County, school board candidates share views

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 3, 2006

By Rebecca Houg, staff writer

In the second round of debates sponsored by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, the Albert Lea school board and county candidates took advantage of one last chance to answer questions and share their visions for the future.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom and former state Rep. Paul Overgaard served up the audience&8217;s questions, adding their own as needed. The forum took place at Albert Lea City Hall.

The five school board candidates started off the evening, followed by the two candidates for each of the District 2 and 4 County Board seats and county sheriff position.

County sheriff

Incumbent Mark Harig opened by saying he felt privileged to be the 23rd sheriff in Freeborn County.

&8220;I&8217;ve been passionate about law enforcement,&8221; Harig said. &8220;It&8217;s been 33 years now and the only thing I&8217;m more passionate about is my wife, Trudy, of 34 years,&8221; Harig said.

Opponent Bill Villarreal opened by saying he sees room for improvement and would like to see a restructuring of a top-heavy administration.

&8220;I would like to see better response time, cost-effective spending and community policing,&8221; Villarreal said.

Both candidates strongly believed meth was an issue that still needs a lot of attention in Freeborn County.

&8220;We&8217;ve had a lot of luck trying to stop this epidemic,&8221; Harig said.

Villarreal said he would like to see more time invested in educating youth like DARE and other programs.

He also alluded to changes in meth production and transportation.

&8220;It is predicted that meth will soon start coming through from Canada because there&8217;s a much larger border and it&8217;s easier to get through,&8221; Villarreal said.

Harig added that his department used to catch labs cooking meth at the rate of one per month. With the change in laws regulating the sale of Sudafed, they are now working on catching people smuggling meth into the county.

An interesting question from the audience was what accomplishments they&8217;ve done in their career they&8217;re most proud of.

Harig mentioned his part in the Freeborn Bank robbery.

&8220;I talked him into putting his gun down,&8221; he said.

In his opinion, the situation could have escalated and resulted in fatalities, but they prevented that from happening.

Villarreal said during his career he received letters of commendation for catching burglars a number of different times. One time he also caught two armed robbers.

As far as rumors go, both Villareal and Harig have felt their sting.

&8220;I&8217;ve heard a lot of the rumors and was warned beforehand that I should prepare my family,&8221; Villareal said. &8220;But I wasn&8217;t aware it would hurt my family like it has.&8221;

Harig said, &8220;I think that this has been a very negative campaign and don&8217;t know why.&8221;

On the subject of fundraising, which Harig has been known for, said he enjoys fundraising.

&8220;The best thing is the great public relations we get. We are able to supplement our budget with our fundraising,&8221; Harig said.

Villarreal said, &8220;I feel the sheriff&8217;s department needs to work within his budget, and I&8217;m a strong believer that fundraisers are only for the needy.&8221;

In their closing statements, Villarreal said what sets him and Harig apart is his experience working with children.

&8220;My strength is working with kids,&8221; he said.

Harig closed by saying he believes his department is fiscally responsible with their budget and that they&8217;ve experienced a lot of medical and military leave that affects the budget.

Albert Lea school board

There are five candidates running for three seats in the school board race.

In their opening statements, each candidate highlighted their backgrounds, connection to the community and reason for running.

Sally Ehrhardt, 51, said her family is very involved in the Albert Lea School District and is proud of the education it provides.

&8220;I want to be part of that process,&8221; she said.

Jill Marin, 43, said education has always been a passion for her. She was her high school&8217;s graduating class valedictorian and has become involved mentoring in the community.

&8220;I see the importance not only of education, but the role of educators in a child&8217;s life,&8221; Marin said.

Jolinda Schreiber, 52, the incumbent, said her family has many memories in the district. She said she was a stay-at-home mom and spent many hours volunteering in the schools during their education in the Albert Lea school district.

&8220;I&8217;m a strong supporter of parent involvement,&8221; she said. &8220;I believe a sting district and a strong committee go hand-in-hand.&8221;

Corey Wittmer, 32, said he is a &8217;92 graduate of Albert Lea High School and now has a son about to enter kindergarten.

&8220;I want to ensure my children, when they get to school, will enjoy the same quality of education that I received,&8221; he said.

Wittmer also mentioned how Albert Lea was a pioneer in the use of hearing devices helped him with a hearing-loss problem and as a result, his grades improved.

Theodore Paulson, 29, said he would like to help other school board members achieve their goals.

Paulson said he worries about the funding schools receive through the state and that he would try to get school boards across Minnesota to work together on that issue.

When asked if the state was willing to give more money to schools, if they would remove or lessen the levy, most said they agreed to give that money back, but only after they were sure there was enough.

