Published 9:49 am Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culley Larson

It all started with a letter to the editor in the Aug. 16 Albert Lea Tribune about his BMX bike being stolen, a poignant letter asking people to return not merely his bike but any stolen bike. He ended it with, “I love my God, I love my family, I love my bike.”

Culley Larson, 10, wrote a letter to the editor about his bike being stolen that was printed Tuesday and soon garnered nationwide attention thanks to Yahoo and ABC. Larson will enter the fourth grade this fall. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Through an aggregator, the letter made its way to Piper Weiss, a blog writer for Shine, a Yahoo website geared for women.

She interviewed Culley and his mom, Vicki, and posted two blog entries that sparked national interest. Before long, Culley was mentioned on websites across the Internet and was on “Good Morning America.”

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Letters to the editor, phone calls and email messages came to the Tribune and to the Larsons from across America from people wanting to buy the kid a new bike. Instead, the Larsons wanted to buy 10 bikes for 10 kids. They also met with Donald Trump, who flew them to New York to appear on “Fox & Friends.” Trump wouldn’t take no for an answer and bought the 10-year-old a new bike.

The Larsons with help from many friends held an event at the Albert Lea Skate Park on Sept. 18 called 10 Bikes for 10 Kids. They had raised enough money and received donations to give away bikes to kids who had their bikes taken from them. The giveaway served as the coda of the sad-to-happy tale.

Randy Kehr

Randy Kehr

There was a reason the executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce attended the August convention of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities all the way up in Grand Rapids. The organization wanted to recognize him for being an advocate for the economy of Greater Minnesota.

In some cities across the state outside the metro area, chambers of commerce didn’t take a side on the topic of local government aid — a form a property tax relief the state provides to cities with low property values — or else they followed in line with the Minnesota Chamber, which sides with suburbs against LGA’s existence.

However, Kehr and the chamber board in Albert Lea led the way, coming out in January in opposition to LGA cuts, siding with local city and economic development officials and the governor — and publicly disagreeing with the Minnesota Chamber. Some other chambers followed suit. A Tribune editorial garnered statewide attention for saying the Minnesota Chamber’s leader, David Olson, was out of touch with Greater Minnesota. And Mayor Vern Rasmussen was among many mayors who penned columns that appeared in many newspapers, saying how cities already have paid their fair share of cuts. Those gave the Albert Lea chamber’s stance on the issue even more notice.

Kehr, the local chamber, the coalition and their allies lobbied through the session to maintain LGA funding levels. Though cuts came, they weren’t as severe as initially proposed.


Kim Nelson

Kim Nelson

The director of The Children’s Center was everywhere. Through the spring and summer, she was pushing to raise funds to replace the roof at The Children’s Center. She was successful in getting the money for materials, and on Aug. 13, more than 80 volunteers showed up to do the labor.

In July, The Children’s Center was in the news again during the state shutdown, which limited state assistance for the nonprofit. In the meantime, Children’s Center employees were cutting hours to brace for what could have been a sticky situation. Finally, a court ruled that child care was considered essential services, and after 20 days the shutdown ended.

On Oct. 10, the Albert Lea school board on a 4-0 vote selected Nelson from among six candidates to fill a vacancy.

With her career in early childhood education, Nelson told the board she plans to bring a new perspective to the board by being an advocate for getting children prepared for school before kindergarten. She was sworn in Oct. 24.

Then, in the same month, The Children’s Center was awarded Medium Business of the Year at the annual Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce banquet. The Children’s Center is a nonprofit organization and won the award for being involved in the community at-large, better aligning itself with the school district and fulfilling its mission of teaching young children.


John Schulte V and Mike Lee

John Schulte V

There wasn’t much for elections in 2011, but there were two horse races in the first part of the year to fill vacancies. Lee defeated Tony Pestorious on March 15 for the Freeborn County Commissioner District 5 seat on a vote of 355 to 259, after the two advanced in a January primary election. Schulte defeated David Klatt on May 3 for the Ward 1 seat on the Albert Lea City Council on a vote of 274 to 218.

There were similarities. Both were low-turnout elections. Both candidates respected each other and held civil debates. And both were vacancies caused by some tragic news the year before.

The Ward 1 vacancy happened in November 2010 when Rasmussen won the mayoral seat after his opponent, incumbent Mike Murtaugh, dropped out of the race following the death of his wife, Tribune Assistant Editor Geri Murtaugh. Rasmussen had been the Ward 1 councilor, but he opted to fill the mayoral spot right after the election, rather than wait until January.

The Commissioner District 5 seat came open in August 2010 when Linda Tuttle resigned amid charges of fraud in her abstract and title business after frittering away more than $1 million of other people’s money to gambling.

Mike Lee

Schulte has been quiet on the council, learning about the process, but has been vocal on sewer and water rates, Tiger Hills assessments and anything connected to economic development.

Lee, once a frequent letter-to-the-editor writer, has been less audible since his victory but still is a regular at county-related meetings and even at non-county meetings, such as the Albert Lea City Council.

One odd aspect of the Ward 1 election is the city didn’t publicize where it would count ballots, so people didn’t know where to go to follow results in person.


Mark Nechanicky

The Lakeview Elementary School fourth-grade teacher won Teacher of the Year in 2010 for the Albert Lea district, but this year Nechanicky was a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, which ultimately went to a teacher from Winona.

