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Early voting, mail-in ballots skyrocket as Election Day draws near

Despite the constant talk of potential voter fraud via the mail system, the Steele County Auditor’s Office is sending out hundreds of mail-in ballots a day – sometimes more.

“I don’t think we have voter fraud here and I feel confident with the mail-in ballots,” said Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke. “If people are uncomfortable they can return their ballots to our office, which they have been.”

Since early voting began on Sept. 18, Ihrke said it has been a steady flow of people coming to the county administration building to either vote in person or drop off their mail-in ballots. On Tuesday afternoon, Ihrke said her office had more than 300 ballots that needed to be mailed out to voters in the county.

“It’s been a challenge keeping up with all that,” Ihrke said. “We have a lot of mail going out, and I know people are getting anxious and wondering where their ballots are. We don’t normally have this many requests for mail-in voting, so we just ask that everyone be patient and we will get them out as soon as we can.”

Ihrke said presidential election years always have a higher voter turnout, and she is anticipating this year to be the same, if not higher numbers based on the current rate of mail-in ballots being sent out and early voter turnout. When Election Day comes on Nov. 3, Ihrke said all Steele County precincts will be open.

“Oct. 13 is the deadline for pre-registration prior to Election Day, which will help save time at the polling place,” Ihrke said. “You can still do same-day registration, but then you’ll have to make sure you have the proper identification.”

Identification requirements for same-day registration include a valid driver’s license and a verified piece of mail – such as an electric bill – with your name and current address.

Early voting at the auditor’s office can be done now until Election Day during the regular hours of the administration building. Ihrke said they will also open up early voting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 31. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ihrke said they are doing everything they can to keep the voters and county staff safe.

“We have the social distancing markers in the hallway and we’re trying to keep the flow coming in one door and out the other,” Ihrke said. “We continue to ask people to be patient because this ballot is a little longer and we can only have so many people in the office at one time. We will get to them as soon as we can.”

Ihrke also reminds voters that applications they are currently receiving in the mail are coming from the different political parties and the Minnesota Secretary of State.

“Those are applications – not ballots, and you only need to fill one out,” Ihrke said. “You don’t need to keep sending them in, because you’re only going to get one ballot.”

Murder charges filed in shooting death of Owatonna man

A Minneapolis man has been charged in the shooting death of an Owatonna acquaintance in his Minneapolis home last week.

Travis Patrick Wade Leonard, 23, of Minneapolis, was charged in Hennepin County with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, both felonies, Monday in the Sept. 24 death of Dylan Lattery, 23. The most serious charge, second-degree murder, carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Leonard’s bail was set at $1 million and he is being held in the Hennepin County jail. Leonard had an initial court appearance in Hennepin County Tuesday.

An autopsy determined that Lattery had been shot once in his back and once in the back of the head, according to the criminal complaint.

Lattery graduated from Owatonna High School in 2015. Family and friends of Lattery have posted on social media that they remember him as someone who loved adventures, was quick to make friends and had a “kind soul.”

According to the criminal complaint:

Officers responded to Leonard’s Minneapolis home at 10:54 p.m. Thursday after Leonard called 911 to report that someone had broken into his home and that he shot the intruder.

When officers arrived, they found Lattery not breathing on the floor near the back door. Officers found a hatchet in Lattery’s hand. During a search of the home, officers located a sheath covering to the hatchet outside Leonard’s upstairs bedroom and Leonard’s firearm on the closet floor. The officers also found a safe in the closet with $13,000 in cash outside of it and a suitcase containing marijuana and THC wax in an adjacent room. Digital scales and other drug paraphernalia were located throughout the house.

Leonard initially told police that he didn’t know Lattery prior to the incident. He said he, and his wife and child, were in bed when they saw Lattery in the doorway, holding a hatchet and asking where the money was. Leonard said he fought with Lattery, falling down the stairs and continuing to fight in the home’s main level.

He said Lattery swung the hatchet at him and described a struggle in which Lattery had the upper hand. Leonard said he called for his wife to get his gun. He said he shot Lattery in the stomach and in the head during the fight.

