Newsmakers of 2010
Published 9:28 am Thursday, December 30, 2010
Perhaps no one had a roller coaster ride in the news like Norman did this year. In March, the interim Afton city administrator was among five finalists for the Albert Lea city manager position, following the departure in February of Victoria Simonsen. Unable to reach a salary agreement with Alan Lanning of Colorado, the City Council turned to Norman and struck a deal.
Norman began part time on April 12, then full time May 3 at a salary of $95,000, plus an auto allowance and up to $5,000 reimbursement for relocation expenses.
City residents saw Norman lead the city staff through the summer thunderstorms. He urged patience in the debate over a bike lane for Front Street. He was a traveling salesman in the Albert Lea Community Theatre’s production of “The Music Man.” He had begun dealing with the city’s looming budget crisis in the face of state-aid cuts and had begun fighting the Alliant energy rate hike.
Then, in the Aug. 10 Tribune, the public learned Norman was the subject of an investigation. But over what? By the end of August, he was charged in Freeborn County District Court with two felonies and a gross misdemeanor for alleged abuse of the city credit card for more than $2,300 in purchases for items such as a side-by-side refrigerator, groceries, women’s shoes, hotel stays and for using the card to buy gas when he already had received that auto allowance.
Norman fought back. Against the advice of his lawyer, he spoke to the Tribune about how he felt “broadsided” by the council and noted that the expenditures were a simple, new-to-the-job misunderstanding that didn’t deserve criminal charges.
The council put him on paid leave and eventually worked out a severance agreement that included the city asking the court to dismiss the criminal charges pending against Norman. There is a hearing Jan. 7, and the case is slated to go to trial Jan. 11. He has invoked his right to a speedy trial.
The filing deadline arrived and the House District 27A contest was in place. Two-term DFLer Robin Brown would face this somewhat quiet fellow who was a financial adviser downtown. It turns Murray had been thinking about running for years and finally threw his hat in the ring.
The Republicans had lost two times in this district, but as Murray gained steam, the state GOP saw promise and aided his campaign. They saw he was doing the hard work of a campaign and had a resonating message about jobs, small government and growing the business sector. “The time is now!” was his slogan.
With a clear message, Murray won the Tribune endorsement, much to the dismay of Brown supporters. Murray won the race by 58 votes on election night, but state-mandated recount ended up dragging the race out through November. In the end, he won by 57 votes.
She asked the Tribune in 2009 for more coverage of county government. In 2010, she got it. Tuttle, a former county recorder, was elected to the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners from District 5 in 2008.
She made news in March when she questioned Freeborn County Nurse Lois Ahern about the Department of Health’s hire of City Councilor Ellen Kehr at $22 an hour to oversee a state Statewide Health Improvement Grant grant. In April, she voted to keep Kehr in the positing, citing the need to move forward.
The major buzz around Albert Lea came on June 22, when the headline on AlbertLeaTribune.com read “County Commissioner Tuttle arrested.” Albert Lea and state investigators served a search warrant on her business, Albert Lea Abstract Co., and her home. They hauled files and computers to a U-Haul truck parked on the street outside Albert Lea Abstract.
She spent two days in jail before being released. On June 24, she was charged with theft of $48,000 relating to alleged check kiting from bank accounts her business has. The investigation said she had gambled $2.4 million at Diamond Jo Casino, and it alleged the check kiting was an attempt to pay off her debt.
On July 19, the charges were amended. She faced 13 new charges, including racketeering and felony theft by swindle through her title company. The alleged theft grew to more than $1 million.
Tuttle resigned effective Aug. 1. In November, her lawyer said a settlement was under negotiation. A special election to fill the District 5 seat takes place March 15, with the primary election Jan. 18. There are seven candidates.
The adjutant for the Leo Carey Post 56 of the American Legion in Albert Lea stepped forward to explain that motorcycles were coming. Not some. A lot.
And he said the American Legion commander was coming to Albert Lea, too. For the first time ever. It was quite an honor for the club.
The American Legion Legacy Run 1,400-mile motorcycle ride would begin in Indianapolis, the site of the American Legion headquarters, and end in Milwaukee, staying for one night in Albert Lea. It would be the first time the 17-year ride had stopped or gone through Albert Lea. The ride raises money for scholarships to children of soldiers who have lost their lives since Sept. 11, 2001.
On the third day of the ride, Aug. 24, about 300 people arrived in downtown Albert Lea via motorcycles. They praised the welcome they received.
American Legion National Cmdr. Clarence E. Hill spoke to a group of about 70 people inside the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center that evening, saying the American Legion is about service on local and national levels.
Mulso and Club Manager Todd Utpadel thanked Albert Lea for showing the riders they were welcomed.
Vern Rasmussen filed for mayor on June 1 facing Mike Murtaugh and John Severtson. Next was a debate and primary election. The debate was canceled because Murtaugh’s wife, Geri, was in a Rochester hospital with a recurrance of cancer. Murtaugh won the primary; Rasmussen advanced, and Severtson was eliminated.
