Q&A: Commissioner candidates weigh-in
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of question-and-answer stories that will print in the Tribune in the next few weeks outlining opinions of local candidates running for office.
Freeborn County voters will select commissioners in Districts 1, 3 and 5 this election.
Of the three commissioners currently representing those districts, only 5th District Commissioner Mike Lee is seeking re-election and will face off against Ted Herman.
Running in the 1st District are Brad Edwin and Ronald Jacobsen, and running in the 3rd District are John Forman and Steve Kluver.
The following are questions asked of each candidate and their answers. Look to the Tribune’s Election Guide later this month for additional questions and answers with each of the candidates.
Q: What do you think are your greatest assets to bring to the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners?
Edwin: I have been in business management for over 35 years and feel my business background will bring positive input to board discussions on policy and budgets. My past experience has gained me knowledge in areas of business finance and budget planning. Cost control is very important when managing a business, and this is very applicable when working with your tax dollars. I have also been fully involved in recruiting and building teams and how to bring the best out of each team member. Every individual can bring valuable thought and insight to a plan and the goals that need to be reached. I have been extensively involved in setting up business plans and projects and how to implement those plans to completion. I have marketing skills that will be useful in promoting our county to bring businesses and jobs to our area. Part of my everyday work is to be a problem-solver and to be able to communicate and coach effectively. Customer service has always been a priority, and I believe too often the taxpayers are looked at as a revenue source, when in fact they are the customer, and it is our responsibility to make sure their voice is heard and to the best of our ability acted on properly. Communication skills are also very important. We need to become better at not only communicating with the people of Freeborn County but also with the individuals who are committed to providing and performing the services we expect. We need to become better listeners. I am honest and hard-working and have the leadership skills required to represent District 1 of Freeborn County effectively.
Jacobsen: I would have to say that experience. I have served on many boards and councils: Freeborn City Council, Freeborn Township, Minnesota Soybean Growers, Minnesota Research and Promotion Council, Growers National Coop. They all had budgets ranging from less than a hundred thousand to over millions of dollars. You had to make it work. Township and city councils get the jobs done without raising taxes. Some improvements had to wait. Soybean Growers and Research Promotion Council depended on the markets to set the budgets. Growers National Coop was dependent on sales. Everyone had unique problems to overcome yearly. You have to ask yourself if you are using the dollars in the best place. I farmed for about 40 years. Ran heavy equipment and drove semi-trucks Midwest to East Coast, worked a lot of different jobs. Spent a lot of time at the state Capitol and Washington, D.C., lobbying for the Soybean Growers, and we accomplished a lot. I was president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers in 2003 through 2005. Went on a trade mission to China with Governor Ventura in 2002.
Forman: I am a longtime county resident. I have a four-year business administration degree from Mankato State. I retired as CEO of Alamco Wood Products and was one of the founding partners that bought the assets of the Weyerhauser’s Wood Laminating plant that was scheduled to be closed and incorporated under the Alamco Wood Products name. We started with the 10 original investors and grew to 100-plus employees. The years at Alamco gave me an opportunity to gain experience in communication skills, accounting and budgeting, labor management, insurance and employee benefits and lots of experience with government regulations.
Kluver: From the years of my experience of being self-employed, I’ve developed important people skills. I’ve learned to listen and react to their needs. I want to bring fresh perspective to the county board with new ideas. I’m motivated to deal with and tackle the important issues. I have had real-world experience in balancing budgets. I’ve had to adapt to real economic changes through the past 26 years. I am a team player. I will work hard with the county board to solve the problems that are brought before us.
Herman: I am passionate about Freeborn County. Excluding my active-duty time serving in the United States Marine Corps after graduating from Albert Lea High School in 1983, I have devoted my entire life to Freeborn County. Throughout my now 28 years of service to the citizens and communities of Freeborn County, I have developed and solidified my skills as a problem-solver, a negotiator, an effective communicator, a forward thinker and a true listener. I’ve made it my career mitigating peoples’ challenges, obstacles and disputes. In doing so, I successfully refined and advanced my research skills, attention to detail and commitment to resolution. Furthermore, if elected, I will bring forward an open line of communication between myself and the citizens of District 5 by implementing a social media (electronic) account and a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week telephone number for the exclusive purpose of listening to the concerns, questions and issues of our district and county and, then, working together with local, state and federal resources to problem-solve and identify solutions to resolve those concerns.
Lee: My experience. I have been on the county board for over nine years, so I know the ins and outs of how county government works and who to talk to when my constituents have problems or need answers or assistance. I try to make it a point during each election cycle to get out into the district to listen to the views and concerns of the citizens of my district. Also my door hangers contain my phone number for people to call me at their convenience with their questions and concerns. If you email me or call and leave me a message, I will call you back. I also attend the Pickerel Lake Township meetings quarterly to hear their questions and concerns with the county and what I can do to help.
Q: What are some things you think the county does well at and should continue?