However, Leonard’s wife told police that she saw Leonard pinning Lattery on the ground and beating him when she brought him the gun. She described a fight where Leonard had the upper hand. She said Leonard told her to shoot Lattery and she refused, handing the gun to Leonard. She then went back upstairs and heard one gunshot. She said she heard Lattery telling Leonard to end his life and then heard a second gunshot.

When police confronted Leonard about the inconsistencies, Leonard admitted that he knew Lattery and that he had sold marijuana to him in the past. He said he stopped talking to Lattery a month earlier because Lattery suggested the two of them begin robbing drug dealers. Leonard maintained that he shot Lattery in the stomach while they were struggling, then hit him in the head several times with the gun.

Leonard said he realized it was Lattery at that point and told him to leave the house. Leonard said Lattery replied that he couldn’t walk or feel his legs and told Leonard, “Just end me. Just end me now.” Leonard admitted that he then shot Lattery in the back of the head and put the hatchet in Lattery’s hand to make it look like he was still a threat. He also admitted that he went upstairs afterward and began hiding his marijuana before calling police.


Owatonna’s Gavin Rein, seen here prior to a football game against Rochester Century in the fall of 2019, has fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered in the fourth game as his junior and is being recruited by a number of regional Division II college football programs. (SouthernMinn.com/File)


Owatonna School Board approves preliminary levy

The Owatonna School Board approved the preliminary tax levy for the 2021-22 year on Monday.

The district is projecting a 8.87% decrease in the tax levy, according to district information. That’s compared to last year’s 33.58% increase. In addition, 53% of the districts’ tax comes as a result of voters and the community’s support of school bonds and operating levies.

The average school district property tax levy is increasing by about 5.4%, according to Amanda Heilman, the district’s director of finances and operations.

Heilman says for comparison, the total market value for all individual properties in the school district indicates an average of 2.9% increase per year since 2015.

“By certifying the maximum right now, we’re obviously expecting an 8.87% decrease, but we know we have a vote coming up Nov. 3 so obviously as we go through this, we’ll do a couple reiterations and then I’ll come back in December and then we’ll do the Truth In Taxation report,” Heilman said.

The decrease is due to a couple reasons, according to Heilman. The district’s debt service is projected to decrease by $627,000 and the district’s general fund is also projected to decrease by 12%, which is largely due to the district’s operating levy ending unless voters renew the operating levy in the November election, she said.

In other news, Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the COVID-19 case data for the area supports the school district’s current learning models.

During the brief Owatonna School Board meeting on Monday, Elstad said he plans to send out monthly notes to parents beginning this week about the county’s COVID-19 current numbers.

Every Thursday the Minnesota Department of Health updates the data document for K-12 schools. The document provides 14-day COVID-19 case rate data by county. The information helps schools make decisions about their learning models and allows them to see trends. Last Thursday, the state reported a 14-day case rate of 16.63 cases per 10,000 people in Steele County. The data from the week prior revealed a rate of 19.09.

“That number is trending downward again,” Elstad said. “If you read the two-week report before that we were just over 19 cases, which caused us to start thinking about what our next steps would be, but in regard to where we’re at right now, we are actually seeing those trend down lower than 15 in the last report.”

Elstad has been working alongside Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron to monitor local data every Monday afternoon. Caron says the schools are well within the district’s COVID-19 guidelines for the current learning models according to Elstad.

The Minnesota Department of Health’s recommended policy suggests:

Fewer than 10: In-person learning for all students

10-20 cases per 10,000 residents: Elementary in-person learning, middle/high school hybrid learning

20-30 cases: Hybrid learning for all students

30-50 cases: Elementary hybrid, middle/high school distance learning

50 or more cases: Distance learning for all students

As required of schools across the state, the district has offered a full-time distance learning option to its students. Twenty percent of Owatonna Public School District families have chosen the full-time distance learning option.

The next regular school board meeting will be held Monday, Oct. 26.