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Kandiyohi Co. Board candidates participate in forum

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WILLMAR -- Five of the six candidates seeking the Kandiyohi County District 4 Commissioner seat participated in a forum Tuesday to present their views on county issues and what it takes to be an effective county commissioner.

Roger Imdieke, Karen Nelson, John Nething, Michael O'Brien, Alan Welle and Donnel Williamson are all vying for the seat currently held by Dennis Peterson, of Spicer, who is not running for re-election. Nething was unable to attend the forum.

In Tuesday's primary election voters from District 4 will vote for one candidate. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election Nov. 6.

District 4 includes the cities of New London, Spicer and Regal and the townships of Burbank, Roseville, Green Lake and New London.

Hosted by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, the forum asked the candidates to respond to questions about county priorities, economic development, whether to appoint or elect department heads and whether the county should combine services with cities.

Some of the candidates' responses were weighed against the opinions of the 28 people in the audience who voted with an electronic polling clicker.

For example, 86 percent of the audience said they supported combining city and county functions while 14 percent disagreed.

The candidates said they would need to research the issue but most agreed it was an option worth considering.

O'Brien said the county needs to do "more with less" but that people and services can't be "sacrificed."

Williamson said smaller -- more local -- government is a better way to represent the public than having a government entity that is too big. If elected, he said he would reserve judgment on combining services until he fulfilled a promise to job shadow every department from "top to bottom."

Imdieke said counties were created when people rode horseback and communicated with letters and that changes should be considered to become more efficient, but said he would have to do his homework before making a decision.

Nelson said having the county and cities share employees is a proposal she would consider as an option for continuing to improve local government, but said she would talk to others who have had experience before making a decision.

Welle, a former legislator, said he authored the bill that allowed Kandiyohi County to combine its auditor and treasurer, making the county one of the first in the state to take such action, which has since been copied by many other counties. "It was the right thing to do," said Welle, adding that that legislation was approved because it would provide more efficient service, be consumer-friendly and save the county money.

Welle said he would support shared staff and services between cities and other counties if the same benefits were realized.

On the question of appointing, rather than electing the county auditor, Welle gave full support to appointing not only the auditor but also the recorder. He said the technical nature of the jobs makes appointment a more feasible option for finding capable employees in the future. He said counties that appoint department heads have not been sorry they did so.

Williamson disagreed. He wants to keep electing department heads to preserve a "truly grassroots" form of government. He said that was the basis for how the country was founded and it allows constituents to hold officers responsible for their jobs.

Imdieke said appointment "appears to make sense," especially with the retirement of Auditor Sam Modderman.

Nelson said the issue should be put on the ballot for voters to decide.

O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran, said he fought to protect the right for people to vote but said he would research the issue before making a decision as a commissioner.

When the audience weighed in on the topic, 66 percent supported appointing the positions and 34 percent supported electing them.

When the audience was asked to list the top three priorities for the county, the top issue was property taxes. Economic development, preserving natural resources, unfunded mandates and aquatic invasive species all tied for second and local government cooperation ranked third.

Williamson was the only candidate to specifically put property taxes at the top of his list. The other candidates talked about "doing more with less" and becoming more efficient, but most candidates named economic development as the top issue.

During their closing comments, the candidates touted their experience on other local government boards, including school board, township, agricultural groups and military organizations.

Nelson said she grew up in the district and understands the community and its needs. She said she would be a "strong advocate" and provide proficient leadership on the county board.

O'Brien said he has testified before the Legislature in the past for his job as a conservation officer and would not be shy about doing it for the county. "I'm not afraid to say this is our county. This is what we need."

Welle said he was previously named legislator of the year by the Association of Minnesota Counties because he consistently asked lawmakers if the state was going to fund mandates or if counties would have to raise property taxes to do work the state required. His legislative experience will help the county, said Welle.

Williamson said listening is just as important as talking. He said he has spent the summer talking to people in the district and asking them what they think is important. "That's what it takes to be a county commissioner," he said.

Imdieke said his experience on various boards and with his family business has proven that he can work with different people and organizations. "I will ask some hard questions," he said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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