The races for Hennepin County commissioner seats are overwhelmingly uncontested this year, with incumbents throughout the region facing few serious threats.
But District 2 incumbent Mark Stenglein is up against a seasoned politician in Blair Tremere, a former Golden Valley, Minn., mayor and city council member. Stenglein, who lives in Northeast, beat Tremere by a wide margin in the Aug. 10 primary with 71 percent of the vote (9,811 votes) to Tremere’s 19 percent (2,648 votes). But that gap was much smaller than those in other districts.
Both candidates are taking each other seriously and trying to drum up support in a race that doesn’t command the voter attention of more high-profile positions, such as senator or state representative. And they aren’t alone. Another challenger, Roger Smithrud of Minneapolis, was a distant third in the primary with 9 percent of the vote (1,287 votes), but he has refused to drop out and is running as a write-in candidate. The Star Tribune mailroom employee said he doesn’t want to take away votes from the other candidates; he hopes to draw voters who otherwise wouldn’t make it to the polls.
Whoever wins the District 2 commissioner seat will serve on the county board as a representative of Northeast and sections of Downtown, North Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, Plymouth, New Hope and Crystal.
The Journal asked all of the candidates two questions: why they’re running and how they would address the three most significant challenges they see in the district. They each had 200 words to answer the first question and 300 words to answer the second.
Here are their responses.
Why are you running for the District 2 County Commissioner seat?
Stenglein: I am running for Hennepin County commissioner because I believe my diverse background, including working in the private sector for over 20 years, and my record of performance gives me the experience and expertise to find the innovative solutions to tackle the tough issues facing the county.
The State budget crisis is forcing the county to change how it does business. Balancing the budget is a challenge — like it is for many families — but it presents an opportunity to prioritize and improve our service and we have. Under my leadership, we will continue to be proactive and find creative ways to save money — like making operations more energy efficient and moving human services closer to the community.
We reduced the 2010 budget by $100 million dollars from 2009 without impacting essential services, and will work hard to maintain essential services and projects in 2011. Working together we have accomplished a lot, but we have much more to do. We have an incredibly exciting future ahead and I’m running to ensure that Hennepin County stays a great place where people want to live, work and play.
Tremere: I have dedicated most of my adult life to providing quality public service, as a citizen, professional manager, and as a mayor and city council member. I have observed and I share the dissatisfaction Second District citizens have about the service they receive from their commissioner. Taxpayers correctly sense they get minimal representation on matters that would keep the cost of government within realistic means.
Citizens expect and deserve accountable, decisive and prudent public policy-making through effective representation on the Board. The county board needs a new member who will advocate full and ongoing review of policies, programs and budgets, which too often get only token and uninspired attention — often obscured from public scrutiny.
I am qualified to serve as that new member. I will champion an open process to tackle the challenges. I have addressed the issues in detail in my Action Agenda.
This is the time for citizens of Hennepin County Second District to decide who is best qualified to represent them for at least the next two years. This is when the voters can decide to limit the term of the incumbent who has held the office since 1996.
Smithrud: I am running for county commissioner due to the less than 7 percent turnout in the primaries. I feel that the other 93 percent or more deserve an opportunity to vote for the better candidate. When I am looking for ways the residents of Hennepin County can buy the bonds, specially tax free bonds, that we use on our larger deals such as the stadium, hotels that will provide jobs in their construction and after … so that the money circulates with in the city, county and the state and improves the overall economy of our community.
I’m there to serve everybody. If you agree, write my name on the ballot. Thank you, have a nice state and God bless.
What, in your opinion, are the top three challenges facing the district and how would you address them?
Stenglein: Ensuring Hennepin County stays an economic engine for the region: We need to prioritize, make strategic investments and be creative to resolve the impacts presented by the state budget crisis. The county is the social safety net and we must protect our most vulnerable citizens including the elderly. We will reduce the budget again this year and adopt a budget that is responsible, keeps the tax levy flat, protects our most vulnerable citizens, makes strategic investments like the Lowry Bridge and the Northeast Library renovations, and maintains our Triple A credit rating. We can make this happen by utilizing the strong relationships I have helped establish with our many public and private partners.
Strengthen education, graduation rates and public safety: Hennepin County has one of the finest library systems in the nation and one of the only that expanded hours this past year. We should encourage everyone to use the many educational and entertaining programs offered.
We are collaborating with the 17 school districts in Hennepin County to leverage resources to reduce achievement disparities and implement evidence based strategies to increase graduation rates. Children who graduate from high school tend to stay out of the criminal justice system and have a better chance of leading healthy, productive lives. We need to continue partnering to find ways to be more cost effective and strengthen our communities.
Improve transportation options: Hennepin County is the lead partner on several transit and transportation initiatives in the region. Advancing strategic projects like the Northstar Commuter Rail, the new Lowry Avenue Bridge, the new Main Street Bridge and the NE Diagonal Bike Trail, will increase mobility and access to jobs, and improve the sutainability and livability of Hennepin County.
Tremere: Three critical projects facing the entire county are policy based, rather than brick-and-mortar or steel rails. The County Board is elected to make policy and to provide responsible governance. These tasks must be addressed and resolved, now.
Establishing accountable and effective control of the regressive taxes levied by the county.
Carefully monitor expenditures to assure they are in line with available revenues, and are not approved on the basis of speculative revenues and perpetual debt.
Present a more effective case for taxpayers and legislators that demonstrates the gap between the cost of mandated, “maintenance of effort” programs and the actual revenues derived from mostly regressive sales and property taxes authorized and limited by the state.
Set priorities for all spending with program adoption and continuation to ensure core service obligations are met before funding discretionary non-essential programs is considered.
Initiate a detailed evaluation, by the board itself, of the current “Mission Statement,” “Vision Statement,” and “Over Arching Goals” which are the foundation for policy decisions and performance evaluation. Involve the public in an open and deliberate process.
Move to adopt sunset provisions with all program approvals and renewals. Maintain and respect a tracking system that triggers performance evaluations.
Invite and enact affordable solutions that work.
Listen to constituents and to city officials and honestly and diligently champion positive and practicable interests before the Board. Put legitimate ideas and ways to realize cost-effective improved service ahead of internal Board politics.
Promote a shift in Board and staff attitude, from the culture of creating programs and perpetuating existing ones due to a seeming endless supply of public funds, to a realistic governance model that encourages and rewards innovation to optimize service with minimum or no new taxes.
Smithrud: All Hennepin County residents have the right to feel safe in their own neighborhood, and certainly the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy at home. Parents have the right to teach children their own values; government does not have the right to make those choices for us. Families have been too often torn asunder without evidence of danger. Disapproval of lifestyle or family choices is not enough. Only imminent threat of danger may justify removal of children from their parents.
All county employees should be trained in the Constitutions of the United States and Minnesota, so that they understand the rights and expectations of the citizens of Hennepin County, and how they fit into the system. Even on a mission from the government to a citizen’s home, they have the right to go to your gate, or front door if no gate, and no further without permission or court order, without exception.
Social Services seems to have developed a life of its own, that none of the rest of us can ever understand. Too often, charges languish for years, keeping kids in limbo and costing their parents everything they own or can borrow, without a reasonable closure or sometimes even evidence to justify disrupting the family in the first place. County employee/service-providers must be accountable for the impact they have on our families. I propose a citizen Board of Inquiry, that will investigate each time a family claims damages due to the action of a Hennepin County employee, and hold them accountable.