Mark Nechanicky

Nechanicky was known for bringing his prior experience in the private sector as an engineer to help him connect with children. From 108 candidates, he was chosen as a semifinalist in February, then as a finalist in March.

He also made news in January when someone broke into his classroom and intentionally lit a fire. More damage came from the water in the sprinklers than from the fire itself. Everything in the classroom was wet, and the school closed to give time for teachers and custodians to clean up the mess.

Room 119 was cleared out, with desks, books and learning supplies set in the hallways to dry. Fans in open doors sent air through the hallways. Carpets had to dry. Signs prevented people from walking on them.

Nechanicky, under orders from the superintendent, could not comment on the arson, and he quietly and calmly directed the cleanup effort. The Albert Lea police and fire departments never found a suspect.


Mike Funk

Mike Funk

It wasn’t an easy year to be superintendent of Albert Lea Area Schools. The school board started off the year with two new members and would have another new member before the year ended.

Funk had to face parents and students who were upset over teacher cuts in the spring and many specifically were angered over the elimination of Peter Gepson, a popular band teacher at Albert Lea High School, pointing out that the music program has taken hits in past years.

Funk and the board made the hard decision to realign the schools so that sixth-graders went to the middle school and eighth-graders went to the high school. The realignment stemmed from a growing elementary population.

Two schools have new principals in 2012 and all other schools except the high school and Sibley Elementary School have relatively new principals, too. And with recent changes to leaders in finance, curriculum, technology and facilities, much of the administration in Albert Lea is different than before Funk was hired in 2009.

Bullying was an issue at the forefront in 2011 nationally and locally. Funk fielded questions on the issue from Tribune reporters, from students and from parents, all part of the district’s goal to provide a safer environment for education.

The superintendent urged the Legislature to avoid cutting funding to special education, the kind of cut that particularly hurts regional centers. He was a finalist for the superintendent job in his hometown of Rochester. He was proud when the district in March rolled out a new, modern-looking website, getting kudos from parents, students and staff alike. He was proud again when the district saved millions through a federal bonds program that will allow the district to upgrade buildings.

All this is in addition to making news for supporting charities, addressing annual test results, purchasing of iPads, mulling a land donation to the district, firing of a soccer coach and, of course, Funk being an officer in the Minnesota National Guard. In fact, he was promoted today from lieutenant colonel to full colonel.


Peggy Rockow

One lawyer more than all others was in the local news this year.

Rockow was there at the side of former Albert Lea City Manager Jim Norman in January when, less than a week away from when he was to stand trial for allegedly abusing a city-issued credit card, the prosecution filed five additional charges. She, of course, requested additional time before the trial.

She was there when a potential judge in the case recused himself because of the appearance of a conflict in spite of Norman’s request to have his Sixth Amendment right of the speedy trial granted, a right seemingly handled with many delays.

She was there when a judge ruled against dismissing the case, saying she failed to prove Norman was a victim of selective prosecution.

Rockow was there through jury selection and testimony during the trial, during which Mower County Judge Fred Wellman filled in for Freeborn County judges in the case.

She argued Norman made no effort to hide anything and, thus, no fraud was intended. Rockow was questioning former Finance Director Rhonda Moen when she testified that she herself had made personal purchases with the city credit card.

Rockow was there when the judge denied her motion for acquittal, arguing not enough evidence was available to send the case to a jury. She was there in May when the jury found Norman guilty on seven of eight counts. And she was there in July when Wellman sentenced him to 90 days electronic home monitoring and five years of probation and defended her client when the prosecution said Norman wouldn’t take responsibility for the crime.

“The man sitting next to me has accepted responsibility,” Rockow said. “He’s humiliated himself.”

Rockow, whose name is painted in big letters on a Main Street building, also appeared in newsprint in 2012 as the lawyer for Kelly Davenport, the former Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office secretary who pleaded guilty in August to theft of more than $1,800 from the department.

Rose Olmsted

Rose Olmsted

The year was looking like any other for the Crime Victims Crisis Center. Olmsted, the supervisor, and her staff were helping battered people and victims of other crimes, and they were seeking volunteers. They were in the news for helping victims of the 2010 tornadoes cope with the devastation even a year later. Olmsted marked Crime Victims Rights Week in April by honoring partners in other fields ranging from medical to fire to law enforcement to charities.

Then the state shutdown happened over 20 days in July. The county had to lay off 11 employees. When the shutdown was over, Olmsted, who as a supervisor was non-union, was not rehired but the other 10 were, and the county was mulling whether to fund the entire grant-reliant Crime Victims Crisis Center at all. By September, the county eliminated its domestic abuse program.

Soon, letters to the editor came in Olmsted’s defense, with writers outraged that the county could cut her after 38 years of public service. People wanted answers, and CVCC volunteers voiced support for her before the county commissioners. Finally, in November, Olmsted filed a civil service type of lawsuit alleging that the 60-year-old was terminated from her job as a result of retaliation or age and gender bias. She filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Her lawyer argued that, if finances truly motivated county officials, Olmsted would have been more than willing to discuss a transition into retirement that would have involved reduced duties and pay. The filing says Freeborn County Department of Human Services Director Brian Buhmann disdained her. County officials have withheld comment.

The case is one that, according to off-the-record sources, looks like it could drop some bombshells in 2012, if more details end up before the public.