WAASA TWP — Voters packed the town hall meeting room here on Tuesday night to hear from the six candidates vying to replace outgoing Fourth District County Commissioner Tom Rukavina. Town …
WAASA TWP — Voters packed the town hall meeting room here on Tuesday night to hear from the six candidates vying to replace outgoing Fourth District County Commissioner Tom Rukavina. Town supervisors organized the event, which was the first and only time that all the candidates were set to meet face-to-face in a forum ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.
The candidates, including Mike Forsman Jr., Paul Kess, Dan Manick, Paul McDonald, Bernie Mettler, and Christine Schlotec offered opening statements before taking three prepared questions from Supervisor Emily Quick, and later from the audience.
Opening statements were given in the order candidates were seated.
“I think I can do more than talk about what I can do at the county level,” Ely City Councilor Paul Kess said. “I think mining is critical to supporting our infrastructure. I support PolyMet.” Kess also advocated for more of a focus on mental health and said the county “can do more, especially in the rural areas in the Fourth District.”
Retired sheriff’s deputy Bernie Mettler stressed his familiarity with the sprawling district. “I have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the area,” he said. “There aren’t too many gravel roads I haven’t been down.” He also said he’d heard it all, so he’s used to the pressure. “You can scream and holler at me, and I’ll just look at you and smile,” he said.”
Mike Forsman Jr. advocated for more trails in the district, and also wants to see more accountability for public spending. “I try to teach people to have ownership of the money they spend,” he said. “They need to know they are spending other people’s money.”
Former Cook City Councilor and current ISD 2142 School Board representative Dan Manick stressed that most public officials go into politics for the right reasons. “Whether it’s town board or the school district, you are doing your best to help people.” He also conceded that the school district he represents isn’t that popular in many parts of the region. “Please don’t throw any rocks,” he said.
Paul McDonald stressed his service to people over his career in education. “I’ve been an advocate for people my entire life, wherever it happens to be,” he said. “Whether it is a road that needs fixing, or grandma or grandpa need some more time in their home, or endangered children. With houses empty all over this area, we have an opportunity to fill those homes with miners.”
Christine Schlotec argued for change. “If we don’t have a voice of change, then we will never see change,” she said. “We pay enough taxes, and we need to address where the money goes. I have an understanding that what is on top of the earth is just as important as what is underneath.”
Candidates first addressed their top priorities should they be elected.
“My number one priority is to represent everybody,” Mettler said. “It is a tall order. I think a lot of people feel as if they don’t get a voice. The ability that I have grown over the last 20 some years to communicate with people and make them feel heard, I think I would serve the district and the board well. We can’t do anything if we are fighting.”
“My number one priority is jobs,” McDonald said. “We need to have employers. We have five percent of the jobs in the county. Could you imagine what five extra jobs in Babbitt would mean? I am well connected locally, and at the state and nationally. People want to locate here, we need to improve things like broadband. If we attract them, we’ll get some young people back in the area.”
“The quality I bring is big picture thinking,” Schlotec said. “The biggest problem with roads and broadband is that we don’t have the money to pay for it. We need to close the loopholes that allow out-of-county people to come and not pay taxes in the county. It shorts the money we need.”
“We have an almost $400 million budget, I think it is important that we have a hard look at the money,” Kess said. “I think the priority is bringing fairness to the Fourth District.”
When asked to identify two disagreements they had with the current county board, and how they would have approached the issue differently, some candidates struggled to identify two issues, but most had concerns.
“To start off with I couldn’t come up with two disagreements,” Forsman said. “I think the board has been doing a good job. The only thing that I would have disagreed with, and it is minor, was a veteran was turned down for the job because he didn’t have (board) support.”
Manick said he disagreed with the county’s handling of youth mental health, and said he wanted to see action before it’s too late. “If a kid is lucky enough to get into Range Mental Health, that is great,” Manick said. “If people need help, they have to go to Duluth, and if they are full, they go to North Dakota. I really believe until it hits close to home, the board won’t do anything.”
McDonald said the county needed to work more closely with local communities on construction projects. “One is the County Highway 100 project south of Aurora,” he said. “They decided to fix it during the school year, and it added 45 – 50 minutes to kids at Mesabi East. With more communication, they could have talked and put less of a burden on the school district. Second, we’re not supporting communities that prosper.”
Scholtec took issue with a county joint facility in her hometown of Cook, arguing it is too costly.
“The county raised property tax by 12 percent,” she said. “If we control where the money is going better, we wouldn’t need to increase taxes.”
Kess agreed with Schlotec.
“The service center in Cook is problematic in how it was paid for,” he said. He added he would also look at septic issues. “Problems with septic tanks… I would have approached that differently. The county comprehensive plan, it has received little public input. I think I would have approached that differently.”
Mettler took issue with the board’s handling of a 9-1-1 call center in Midway.
“When the county board decided to close down the 911 office in Midway, I don’t know if you folks know how poor your service got after that, “he said. “The board agreed to give the department $300,000 to upgrade. It still doesn’t work. Emergency services and public safety are where I’ve lived.”
As for improvements they’d like to bring to the county, Manick argued for more resources to provide guidance for youth. “We have several School Resource Officers,” he said. “I’d like to see it expanded with the drug problem happening. We have two officers that are spread out across the entire district.” He added he wanted to see county jobs moved to the area and suggested the auditor’s office could be moved to Babbitt or Aurora.