Edwin: I believe that would be the employees of Freeborn County. From what I have witnessed and heard is that we have some incredible people providing services for our county. It is my intent to get to know every department head and their staff personally and capitalize on their strengths and challenge them to become more efficient and effective with our tax dollars. By having them share their inside knowledge and experience, we can become even better at what is being done and may even find areas we can improve. This all comes back to building a team and making full use of all involved and bringing out the best in each and every individual. The county has put together a great team; now let’s realize its full potential.
Jacobsen: They move snow very well compared to other counties — very timely.
They had a cleanup day for appliances a few years back. I think they should keep that up. One thing I hate to see is junk discarded in ditches, mostly in the rural townships. I don’t know if people who do that are that desperate or don’t know where to properly dispose of it the right way.
Forman: Eighty-five to 90% of county activities are mandated by the state. There are 20 or more divisions in the county system, and by and large all are contributing to the smooth operation of Freeborn County. Public Health and Human Services have been stretched by COVID-19 with both medical needs and monetary needs expanding during this economic downturn. Environmental services have been doing a great job working alongside the Watershed District.
Kluver: First of all, I believe Public Health Director Sue Yost has done an outstanding job researching and keeping us informed on the current COVID-19 situation. The pandemic fight needs to be continued, and we need to take advantage of as much of the CARES funding as possible to take the strain out of our county budget.
The county has increased our quality of life by investing in our bike lanes and bike trails, and by taking steps to clean up our lakes and waterways. There is still much more work to do to our lakes, but I believe the watershed board has a pretty good plan in place for these projects.
The county has kept up with our aging fairgrounds by upgrading and replacing buildings and structures as the budget allows. The county board recently invested in much-needed improvements to the grandstand to help preserve it for the future, saving us the cost of paying for a total replacement like Mower County had to do a few years back.
Herman: With the cooperation of our county and city law enforcement agencies, Freeborn County is in the top third safest of all the counties in Minnesota. Freeborn County has beautiful and well-maintained parks. Our county employees, such as the Department of Human Services, the Freeborn County Government Center, Public Works Department, etc., are dedicated to the successful maintenance and success of our county. Our lakes are being restored, which will lead to increased tourism and county revenue. Citizen resources are plentiful and broad. We have a wonderful blend of agriculture, industry, education and locally-owned businesses.
Lee: I believe that this county board and officials do everything we can to make sure that your tax dollars are spent wisely and effectively.
The highway shop does all they can to keep our roads in as good condition as they possibly can.
I feel that Public Health and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office are doing everything they can to keep us safe.
The county does a good job of finding grant dollars to help offset some salaries.
The county was able to help small businesses that were really struggling from the pandemic with federal CARES Act grant dollars to help some small businesses and nonprofits.
Q: What are some things you think the county needs to improve on or change?
Edwin: I believe communication is one of the areas we can become better. One of the challenges we face is getting the information that we act on out to our community. When we act on issues that affect everyone’s pocketbook, I want to know how the people I represent feel about those issues. To educate through communication is very important. If people understand what is trying to be accomplished and why it is being done, it can make a huge difference in our attitude towards local government and a more positive community.
Another area that I feel can be worked on is communication within the departments that provide the services we require and need. I hope to find out what their struggles are, what are the issues they find challenging. What do they do that is being done effectively and efficiently? Where and how can I help in areas that need attention? How can we spend the taxpayers’ money more wisely? Can we do more with less?
Jacobsen: For the most part, things run fairly well, but you can always look at economic efficiency to make sure the money is spent in the most effective ways.
Forman: Court services are struggling to work off backlogs created by shutdowns in response to COVID-19. The license department seems to be getting further behind every week. These may be more of a problem caused by COVID-19, but these are the complaints I hear most often.
Kluver: Other than the COVID-19 issues at the moment, I think the county is moving in the right direction.
Herman: I look forward to helping Freeborn County be a desired place to live and work by addressing improvements and changes to the county’s:
Quality and affordable housing
Attraction and retention of new businesses offering livable wages
Safe infrastructure (roads, bridges, highways, etc.)
Communication and transparency between all entities of Freeborn County
Balanced and fiscally responsible budgeting that is progressive yet not an over-reaching burden on the citizens
Proactive solutions to the far-reaching COVID-19 pandemic
Communicating and teaming with county townships
Openness to others’ viewpoints and suggestions
Lee: While I have been out lit dropping and talking with people, I have had constituents tell me they have called to talk to someone at the county or even the city, but they never receive a return call. This is not acceptable. When our citizens call with questions, we need to be contacting them back with a response ASAP.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility to the courthouse has been limited. Hopefully in the near future, a vaccine will be found and operations at the courthouse will return to normal.
Q: What are the top issues facing your district, and what are your suggestions for how to solve them?
Edwin: The district I would represent includes much of the rural areas of Freeborn County along with the towns of Clarks Grove, Hartland, Freeborn, Manchester, Alden, Conger, Twin Lakes and Emmons. We have to be mindful of the policies we put into place and the decisions we make and how they affect our agriculture-based communities and farm families. In these smaller communities, the jobs are very reliant on the agriculture business. Many of the jobs in these communities are because of the farms around them. It may be the local elevator, or an implement dealer — even the small cafes and meat lockers are depending on a robust farm economy. Common sense must prevail and if state mandates by an overly active regulatory agency affects our ag-based economy, then we need to express those concerns. We also cannot be forgotten. Much of our state and federal tax dollars are being used to support infrastructure and businesses in metro areas. We should be using all our resources to bring the available funding to our county and put those dollars to work for our benefit.
