Crowded race set for county board

9 seek to replace Huffman going into August primary

 

There are nine candidates running for the District 1 seat on the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, making the special election to fill Blake Huffman’s vacated spot an especially crowded race. 

With the filing period now closed, commissioner hopefuls are on their way to an Aug. 13 primary, after which voters will be left with two candidates to choose from on Election Day, Nov. 5.

Huffman resigned effective June 1, following a conflict of interest investigation into use of public money by his former nonprofit. 

The public nature of his resignation, coupled with the strained relationship between the county and the City of Arden Hills over the Rice Creek Commons development, spurred many longtime residents to throw their hats into the ring. 

The candidates are Bill Bergeron, Douglas Blomberg, Nicole Frethem, Jodi Hultgren, Randy Jessup, Marty Long, Steve Scott, Nick Tamble and Mark Voss. Three additional candidates — Christopher Nguyen, Edwina Patterson and Rebecca Scholl — filed but withdrew after losing the Democratic endorsement to Frethem on June 19. 

Whoever’s elected in November will fill Huffman’s seat on the county board for the remainder of his term, which runs through 2020. District 1 includes Arden Hills, Gem Lake, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Township and parts of Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and Blaine.

Frethem, Jessup and Tamble were the first to file and were covered more extensively in a June 11/12 article, “Commissioner race heats up.” 

Frethem is running on a platform of improving county services, while Jessup and Tamble were spurred to run because of the Arden Hills development. Jessup, a former representative in the Minnesota House, has stated that the county is bullying Arden Hills when it comes to the Rice Creek Commons. Tamble, a former Arden Hills council member, said he wants to hear from both sides.

Of the remaining candidates, Bergeron, Long and Scott are current city council members in Mounds View, North Oaks and Arden Hills, respectively. Blomberg, Hultgren and Voss would be stepping into elected office, driven to run by changes they would like to see in their communities. 

 

City council to county board

If elected commissioner, Scott would be crossing sides in what has become a standoff between the county and the City of Arden Hills over Rice Creek Commons, the 427-acre, mixed-use redevelopment of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site.

While the city wants to move forward with a 2016 master plan, the county has renewed its push for more residential density, leading to a standstill in negotiations. The county is suing to dissolve the joint powers agreement with the city, which currently allows for shared planning of the site between the two parties.  

Scott, a veteran who recently retired from a job in information technology with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, said he wants to go over the numbers regarding the development and is open to changes that would protect Arden Hills’ investment in it.

“What’s the profit margin at 1,460 units, what would be the profit margin at 1,600, and what’s the profit margin at 2,500?” he asked.

Long has been a North Oaks City Council member for more than a decade. He said he was also brought into the race partly by concerns about the large development, and emphasized his connection to most of the district through having served on joint oversight boards shared with neighboring cities. 

“I was asked [to run] by a number of people because they said I don’t have an agenda,” said Long, who owns Minnesota Mulch and Soil. “It’s important that [TCAAP] is developed with the whole county in mind.”

Asked about future development in the north metro, Long said he’d push for mixed-use projects, “where there’s retail on the ground floor, underground parking and three levels of apartments ... where they have the whole community of parks and transit and retail.”

Bergeron, who has previously been involved in Democratic caucuses and his local neighborhood association, identified increased public transit and road infrastructure projects as two issues that will play out in the north metro going forward, and will necessitate close cooperation between multiple levels of government.

He emphasized his desire to build relationships early in order to avoid animosity down the line. 

“[It takes more than,] ‘If you have an issue, give me a call’ ... if I’ve developed any skills in operations management, and in my time on the [Mounds View] council, it’s been bringing people together to try to form a consensus,” he said.

 

Motivated by taxes, water and the working class

Blomberg, who has lived in Shoreview since 1990 and is retired from a career in technology working for 3M, Cargill and Control Data Corporation, cited affordable housing concerns and increasing taxes as some of his primary motivations to run.

“Right now we’re being taxed so much that we’re taxing people out of their homes,” he said. “The issue is that you cannot raise taxes on some people to make affordable housing for the others.”

Hultgren, who lives near Snail Lake Regional Park, was driven to run by rising water levels. She hopes to increase communication between the county and its residents and try to find long-term solutions, saying she doesn’t see what’s currently being done to manage water levels.

Having worked in finance and supply chain operations, she also cited steadily rising property taxes as a motivation for running. “A lot of what I worked with through the years is budgeting and making sure people work within their budget,” she said.

Voss, a sheet metal worker, would also be new to elected office but has been active in his union. At the June 19 Democratic endorsement convention, he said he wants to be a voice for the working class and supports apprenticeship and workforce readiness programs.

“I can consolidate the building trades vote, we have over 4,000 members in District 1 alone. I can bring those people out, get them to the polls and get them to vote,” he said at the conference.

 

Wide open

Asked about his decision to run, Blomberg noted, “First of all there’s an open seat. Blake Huffman ran last time and he had no competition whatsoever.”

Huffman, a 16-year Shoreview City Council member before joining the county board, indeed ran unopposed in 2016 for his second term. 

Longtime Arden Hills City Council member Brenda Holden said the seat feels like it’s truly open for the first time in years. 

“Tony Bennett, he was [on the board] for a long time. Then, when the Vikings stadium came up, he lost to Blake. And then Blake has held the position for a while,” said Holden, referencing the proposal to build a sports venue at the TCAAP site. “I just don’t think [previously] there was a strong enough candidate — there were other fights within the district.”

Holden noted that 2016 was also an election year for the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives.

“I’ve heard about eight [candidates] talk and most of the issues they have are health and human services issues, things that are already being addressed by all the other county commissioners,” said Holden, saying she hoped whoever was elected would take a specific interest in the district’s unique makeup of second-ring suburbs.  

Commissioners establish county-wide policies and oversee the county’s budget and operations. Serving on the county board is a full-time position, with a salary of more than $90,000 a year. 

Early voting for the Aug. 13 primary opens June 28 and will be available by mail and in person at the Ramsey County Elections Office, 90 W. Plato Blvd. in St. Paul. 

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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