz-Flanagan administration in determining who the commissioners would be.”

“Making the legislators ex-officio members gave them a much smaller role,” the report continues. “If you count Secretary Simon as part of the Executive Branch, despite his obvious tie to the state seal, the whole Commission looks directed from the Executive branch.”

The report also contends there were “defects in the process of public engagement” and a lack of transparency in the feedback submitted to the commission by the public.

While the commission had openly discussed allowing in-person and Zoom-style testimony from the public, ultimately only 34 people signed up to testify, the minority report alleges.

Two of those testifiers were from England, “and several mentioned they were vexillology group members,” the minority report states. “Several were there to advocate for their own flag designs. It was  an extremely closed process. The only people informed about this opportunity were those who signed up for email updates on the Historical Society’s website.”

“One person contacted one of the legislator’s offices and complained that as soon as she got the email, she contacted the Historical Society and was told the list was already full. If a legislative committee tried to limit testimony in this way, there would be an outcry and some attempt at making more time available to testifiers.”

Minority report highlights opposition to removal of state motto, statehood date

Olson and Drazkowski also highlighted their opposition to the commission’s vote to remove the state motto “L’Etoile du Nord” and the statehood year “1858” from the final design of the state seal.

“The removal (of the statehood year) was done at the request of the Capitol Board Representative, Dr. Kate Beane, who characterized Minnesota Statehood as a purely negative event,” the minority report states. “This was after Secretary of State Simon gave a speech indicating that Statehood Day was an event Minnesotans could share in and take pride in. It was an exchange that questioned the whole concept of designing new symbols for a common purpose, if no common view exists of Minnesota Statehood.”

Alpha News chronicled that debate, which concluded with Beane telling fellow commissioners that “many in our communities do not support this colonial government and state,” and that the year of Minnesota’s statehood was “not worth celebrating.”

Wittnebel found that troubling.

“On Statehood Day 2024 when the old flag is retired and the new one raised; it’ll be interesting to see how many of the [nine] Commissioners who defined both Statehood Day and the year of Statehood [as] racist, attend the ceremony at the Capitol grounds,” Wittnebel said in a social media post last week.


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.