Jacobsen: Being from a mostly agricultural district, you will always have water issues. Nature says that water runs downhill no matter what. Farming has changed the need for drainage from what it was years ago. Tile lines used to go in every 100 feet apart. Nowadays they are 50 or closer.
Forman: You are in District 3 if you vote at City Hall, Grace Lutheran Church or the Albert Lea Township Hall on West Ninth Street. These are mostly citizens of Albert Lea. There is a need for housing, more jobs, and better shopping. The county needs to work with the housing authority and Jobs Inc. These go hand in hand. We need more workers, and we need housing to attract them to Freeborn County. When we have the workers, we still need to attract businesses to hire them. With more people working, there will be a need for more shopping opportunities in the county. More retail will create more jobs.
Kluver: My district consists of rural and city constituents. I feel there sometimes is a lack of communication between the City Council and the county board. We need to develop a better relationship and work for better and quicker solutions to projects and minimize problems and conflicts. We need to develop monthly or bi-monthly meetings to gather information and work on solutions together.
Herman: The top issues facing District 5 are the same as those of the county at large: housing, businesses, taxes and infrastructure (buildings, highways, etc.). An estimated 90% of District 5’s population resides within the city of Albert Lea. With that, the Albert Lea City Council most often is responsible for the maintenance and general concerns of the area. That reiterates the importance of communication and transparency between all the governing bodies of Freeborn County. We are all in this together working side by side with the Albert Lea City Council, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, and strengthening our local business partnerships.
Lee: We need to do all we can to assist the city and ALEDA when opportunities arise to help with packages that can bring good living wage jobs and businesses to Albert Lea and Freeborn County.
Public safety is always important. We need to support Public Health and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office in providing them the tools that are needed to do their jobs effectively.
We need to always do whatever we can to keep our roads as safe and in as good condition as possible.
Q: What are the top issues facing the county as a whole, and what are your suggestions for how to solve them?
Edwin: As a team we need to figure out how to bring stability to our county. We need to promote a competitive environment that will bring businesses and jobs to our communities. One of the potential ways to accomplish this is by reaching out to every town and area in our county and identifying their strengths, what they have to offer, and incorporating this into a plan of action to attract businesses and jobs to our area. Agriculture is also very important to Freeborn County. It is the foundation of our communities within the county. We need to listen to what our area farm families have to say. We need to find out what is affecting them locally through county policy and how we can support them versus hinder their ability to produce and provide for our community and country. There are also issues at the state and federal level that affect our area farmers. We need to be mindful of what those issues are and add to their voice when able. Our county population is decreasing. Knowing this, we must be proactive to change that trend by ensuring that decisions made and policies created move us forward in a positive direction.
Jacobsen: I believe that taxes will be the top issue with the pandemic. Businesses have slowed down. Some have stopped, and the tax base has shrunk. We need to grow in rural areas and towns alike. Just how we grow is the $64,000 question.
Forman: We need population growth. We are just above the 30,000 population that is required to maintain our state aid at present levels. If we drop below the 30,000 level, we will be in a busted budget problem. As I said in the last question, the county needs to work with the housing authority and Jobs Inc. These go hand in hand. We need more workers, and we need housing to attract them to Freeborn County. When we have the workers, we still need to attract business to hire them. With more people working there will be a need for more shopping opportunities in the county. More retail will create more jobs.
Kluver: County spending. Finding new and aggressive ways to maximize the county budget and across county departments.
We need to reach out of Freeborn County borders to our neighboring counties that are similar to our size and see what has worked for them and also what has not worked.
Herman: Freeborn County’s population has slowly been declining every year since 1980 — from 36,329 to 30,281 (2019). That means loss of revenue and property tax for Freeborn County. Not having our young people stay or return to our area to work, to create businesses offering livable wages and raise families has been a challenge. Data from the 2010 United States Census ranked 86 Minnesota counties from one having the highest per capita income to 87 having the lowest per capita income. Freeborn County held the No. 56 ranking. To grow, we need quality jobs and good housing. Economic development is a team effort. Our economic development team needs support and assistance from city leaders, county leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, business leaders, political leaders and all of our citizens while not forgetting to do what we can for the expansion and success of Freeborn County’s current businesses. I would work with all of the local business, local, state and federal government agencies, to build a strategy for economic growth that we need in our community.
Housing is an issue, and that goes hand in hand with jobs. For our businesses to expand their workforce, they need housing for new employees. Freeborn County can work with USDA Rural Development, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and local housing developers along with local real estate agencies to build a housing plan for new homes and the improvement of existing homes through grants and local investments.
Lee: We need to always be mindful that the tax dollars we receive are the hard work of our citizens, and we need to always allocate their tax dollars wisely
The tax dollars we receive for roads and bridges need to be spent so that we can get the best bang for the buck.
When the opportunities arise, we need to do all we can to help businesses that want to locate here and help businesses that are here to expand and grow.