&8220;If the state was willing to give more money to the schools I don&8217;t see a reason why we wouldn&8217;t lower local property taxes.&8221; said Wittmer.

&8220;I agree we should give the money back, but also wait and see to make sure there is enough to support the school district.&8221; Ehrhardt said.

Candidates were also asked their perspectives on the teaching of creationism and evolution.

&8220;Creationism shouldn&8217;t be taught in the sciences, and if we are teaching that, we should also teach what Buddhists, Native Americans, Hindus and other believe as well,&8221; Ehrhardt said.

&8220;Evolution is a theory and should be taught as such,&8221; said Marin. &8220;Personally, I don&8217;t buy into evolution. I am such a logical thinker and there are too many holes in that theory.&8221;

Paulson said he believed a topic like that should be a state issue and we should follow what the state mandates.

Schreiber and Marin both mentioned a newer intelligent design theory.

&8220;I think it will be a school board issue. They are introducing scientific logic,&8221; Schreiber said.

&8220;It is something that will be a pressing issue in the next two years.&8221;

Wittmer wrapped up the issue by saying residents needed to keep an open mind and look at new ideas. It&8217;s something worth looking into down the road, but he would keep things the way they are currently being taught.

Board candidates brought up that they would like to see more foreign languages taught at the high school and grade school levels.

&8220;I would also like to see more gifted and talented programming,&8221; said Marin.

County Commissioner District 2

Curtis Gniffke, 62, said he plans on addressing issues with a &8220;one size does not fit all&8221; attitude in his opening statement.

And he mentioned that county issues need to be in the headlines, not board member issues.

&8220;I want to be part of an efficient county board,&8221; Gniffke said.

Dan Belshan, 51, the incumbent, said he promised to be a voice of the people and he&8217;s been keeping that promise.

Belshan said he returns phone calls, maintains a Web site and has a newsletter to help communicate with his constituents.

&8220;I&8217;m an advocate of fact driven decisions and I ask a lot of questions,&8221; he said. &8220;I treat county money like it&8217;s my own.&8221;

Both candidates agreed that Freeborn County&8217;s greatest asset is its residents and more business needs to be brought in to the community.

A fairly strange question arose, asking &8220;Have you ever been asked to leave a board you&8217;ve been a part of?&8221;

Gniffke jokingly said, &8220;There were some I maybe should of.&8221;

Belshan then addressed the question that appeared to be aimed at him and tried to explain why he&8217;d been asked to be removed from the collaborative board after questioning administrative costs.

The two men saw room for improvement in several cooperative ventures with the city.

Belshan noted that he could see more joint staffing in the area of building permits.

When asked if they thought there are significant turf problems preventing a broader participation in collaborative efforts, the candidates didn&8217;t seem to think so but suggested the issue deserved more thought.

&8220;Funding would need to be looked at first. That would take some studying,&8221; Gniffke said.

In his closing statement, Gniffke said, &8220;I think I am the best candidate for District 2, especially for shorter board meetings.&8221;

In Belshan&8217;s he mentioned brining in business and managing spending.

County Commissioner District 4

In his opening statement, Christopher Shoff, 32, said, &8220;I am running for county commissioner because the time is now for the younger leaders of this community to step up and ensure the future growth and development of Freeborn County.&8221;

His opponent, Bill Danielsen, said he would serve the 4th District well because of all his experience on different boards throughout the community.

If the candidates could change anything about the County Board, Danielsen, a Vietnam veteran, said he would like to see an American flag in the board room and the pledge of allegiance said at the beginning of meetings.

Shoff said he would like to see better development of the county&8217;s Web site for more transparency of the government and communication to it&8217;s citizens.

&8220;I believe the Web site serves as a portal to the community,&8221; Shoff said.

On the subject of County Administrator Ron Gabrielsen and his performance, both candidates were tactful saying whatever has happened behind closed doors seems to have helped.

&8220;As Chris said, at this point the problems appear to have been cleared up,&8221; Danielsen said. &8220;He has changed his license plate and that&8217;s a good start.&8221;

The candidates also agreed that the county and city need to work together on economic development.

&8220;Cooperation has not taken place as well as it could have in the area of economic development,&8221; Shoff said.

The topic of solutions for Bridge Avenue corridor was raised and Shoff received chuckles from the audience when he said the Bridge Avenue Expansion Report is his bed-time reading right now.

&8220;Putting a left turn lane in at Hawthorne to eliminate the bottleneck, we could try it for a relatively small amount of money and if it worked out our bottleneck would be solved,&8221; Danielsen said.

Mark Rofshus from the Governmental Affairs Committee wrapped up the forum by thanking voters for attending and encouraging them to visit the polls this Nov. 7.