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Daniel Nydegger

Daniel Nydegger

Role playing helps prepare Mounted Posse for real-life emergencies

There are a lot of things I love about my job – I learn something new every day, I am constantly meeting new and exciting people, and I have bragging rights of knowing a little about a lot. One of my favorite parts of my work as a reporter for a community newspaper, however, are the unique experiences and opportunities my career has opened up for me.

Such is where my mind wandered one Saturday morning as I sat on a rock atop a hill on the south side of Medford. Accompanied by the sounds of nature and the slowly rising mugginess following a Friday night storm, I relished my current situation of being considered lost in the woods.

In the distance, I could hear a faint whinny, and I knew my time alone was coming to an end.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, I spent the morning with the men and women of the Steele County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse. The group had gathered on the grounds of the old Girl Scout camp on the south side of Medford to practice a variety of drills, specifically the search and rescue of a photographer who had lost her way on unmarked trails.

The mounted posse and auxiliary was first organized in 1966 to assist the sheriff and the communities they serve by providing additional patrolling and mobility in areas of limited access.

They represent the sheriff’s office in parades and local celebrations and are often called out by the sheriff to perform duties such as search and rescue, securing crime and accident scenes, and patrolling the Steele County Free Fair, among a variety of other situations.

“We’ve been on quite a few searches,” said Joe Schwering, the posse’s captain and active member for the last 40 years. Schwering recalled two different incidents during his time with the posse where the group helped search for individuals involved in stabbings, finding one man completely hidden and covered in mud.

There are several requirements to become a member of a sheriff’s mounted posse: be at least 18 years of age, own your own horse and have the equipment to get yourself and your horse to where you need to be when called upon for assistance. All volunteers, the mounted posse in Steele County is made of 25 active and five honorary members. They attend a variety of mandatory trainings similar to the one recently held in Medford as well as CPR and first aid and use of force both on the ground and from horseback. Posse members also practice escorting a squad car and escorting a person out of an angry crowd.

According to Sheriff Lon Thiele, training and experience are important for the posse’s equine partners as well. They participate in sensory training exercises where the horses are introduced to the unfamiliar obstacles and challenges that are part of the overall posse experience. Being able to stand firm in the noise and commotion of a crowd or carefully moving one step sideways to avoid a baby stroller is vital – and the horses have to do it all. Some of the elements of the training even include spraying the horses with a fire hose and learning the sounds of all the first responder and law enforcement vehicles.

During that Saturday in Medford, the posse and their horses focused on a grid search technique to aid in both a search and rescue and suspect search. After running a few drills in the field, they were unleashed onto the roads to try to locate the missing reporter who just moments earlier had been taking their photos — me.

The group clearly had great communication, as they were able to locate me significantly quicker than the two hours I was anticipating. When they approached me on horseback, they stayed at a considerable distance as they asked me if I was hurt or ill and how they could help me.

They were sweet, which almost made me feel bad about what happened next.

The sheriff and I decided to play a little trick on the posse, though it was still an integral part of their training. Shortly before getting placed in the woods, Thiele handed me a small, blue rubber gun — completely fake and harmless — to place somewhere on my person.

“The Second Amendment has been a really big deal lately, everyone is talking about it,” Thiele said to me as we went over our plan. “I want to see how my posse will react when you tell them you have a gun, but also that you have a permit to carry.”

Under Minnesota law, individuals must obtain a permit to carry a handgun in public. There is no stipulation in the law regarding whether that weapon must be concealed, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic a local group called the Steele County 2A Coalition organized in an attempt to have the Steele County Board of Commissioners pass a resolution declaring the county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.” These resolutions — which began in Illinois in response to proposed gun measures — state that the county, city or township making the declaration is dedicated to defending gun rights.

In March, Thiele made a public announcement stating that local law enforcement does not have the authority to ignore federal laws, but that he believes the gun laws currently in effect are adequate. He added that there are a lot of “responsible gun owners in Steele County” and that he strongly supports the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

With that said, Thiele also needs to assure that his posse knows how to handle themselves when they approach an individual carrying a firearm — whether it be legally with a permit to carry or not. I’m happy to report that as soon as I withdrew the imposter weapon, the posse members who had located me instantly backed up and calmly asked me to set the firearm on the ground as I produced my permit (which in reality was a folded up map I had swiped from the coffee table).

Overall, I was impressed by the professionalism and diligence the mounted posse showed during what was simply a training exercise for them. Thiele continued the training with them long after I left the scene, safely recovered from the harsh elements inside the Medford woods.

