With the Aug. 11 primary coming up fast, four candidates are vying for just two spots on the November ballot in Rice County’s Commissioner District 1.
As of Tuesday, 4,343 mail in ballots had been sent out to voters across Rice County, and 1,731 had already been returned, according to Rice County Property Tax and Elections Director Denise Anderson.
That’s a dramatic increase from the 2018 primary, when just 1,252 mail in votes were cast. Then, both Republicans and Democrats had contested primaries for U.S. Senate, governor and other races. Now, a handful of local primaries are the only competitive races on the ballot.
Under state law, primaries must be held when more than two candidates file for a seat on the county board. It’s the first time that a primary has been held for any Rice County Board seat since 2012.
District 1, which includes Dundas, one precinct in two of Northfield’s four wards and Nerstrand, but is mostly rural, runs along the eastern part of the county. Currently, it’s represented by Jake Gillen, a retired dairy farmer who is the board’s most senior member, having first been elected in 2004.
It’s the first time that Gillen has faced multiple challengers since his initial election. Since then, he’s been re-elected three times, but always by relatively competitive margins, never surpassing 60% of the vote. Previously, Gillen had signaled his intention to step down at this election to enjoy retirement with his wife. Her death in 2018 changed that equation, helping to push him back into the ring for another term.
Unlike with his previous four elections, Gillen will serve for just two years if he wins this fall. That’s because county board districts will be redrawn in 2021 based on the results of the Census, and all five commissioners will face re-election under the new boundaries in 2022.
Joe Adamek is more of a political newcomer, though he’s run for office before. A lifelong county resident, Adamek is looking at retiring from Crown Cork & Seal in 2021 and decided that he wanted to step up his involvement in the community.
With COVID, Adamek said he’s relied mainly on word of mouth to spread his campaign message. In addition, he’s asked a few friends to put up his yard signs. While he says he doesn’t have any “burning issues” that drove him to run, he pledged to “keep a lid” on taxes.
Instead of raising taxes, Adamek said he would use his experience as a union negotiator to help ensure that the county is getting a good deal. He also pledged to help the county increase its tax base by both luring new companies into the region and investing in workforce development.
To make the most out of its workforce, Adamek also said that it’s important to invest in the region’s growing population of immigrants and people of color. He pledged to work on helping members of those communities feel “truly at home.”
Another key is affordable housing. Adamek lamented that because of the shortage of affordable housing, many county residents are forced to devote an unsustainable amount of their income to housing.
Adamek also highlighted the issue of improving the county’s transportation system, citing Faribault’s viaduct as a “bottleneck” that could be improved by the construction of additional roads across the Straight River.
Gillen’s fifth campaign is different in another, obvious way from his first four. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the community, the veteran commissioner hasn’t been able to be nearly as active on the campaign trail as he’s used to.
Gillen has billed himself as a “common sense” candidate who would offer experienced leadership at a time when the county is likely to face severe budgetary challenges due to COVID-19. Broadly speaking, he said that he feels the county is on a good path.
“I’m not looking for really big changes in any direction,” he said.
If he’s re-elected, Gillen said that improving the county’s infrastructure would be a priority. Having sat on the Transportation Committee for six years, Gillen said that more projects like County Road 76 are needed to boost the region’s infrastructure. Finding the funding for more road projects is likely to be a challenge. Even before COVID hit, commissioners cut their road budget last year to keep the levy down, forcing the postponement of several projects.
COVID has made that picture even more troublesome. Rising social services costs and falling revenues, especially from the state, are likely to force the county to make more budget cuts in the upcoming fiscal year and/or increase property tax levies further.
Gillen also said he’d prioritize affordable housing. While the county has invested significant time in effort in boosting economic development, Gillen said it’s hard for businesses to attract a great workforce to succeed when workers are expected to drive 30 to 40 miles to get to work.
The commissioner said that one issue driving the lack of affordable housing is excessive red tape. In addition, funding for multifamily housing projects from the state has often been limited and the application process can be lengthy, causing further delays.
“It’s a whole year before you can even start to build,” Gillen said. “That’s unbelievable.”
Lifelong county resident Bill McDonald is also seeking a spot on the board. Though he grew up on a farm, he’s been in finance for more than 20 years, and has been an independent financial advisor with his own office in downtown Faribault since 2009.
McDonald said he’s always been interested in county politics and has done his best to give back to the community. Now that his work schedule is starting to slow down a bit, McDonald said he finally has time to take on a commitment like county commissioner.