McDonald said he wanted to form a citizens’ committee on road development along with addressing out-of-home placement of foster children.
“We spend $25 million in fostering,” he said. “We need to develop a good quality system. We have to do things for kids so they are not on the taxpayers’ backs for the rest of their lives. Get mental health on the front burner and not kick it down the road.”
Schlotec said she wanted to address communication in the county, and whether social media could be better used to get information out to residents. She also said she wanted to address what she felt was crime coming in from out-of-county residents moving into the area.
“Virginia is the number two most dangerous city in the state; Duluth is fourth,” she said. “Even if you don’t see it, you’re paying for it.”
“I think if we are serious about jobs, we need to get the county involved in broadband,” McDonald said. “We also need to get $1.5 million for roads lost to county downgrading (of county roads to townships).”
Public safety and roads were on Mettler’s list to tackle.
“The county should take over placement of fire numbers,” he said. “They should all be done the same way. It wouldn’t take much at all. I agree the county needs to get on board with broadband. There’s this guy at the coffee shop who harps at me about Johnson Road; we need to get it fixed.”
“We need equity in county employees, ensuring that Duluth remains equitable to us,” Forsman said. “We need to get the copper-nickel projects rolling. We need to stop the opposition who is taking money out of our mouths.”
Public weighs in
“I don’t care about your canned answers,” said Chris Alaspa, who spoke from the audience. “I care about your character. Let’s say you’re on the board and you have some elderly people who need help, what would you do?”
McDonald said his experience with the Knights of Columbus had led him to do a lot of service projects. “I know a lot of people who would help, and I could help myself,” he said. “Whatever we can do to keep these people in the area, we need to keep them.”
Schlotec said the county could develop an outreach program.
Kess said family is the first line of support, and the county should work with them.
“I’ve got thirty loads of cut wood,” Mettler said. “I’d bring her a load.”
Forsman said he would get on the phone with organizations he thought could help.
Mettler said kids should be called to help out. “Show kids to give back after people who help them,” he said. “This is something a citizen can do.” He added he would help facilitate as a commissioner.
When asked about splitting the county, Schlotec said the district was “getting the short end of the stick,” however she added that nothing was going to change unless 28,000 people signed a petition.
“It’s far more complicated,” Kess said. “I am not in favor of splitting the county— yet. We need to build bridges with the Duluth commissioners.”
Mettler said merging with other counties could be considered if the southern part of the county were to be separated. He added, however, that while it may be better, it was impractical.
Forsman said splitting the county would not create a net gain for residents.
Manick and McDonald both said a study should be conducted so residents understand the arguments for and against the idea. Manick also added that something needed to be done before six of the seven commissioners all represented Duluth.
Phil Hebl asked about putting tax-forfeited properties up for sale,, and whether candidates supported putting them back on the tax rolls.
Kess said he had seen the benefit of land sales near Ely, and was in favor of putting land back on the tax roll, which was a view backed by most of the other candidates. McDonald said selling the land could lead to economic development and bring more people to the area.
Schlotec said the land should be considered for not only residential development, but industrial as well.
George Pliml asked what the county would do to promote local foods and farms to keep the money from agriculture local.
“In large part, the county is doing it already, there is a tax credit if you have a problem,” Mettler said. “I don’t know if it can be expanded. But if you have a farm, you get a tax credit.”
Forsman didn’t answer, and said he would need to look into it more.
Manick said abandoned buildings, such as schools, could be used to hold products during the winter to be redistributed for sale.
McDonald blamed state and federal programs for taking aid away from local farmers, causing a decline in incentives for people to farm locally.
Scholtec said people need to realize that mining wasn’t the only resource in the area.
“If they have something where they package (farm products) in the local area, and farmers could bring it in, that is where money should go.”
Kess said the county could do a better job of utilizing county-made products in schools and jails.
When asked about their biggest mistakes, Forsman said people need to own up to their failings.
“You need to have integrity. You tell the kids to tell the truth in the beginning.”
Manick anecdotally shared an experience of doing the right thing when no one was looking.
McDonald said he wrongly told his daughter where she would get married and later had to back down.
Schlotec said she believes in karma.
Kess said he has made the mistake of not communicating with his fellow city councilors in the past.
Mettler told the story of being caught drunk-driving by one of his fellow deputies when he worked for the sheriff’s office.
Sandra Gibson asked how the candidates would include rural districts in their role as commissioner.
“You never forget where you came from,” Manick said. “You have to reach out to everybody, it doesn’t matter how small the community.”
“You find out how many small areas are involved here in this large district,” McDonald said. “When people call you with an issue, your job is to help that person. You need to do your due diligence to find out what they need.”
“I will go to two meetings a year (in each community),” Schlotec said. “You need to go to them. It is amazing what you can learn at one meeting.”
“There are 26 named townships and a dozen or so communities,” Kess said. “It is difficult to get to each one, you need to get out and communicate.”
“I don’t pretend to know all of the answers, but I learn more questions,” Mettler said “You’re going to get what you get with me. If you call me, I’ll come out to you. If we agree, we have a basis to begin work, if we don’t then we have a basis to begin dialogue.”
“I saw my dad when he was commissioner before I left,” Forsman said. “He took the time, every time, to listen. I’ll work with you to try and resolve it.”