District 1 race: County board vs. township board experience

Published 2:21 pm Saturday, October 11, 2008

For voters in Commissioner District 1 of Freeborn County, the choice for county commissioner will mean deciding between the experience of the incumbent Glen Mathiason, finishing his second four-year term on the county board, or challenger Neal Gjersvik, a long-time supervisor on the Manchester Township Board.

The two candidates took part Thursday night in the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce forum for county candidates.

Mathiason, a farmer, and Gjersvik, a salesman, are both lifelong residents of Freeborn County who live in rural areas.

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Many questions focused on balancing the county’s 2009 budget, which current commissioners need to cut by $1.5 million by the end of the year.

Question: How would you balance the county budget?

Gjersvik said he’s done some homework but could not answer that question in detail in the current setting. He said he would start by trying to get more state funding and then by talking to individual county departments.

Mathiason said, “We hold the purse strings, but the departments need to tell us what they can get along with and what they can’t. I feel when that they come back with their proposal … we may have to dip into programs that are not mandated. They’re probably good programs, but they may have to go away because of mandated programs and cuts from the state.”

Question: “Albert Lea police have GPS mapping and computers installed in their squad vehicles as do most other policing agencies. Do you feel that county residents would benefit from these useful police tools, and if so would you approve the funds to so equip county vehicles?

Mathiason said, “I do not disagree that it’s a real good tool for our law enforcement, but the problem comes in cost.”

While not opposed to the idea, he’s unsure the county can afford the expense with the tight budget.

Gjersvik said he would look at where it’s necessary.

Question: At any given time, the county sheriff’s department has one to one-and-half deputies in the field … Do you feel a county as large as Freeborn can be adequately served by the few deputies we have on staff?”

Mathiason said, “That’s another tough call. How do you put a number on human safety? We have run at less than what the sheriff feels comfortable with, and a lot of times it’s been done because of budget constraints.”

Gjersvik said if the county spends more on public safety and other areas, then it needs to educate taxpayers on the reasons for spending that money.

District 1 roughly covers the western half of Freeborn County, except for Pickerel Lake Township, and includes several parts of the Shell Rock River Watershed. Several questions concerned the county-watershed relationship.

Question: Earlier this week, the county board derailed the Shell Rock River Watershed District board’s plan for a joint County Road 19 bridge-Albert Lea Lake dam with over $200,000 already invested and $250,000 in DNR funding that is now in jeopardy. Please explain how you would vote on the issue.

Mathiason said he did not support the bridge-dam proposal because of his concerns over obtaining the necessary land by condemnation. That process could have delayed project, jeopardized $500,000 in state funding for replacing the bridge.

Gjersvik said he’s spoken to several people about this issue and is unsure how he would have voted. He did say that the Shell Rock River Watershed group was belittled by the county decision.

Question: Would you seek managers for the watershed district board that have experience in hydrology, not just agriculture?

Gjersvik said, “I do think we need a cross section on any board, especially when it can be as powerful as that.”

Mathiason said if people with that experience are available, then yes, he would appoint them. His did point out that much of the watershed is agricultural and needs that representation too. Depending on who applies, the county board tries to achieve a mix of experience and expertise, Mathiason said.

Question: What would you do to improve cooperation with the watershed?

Gjersvik said he’d start by not throwing “mud balls.” As he learned from former State Rep. Dan Dorman, Gjersvik said elected officials need to talk to the other side and get the job done for constituents. Gjersvik said he’s not afraid to call people and ask for their help.

Mathiason said, “I don’t think there’s a problem at the current time between the watershed and board of commissioners.”

While the two boards disagreed on the dam-bridge proposal, the watershed board vote was 4-3 on the issue and the county board vote was 3-2. There is some division on that issue, Mathiason said, but the two boards communicate.

Other questions concerned county regulations and questions of character.

Question: Due to the high concentration of hog confinement buildings in Freeborn County, would you favor a countywide ordinance to one-half mile setback over the current one-fourth mile?

Gjersvik said it’s a better idea to look at odor control, adding that University of Minnesota research may provide options for allowing hog operations while keeping neighbors happy.

Mathiason said that the county learned, from working on the current law, that a one-half mile setback would make most areas of the county infeasible for hog confinements. He supports the one-fourth mile setback.

Question: Would you be for or against county assessors entering private homes or dwellings without announcement or prior approval? And would you agree or disagree that this is an invasion of privacy or considered invasion of privacy?

Mathiason said county policy now requires assessors to enter homes with announcement and approval.

Gjersvik said assessors should not enter homes without announcement and approval, and it’s the commissioners’ job to set those guidelines.

Question: Please name something you have been involved with that shows you’re a team player instead of a solo shooter?

Mathiason said, “In all my dealings since I’ve been on the board, I’ve been a team player. I’ve been on both sides of issues … If it affects my district and my constituents, that’s how I make my decision.”

Gjersvik said after serving as chairperson of the Manchester Township Board, he made sure the chairperson role passed to another supervisor.

Closing statements

Gjersvik said he’s thought about economic development for four years, since the last time he ran for public office, how county planning and zoning regulations affect development. If county commissioner, he would look at those regulations and diversifying rural economies.

“In this county, we don’t allow enough small businesses in the rural areas,” he said.

He would also invite developers and real estate agents to visit with the county board about making the county more appealing to business, whether agricultural, industrial, or tourism.

In addition, he said the county needs to involve state and federal elected officials in meetings so they see the county’s struggles.

Mathiason said he always tried to answer questions from the public and would continue to do so if re-elected.

District 1 voters will choose between the two candidates on Tuesday, Nov. 4

For information about the elections, go to www.co.freeborn.mn.us/auditor/elections.

To see a detailed map of the commissioner districts, go to www.co.freeborn.mn.us/commissioners/maps.