While his campaigning so far has been limited by COVID, McDonald has managed to get numerous yard signs up throughout the district. He said that as the pandemic hopefully recedes, he looks forward to doing more door to door contacting of voters.
“All and all, I think the reception has been very positive,” he said. I look forward to getting out and seeing more people.”
McDonald said if he’s elected to the board, he’ll use the abbreviated term to focus on helping small businesses most affected by COVID-19. He said that by building on programs it has already invested in, the county could play a key role in saving important local businesses.
McDonald also highlighted the issue of improving road maintenance. As a resident of rural Cannon City Township, he said that many of his neighbors expect the county to do everything it can to keep the roads well maintained.
By making investments in affordable housing now, McDonald said that the county could not only attract new businesses, but boost its tax base in the future, helping to provide funds for investment in transportation and other programs.
“We have a great industrial base in the Faribault area,” he said. “If we can get people living in Faribault, then we’ll be able to increase our tax base as well.”
One of Gillen’s challengers is already a familiar face in county government. Since 2014, Richland Township farmer Jim Purfeerst has served on the Rice County Soil and Water Board. First elected in 2014, he was re-elected in 2018 without opposition.
Purfeerst said that he’s tried to stay active even with COVID, but his campaign has consisted more of phone calls than door-to-door contacts, so as to keep everyone safe. He’s also worked to get yard signs up across the district. Purfeerst said that if he’s elected on the board, he’ll focus on the challenge of balancing the budget. He said his background in ag, county government experience and understanding of finance give him the tools needed to help the county get the most “bang for the buck.”
“We need quality services for affordable prices,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re dealing with (COVID).”
Another issue he cited is cleaning up the county’s ditches. He praised the efforts of the Cannon Valley Noxious Weeds Partnership, a collaborative effort of four Northfield-area townships to get invasive wild parsnip under control.
According to County Engineer Dennis Luebbe, the Rice County Highway Department is making an effort of its own to combat wild parsnip. Purfeerst said it should be expanded, to prevent the weed from getting completely out of control, as it has in other localities.
“We need to get the ditches cleaned up,” he said. “Parsnip is getting to be a major issue everywhere.”
When it comes to economic development, Purfeerst said he’d like to see the county build on its strong agricultural economy and existing businesses, and work to lure more agribusiness and industrial firms.
To ensure that Rice County remains a great place for companies to do business, he said it’s vitally important that the county deal with its housing shortage. Purfeerst said that the county needs to invest in promoting increased housing development at all levels of the market.
A sweeping proposal to change the culture and oversight of Minnesota law enforcement is on its way to Gov. Tim Walz after lawmakers passed it early Tuesday before adjourning their special session.
It governs how police are trained, how they’re held accountable for bad behavior and what happens when they use deadly force.
A coalition of community groups plan to hold a press conference in front of the Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul at 3 p.m. regarding the proposal.
When George Floyd was killed during an arrest in late May, the video showing his neck pinned beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee gave rise to calls for more police accountability in Minnesota and far beyond.
“That killing touched off a massive outrage of Minnesotans from all communities — Black, white, brown, urban, suburban, rural,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who added that the bill he helped write reacts directly to the Floyd incident and much more.
The bill prohibits the use of chokeholds and other restraint methods, although there would be some limited exceptions where those maneuvers are allowed. Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, another architect of the compromise, said police were supportive of the change as long as it didn’t put officers at greater risk.
“They do not want to use chokeholds in their day-to-day practice,” Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said. “They condemn that, but they reserve that opportunity to at least defend their own life or the life of someone else when all other options have been negated in the conflict.”
Other provisions of the legislation include:
Outlawing warrior training that dehumanizes people or encourages aggressive conduct.
Creation of a special independent unit at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for investigations of fatal police encounters.
More required reporting around use-of-force incidents.
Establishment of a new community relations advisory council to consult with the Police Officers Standards and Training Board on policy changes.
Training for peace officers for dealing with people with autism or in a mental health crisis. De-escalation training for situations that could turn volatile.
Lawmakers met in the middle around residency expectations for large-city officers. Cities and counties could offer incentives, perhaps property tax breaks or fix-up loans, to encourage officers to live in the communities they patrol. But it won’t be mandated.
DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler called the larger proposal a significant package that passed with relative speed.
“It’s too late to save George and those who died before him,” Winkler said, “but it may save lives in the future. This has been a step towards real equality under law, and it’s been bipartisan.”