Despite Chief Deputy Scott Hanson getting mud all over my clothes — for which he can still expect a proper dry cleaning bill for in the future — I am able to mark up my time lost in the woods and waiting for the mounted posse to rescue me as another once-in-a-lifetime experience thanks to my career in journalism.

Steele County Relay for Life takes a drive downtown

Plans for the Steele County Relay for Life are finally starting to fall into place after a debate over what route to take with the annual event.

The relay will be a car cruise in downtown Owatonna starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26. The cruise will run up and down North Cedar Street and around Central Park, which will be lined with luminaries.

“It will run pretty much exactly the same as the car cruises that went on earlier this year,” said Mary Boettger, a lead organizer for the annual event, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. While a portion of the money goes to cancer research, a good portion goes to help residents diagnosed with cancer.

Participants can come and go as they please, but are asked to stay in their vehicle and not walk around in the park.

“We can’t have people congregating and walking there, but they can drive around and kind of see the luminaries,” Boettger said.

While the car cruise is officially the direction the relay committee has decided to go with, other details about the night’s event are still in the works. Relay teams are encouraged to decorate their vehicles to promote their team as a best decorated vehicle trophy will be awarded this year. Another trophy will be given out for the best car.

“So if there is a really unique older vehicle,” Boettger explained. “It’s all based on people’s voting system.”

The logistics on how the trophies will be handled is yet to be determined. She also added that Brad Kubat will be DJing the event and that the relay committee will likely encourage guests to tune into the local radio station to follow what is happening throughout the night. As far as the traditional opening ceremony, attendees may have to look toward next year to see that.

“I think we are probably not going to do that this year,” Boettger said. Although she does hope that there will be some sort of award ceremony. Currently the committee has not chosen an honorary chairperson and Boettger says she does not know if one will be selected this year.

Raffle tickets are still for sale for $10 each. The tickets have taken the place of the relay’s traditional silent auction. Each raffle ticket comes with a luminary bag. Those that are interested in purchasing a ticket can contact Mary Boettger at 507-390-5760, or contact a committee member or team captain for direction.

Ashley Rezachek / By ASHLEY REZACHEK ashley.rezachek@apgsomn.com 

The Steele County Relay for Life will be a car cruise this year with a route that will go up and down North Cedar Street and around Central Park. (Ashley Rezachek/People’s Press)

From left, nursing assistant Shenetta Blanchard and registered nurse Gao Nou Vang administer COVID-19 tests at the drive-thru or walk-up testing site at North Memorial Health Specialty Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., in early August. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News file)

Convenience store looks to locate at old highway shop site


Downtown residents and commuters will soon have another place to grab their breakfast, fill up on gas and wash their car as another major convenience store chain has announced interest in developing a location along Hoffman Drive.

Despite sitting on a known flood plain, providing potentially extensive obstacles for any future development, Holiday Stationstores, LLC submitted a proposal to purchase half the property that once housed Steele County’s old highway shop. The Steele County Board of Commissioners agreed during its Tuesday regular meeting to sell one of three properties that have been on the market for a considerable amount of time.

Commissioners unanimously authorized the county administrator to sign a letter of intent with Holiday Stationstores and enter into the due diligence period for the company to purchase the north property of the former old highway shop location.

The company entered a proposal of $500,000 to develop a convenience store facility offering gas, groceries and a car wash.

“The way the process works is when you authorize me to sign the letter of intent there will be a 45-day period where a purchase agreement would be negotiated,” said County Administrator Scott Golberg. “That would begin the due diligence period for the acquirer, and I think that’s up to six months for them to do that and proceed with that.”

The proposal from Holiday was the only proposal the county received on either property, according to Golberg. There is currently one Holiday Stationstore in Owatonna. It’s located on Bridge Street.

The property is one of two parcels the county put on the market at the beginning of the month. In September 2010, the complex sustained severe damage from flood rains. The county had twice before requested proposals from potential developers after the county Highway Department relocated to the new Public Works building just outside city limits on Hoffman Drive northwest.

Golberg said the RFP review committee discussed what the next steps should be regarding the second parcel on the site, which sits on the south side of the property. He said the committee discussed either placing the property on the market for sale with a broker or contacting the city of Owatonna to determine their interest in the parcel.

“The reason why we thought that might be a good idea at this point is that the north property development is going to involve flood plain construction,” Golberg said, explaining why the committee recommended contact with the city regarding the parcel. “There’s going to be some fill that’s going to be placed in there, and the city may want to consider a flood plain or storm water management on that south property to help the development on the north.”

