A candidate’s forum, hosted by the Mille Lacs Equal Rights Foundation last Tuesday evening at the Phoenix Hotel & Banquet Center in Milaca, featured an open-question style political debate between candidates for the county commissioners’ seats as well as state offices.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, State Sen. Dave Brown and county commissioner candidates Jack Edmonds and Genny Reynolds (District 1), Dan Whitcomb and Timothy Wilhelm (District 2), Phillip Eggen and Laurie Gahm (District 3), Rick Satvitski and Roger Tellinghuisen (District 4), and David Olsin and Katie Vivant (District 5) were available to answer questions. Candidates Sally Knox and Roy Theisen, who are challenging Sen. Brown, Joe Walsh, who is challenging Rep. Erickson, and County Commissioner Phil Peterson and candidates Greg McQuay (District 4) and Bill Hill (District 5) were absent.
Meet the candidates
Jack Edmonds: incumbent for District 1, lifetime resident of Princeton, married 40 years, Army veteran, American Legion board member, truck driver.
“I’ve been serving two terms now and I’d very much like to serve another term,” he said. “I think my record speaks for itself. I’m very proud of my record.”
Genny Reynolds: Princeton resident for 16 years, married 18 years, Chamber of Commerce member, Biz to Biz member.
“One of the things that got me interested in the county commissioner [seat] is the tax burden on businesses and individuals in Princeton,” she said. “It’s a city I’d like to see flourish.”
Tim Wilhelm: Lifelong resident of Mille Lacs County, married 37 years, family farm operator, school bus service manager.
“I think we need to aggressively seek to expand the tax base,” he said. “Government is outstripping the ability of taxpayers to fund it. I also believe in fiscal responsibility. That doesn’t mean we put it [government] out of business, but we need to slow it down a bit.”
Dan Whitcomb: incumbent for District 2, former Zimmerman mayor, degree in physics and master’s in management.
“I want to have a better quality of life in Mille Lacs County,” he said. “And I also want a fiscally-conservative government. I don’t like the nickel and dime of the public by adding staff throughout the year.”
Lauri Gahm: married 34 years, seven children, ER nurse at Fairview Northland Medical Center.
“I love Milaca and I love Mille Lacs County,” she said. “I do know that I want it to stay a good place to live. We have a county here that is struggling financially and I think we need to make some changes.”
Phillip Eggen: born and raised in Mille Lacs County.
“I think the county needs direction,” he said. “I ran four years ago and I lost by nine votes, so I’ll try again.”
Roger Tellinghuisen: incumbent for District 4, National Guard veteran, several board positions.
“I’ve lived on the same farm for 62 years, so I don’t know what it’s like to move,” he said. “People tell me it’s no fun anyway. I think we’ve done pretty well on the county commission.”
Rick Savitski: single father, veteran, resident for four years.
“I want to try and change policy in the building and zoning department,” he said. “I’m not here to take jobs away from people, but these are your tax dollars. We don’t need a septic inspector and that’s all she does. My job is to go into the county and take jobs that don’t need to be filled.”
David Oslin: longtime resident, 27 years married, public works superintendent for a number of years, enjoys hunting and the outdoors.
“I’ve worked pretty much my entire adult life outdoors. I think I have what it takes to represent Mille Lacs County. I volunteered for the steering committee because I agree with its form.”
Katie Vivant: owner/manager of a family business, mother of four, volunteer.
“I have small children that will eventually have to come into what we leave for them,” she said. “Policies need to reflect the differences between the north and south end of the county. We have different needs.”
Phil Peterson, the incumbent for District 3, was unable to attend the forum due to a scheduling conflict and had a statement read to those in attendance.
“I have enjoyed serving the public and always try to base my decisions on how they would affect property owners,” the statement read.
The candidates were asked questions pertaining to how the county budget process works, why they are paid $17,000 a year, and why they believe they are qualified to develop a county budget. They were also asked about a public forum as part of the county commissioners monthly meeting, an opportunity that has been missing from the meetings for several years. All incumbents and candidates expressed willingness in reviving the public forum if enough interest is generated.
To the question of their pay, Tellinghuisen responded:
“Why does Aitkin County [commissioner] get paid $28,000?” he said. “We’re probably the lowest paid commissioners in the region. It isn’t just a couple of meetings a month. I don’t feel that we are certainly overpaid.”
Savitski’s motivations for running for county commissioner were questioned by one audience member, who observed most of his complaints were aimed at the planning and zoning department stemming from a litigation the county has placed on him involving zoning violations.
All incumbents mentioned the fact they have been able to produce a budget with a zero percent increase in the county’s tax levy.
Sen. Brown shared his views on smaller government.
“I do have goals for smaller government,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I voted against the DNR license fee increases. I believe in three areas we could cut spending by $1 billion, and that’s the Met Council, immigration and welfare reform.”
He said some areas deserve more funding, such as group homes and places like the DAC. “If we cut their budgets yet again, they will become a burden on the county,” he said.
Brown said his top priority is “to create an environment where we grow our jobs.” He said one way to do that is speed up the mining permitting process for northern Minnesota.
Rep. Erickson said she is also in favor of scaling back government.
“There needs to be reduction in spending and some agencies have run amok,” she said. “This is a property poor county, so we need to increase the tax base, or we’re going to tax ourselves to death. If the private sector can do it better, let’s send it to the private sector.”
She also took issue with the DNR, and said its spending doesn’t have positive results.
“I don’t see the DNR moving in the right direction and we need to be a watchdog on some of these programs.”
Joe Walsh, who is running for Erickson’s seat in the House of Representatives, sent these responses to the Times:
Bio: business leader, President of Milaca Area Chamber of Commerce, Biz to Biz member, volunteer speech coach at Milaca High School, husband and father.
“I would reverse the last legislature’s trend of raising property taxes on farmers and small business owners and create property tax relief for rural communities,” he said. “I would reduce government waste by ensuring that all funding has a direct, positive impact on the public. I would strengthen welfare fraud protections and work to eliminate intentional underemployment solely for the purpose of receiving a government handout.”
Walsh said his top priority would be education, and especially rural district funding.