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray of Minneapolis was one of a few Democrats to vote against it.
“The communities that are impacted by police brutality want more,” she said “They want transformational policy, and this bill is just not that.”
The governor supports the compromise, which passed 102-29 in the House and 60-7 in the Senate.
“George Floyd’s death brought the need for meaningful police reform into sharp focus for Minnesotans across the state,” Gov. Walz said in a statement from his office. “After decades of advocacy by communities of color and Indigenous communities, the bipartisan passage of these measures is a critical step toward justice. This is only the beginning. The work does not end today.”
It’s the only bill of note to pass this special session. A public works construction bill that also contained some tax cuts could not garner a required 60 percent supermajority support to pass.
Nor did any changes to the emergency powers Walz invoked to manage the coronavirus crisis.
The ongoing concern over the coronavirus and the measures Walz has put in place to fight its spread could lead to more special sessions in the months ahead. If Walz extends his emergency authority in August, he’d have to bring the Legislature back again for the summer’s third special session.
A resolution passed Monday by the Senate urges Walz to allow school districts to decide on their own how to hold classes in the fall, but it’s not binding.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said most parents he’s interacted with are adamant that kids get back in the classroom.
“They know it’s important for their kids to be in school. And if for some reason they choose not to, there are other things they can do. They can do homeschool. They can do online. But the parent is involved in that driver seat position.”
Said Senator John Jasinski (R-Faribault): “Our kids have withstood so much change over the last few months and we must try to get them back to school safely. For many students, school is about even more than their education. Some rely on the daily routine for healthy meals and nurturing support. This resolution is a reminder to Gov. Walz that parents and our elected local officials have an understanding of their own communities that someone stuck in St. Paul just doesn’t have. It’s time to restore local control so our schools can start planning for what will work best for them this fall.”
Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, argued that there are still too many unknowns and that a state policy is essential.
“When that first teacher comes down with COVID-19, do all 150 of their kids get tested?” he asked. “Who pays for those tests? Is it going to happen at school? Or are their parents responsible for those tests?”
A bit of moving and expanding could resolve the issue of limited space for two Faribault Public School buildings.
The district has a tentative plan to expand Roosevelt Elementary School to include four more early childhood classrooms, which would allow the Faribault Area Learning Center to move to the McKinley Early Childhood Center. The district would then close the unoccupied ALC building.
On a 5-1 vote, the Faribault School Board approved having ISG Architects design a plan for the expansion and explore the project cost. Board member Carolyn Treadway, hesitant to vote on an architect before knowing the full scope of the project, voted nay. Board member Jason Engbrecht abstained from voting as his wife works at McKinley.
If the project is approved, all McKinley programs would move to Roosevelt with the exception of the two classrooms at Jefferson Elementary. If need be, Lincoln Elementary may also house classrooms in the future.
Early Learning Coordinator Olivia Sage said space has been an issue at her building for a long time, not only for students but for staff as well. Shifting classrooms to Roosevelt Elementary could allow for expanded programming and allow staff to focus on ensuring students achieve reading proficiency by grade three. Faribault Public Schools recently received a literacy grant for $1.3 million across four years, which will include preschool students as a trial this year.
Sage said while she doesn’t have exact numbers to prove the success of early childhood rooms at Roosevelt and Jefferson, she’s spoken with families who praised the setup at the elementary schools and support the expansion.
At McKinley Early Childhood Center, she said some parents often send their children to a charter or private school after preschool. Having preschool students at the elementary school they would attend later could keep children in the district and provide a more seamless transition for students as well as staff.
The expansion and transition is an item the School Board can approve or disapprove without going to the voters, as it would qualify as a lease levy. Homeowners with a property valued at $175,000 would pay $12 more in annual taxes, based on a preliminary estimate.
“… If there’s a good reason for the project to be built and it’s accepted by the board and the Minnesota Department of Education, we can go ahead and build this addition,” Superintendent Todd Sesker said. “We can’t go over a certain dollar amount. There are specific limits that explain what we can build and how much we can pay.”
If ISG Architects determine the cost of the project would exceed the lease levy parameters, Sesker said the district would likely scrap the project unless the School Board decides to pay for it out of the general fund.
Sesker explained that unlike traditional bond issues, if the bond doesn’t pass, the district won’t need to pay the architect anything. But if the district is confident enough to explore possibilities for the project at this point, it needs to commit to an architect soon.
The project, if approved, would likely begin in 2022.