Both parcels are located within the flood fringe, according to the current flood plain management study. Per FEMA regulations, fill may be placed in a flood fringe. Specifics regarding the flood plain remediation at both sites, with the goal of minimizing post-development impact on neighboring parcels, are the responsibility of the developer. However, Commissioner James Brady pointed out that the owners of both properties may need to work together to remediate the situation, therefore prompting his approval of touching base with the city first.

The commissioners asked Golberg to contact the city regarding the south property.

Also during the meeting, the commissioners agreed to enter into a purchase agreement with Dan Niles for the Hope School property. The county first solicited proposals for the property that houses the former Hope School in July 2019 and received a total of four, ultimately entering a purchase agreement with Victor Mrotz of Hope Creamery contingent on Mrotz receiving certain zoning approvals. When the county denied the rezoning, Mrotz withdrew his proposal.

Golberg said the review committee reached out to the three other proposers for the property and see if there was still interest. Both Dan Niles and the Hope Servicemen’s Club responded that they are still interested with their current proposal intact, while the third party did not respond. Niles’ proposal was to purchase the property for $1,100 and convert it to a building site, and the Club’s proposal was to purchase the property for $1,000 and use the former school as a community center and location for a future well site.

The commissioners, based on the committee’s recommendation, voted to enter a purchase agreement with Niles. Brady abstained.

Minnesota Democrats seek ethics investigation of Hagedorn

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The head of the Democratic Party in Minnesota denounced Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn on Wednesday for heavy spending on taxpayer-financed mailings to his constituents and called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party State Chairman Ken Martin made the call at a news conference after the Star Tribune reported that emails between Hagedorn and his staff show he was personally involved in decision-making about the mailings. He has blamed staff for exhausting around a fifth of his $1.4 million official office budget on mailings alone in the first three months of the year. He fired his chief of staff, Peter Su, in mid-June over the issue.

“This meant that Hagedorn spent as much of our taxpayer dollars on mailers as the average congressional office spends on everything else,” Martin told reporters. “It seems clear to us that was using his tax dollars to prop up his failing campaign.”

Hagedorn is seeking a second term in southern Minnesota’s 1st District. He faces a strong challenge in a rematch with Democrat Dan Feehan.

“The DFL is lying about the facts in this story to give life to a non-issue and prop up their ultra-liberal candidate, Dan Feehan, who’s radical left-wing views don’t fit the First District,” Hagedorn said in a statement issued through his campaign committee.

The Minnesota Reformer news site and the Star Tribune have reported that much of the printing work was contracted out to a company owned or partly owned by John Sample, a part-time staffer in Hagedorn’s congressional office, and to Abernathy West LLC, a company incorporated in Delaware with no publicly listed owners. Hagedorn’s congressional office and campaign did not respond to questions Wednesday about who controls that company.

Martin said the contracting was a clear violation of House ethics rules. “Congressmen are not allowed to use tax dollars to line their pockets, or the pockets of their cronies, or the pockets of their staff members. And clearly Jim Hagedorn did that,” Martin said.

Tom Rust, staff director and chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, declined to comment to The Associated Press about the allegations or the possibility of an investigation.

The Star Tribune obtained emails from a former staffer who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution. They show that the congressman, in both 2019 and early 2020, managed at least some aspects of the constituent mailings and was aware of the volumes.

“We should send an updated mail piece on Cambria,” Hagedorn wrote on Sept. 5 to several senior staffers about a countertop manufacturer based in his district, in just one example cited by the newspaper. “Our successful bipartisan efforts to punish China for illegal dumping of quartz products and stealing intellectual property has helped to defend Le Sueur-based Cambria and 1,000 good-paying jobs in southern Minnesota.”

Hagedorn said in his statement that he will stay within the $1.4 million he was allotted for the year and that all of the mail his office sent to southern Minnesota was cleared by the Democratic-controlled House Administration Committee. He said the mailings were meant to inform constituents about his town meetings and work on issues important to the district.

The congressman also insisted that the “nuts and bolts” of preparing and sending the mailings was “fully delegated” to his former chief of staff, whom Hagedorn said he fired the day after he became aware of the issue. He said he immediately hired outside counsel to conduct a review and notified the Administration and Ethics Committees. He said the findings of the internal review will be provided to the committees and the public.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist and ethics expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen, said at Martin’s news conference that he believes Hagedorn violated House rules on spending their office budgets. “They cannot be used for personal benefit of the lawmaker, the lawmaker’s family or any staff member of the lawmaker,” he said.

Holman said the consequences Hagedorn might face would depend on how directly he was involved in the decisions. He expects Hagedorn will at least be ordered to reimburse the government for any improper payments and that he could be reprimanded or censured by the full House.