With his wife’s passing in August, Murtaugh stopped his campaign and withdrew from the race. In September, he resigned the mayor’s seat to focus on time with his daughters. His name remained on the ballot.
Rasmussen, the 1st Ward councilor, also was on a council that saw the departure of Victoria Simonsen in February, the hiring of Jim Norman in March, the investigation into Norman’s alleged abuse of a credit card in August, the severance between Norman and the city and the departure of Finance Manager Rhonda Moen in October.
Rasmussen, a local physical therapist, now was on a council that had no mayor, city manager or city finance director. He kept campaigning on the message of sound management of the city’s finances, particularly in light of more cuts to state aid.
In the campaign, he encouraged public service and talked about the importance of empowering city staff to be out-of-the-box thinkers and to be proactive in their ideas. He also sought greater communication among staff, the public and elected officials.
Rasmussen won the Nov. 2 general election and was sworn into office Nov. 11. He and the City Council hired Patrick McGarvey as the interim city manager on Nov. 22.
As the detective supervisor for the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office, Kindler hardly appeared in the news. But when he ran for sheriff, he had more signs around Freeborn County than any candidate in any race. His got his name out there.
The primary campaign saw a crowded field, with Kindler, Sheriff Mark Harig, sheriff’s deputy Marc Johnson and Albert Lea policeman Ryan Merkouris. The four met in a late-July debate, where Kindler, Merkouris and Johnson made employee morale a major issue in the race. The four candidates or their supporters were omnipresent at the county fair.
Kindler topped Harig in the Aug. 10 primary, and Merkouris and Johnson were eliminated.
Kindler and Harig went head-to-head in a debate Oct. 14 at Albert Lea City Hall. While Harig had made the securing of a federal contract to hold prisoners the keystone of his campaign, Kindler reminded the public that other issues existed, namely the low morale but also lack of women on the force, a behind-schedule radio upgrade, scheduling problems and better budgeting.
In the time since the last campaign cycle, the deputies switched unions to become Teamsters. That meant they would endorse a candidate. Through one process, they selected Kindler. Then the state level also selected Kindler. The 23-year law-enforcement veterans also secured the Tribune endorsement and went on to win the Nov. 2 election.
Kindler made news in late December when he announced he would appeal his 2011 salary. The commissioners had set it at $75,000 on Dec. 14. Harig in 2010 made $82,500. Kindler’s 2010 base salary was $81,931.
Kindler will be sworn in as Freeborn County sheriff Jan. 3 at the courthouse.
Last winter was notorious for the fears connected to H1N1 flu, originally termed swine flu. Ahern, as the Freeborn County Public Health Director, had made news over the winter for her department’s efforts to make vaccines available and safeguard the public.
Then came the debate starting in late March over the hiring of the Statewide Health Improvement Project coordinator. SHIP aims to help Minnesota communities lower the number of residents who use tobacco or who are obese or overweight. It is part of the state’s health care reform initiative signed into law in 2008. A partnership of southeastern Minnesota counties, which included Freeborn County, was awarded $2.77 million for related projects. Upon the advice of the county administrator and a human resources employee, Ahern went through a temp agency because the coordinator position expired after 22 months.
She became aware that Ellen Kehr might fit well in the role. She advised the temp agency, and Kehr applied and was the only candidate interviewed.
County Commissioners Linda Tuttle and Dan Belshan questioned the process, raising concerns from many members of the public about county hiring practices. Further, Kehr was an Albert Lea city councilor, which fueled the fire.
For several meetings, the Board of Commissioners debated the issue, with Ahern present, only to postpone any decision. On May 19, they finally voted to keep Kehr on board.
Ahern was in the news again in September as floods filled the streets and basements across the region.
She advised wearing protective rubber gloves and boots along with long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect bare skin from mold and bleach. She also recommended a respirator. She listed what items to throw out and gave step-by-step instructions on cleaning flooded areas.
In the fall, Ahern was in the news for telling the public to get ready for flu season, as she had been for many falls before. Then she announced in December that she would retire effective Feb. 20, 2011, after a career of 32 years.
The chairwoman of the Freeborn County Relay for Life led a fundraiser that raised $135,000 for the fight against cancer, beating its goal of $134,000. And Manges, a para-educator at Lakeview Elementary School, and her team were able to do it with changing circumstances.
The August event was notably different from past years, thanks to threats of severe thunderstorms. The activities, the luminarias, the laps, the games, the food and the fun had to move indoors to the barns at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds instead of being under the sun by the walking track. The weather held up with no rain and people seemed to enjoy the night.
“We did exceptionally well,” Manges told the Tribune. “It goes to show what kind of community support we have.”
Tribune staff, too, mourned during the event, having lost Assistant Editor Geri Murtaugh to cancer earlier the same month.