County board primary to narrow field to 2 for special election

The race to fill Blake Huffman’s former seat on the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners is an unusually crowded contest, meriting a primary on Tuesday, Aug. 13, to narrow the field to two candidates.

The winner of this November’s special election will represent District 1 on the board for the remainder of Huffman’s term, which runs through 2020. 

District 1 covers Arden Hills, Gem Lake, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Township and parts of Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and Blaine. 

Huffman’s high profile resignation amidst a conflict of interest investigation, coupled with the county’s pending lawsuit against the City of Arden Hills over the 427-acre redevelopment of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site, have led many to enter the special election.

In May the county sued Arden Hills to dissolve the TCAAP joint powers agreement, which allows for shared planning of the project between the city and county, which owns the site, following differences over financing, as well as residential density and affordability for the development. The lawsuit is now pending. 

In addition to TCAAP, candidates cited high water levels in the area, high taxes and housing needs as motivations for throwing their hats into the ring.

County commissioners establish countywide policies and oversee the county’s budget, which was $740 million for 2019. Serving on the board is a full-time position, with an annual salary of more than $90,000.

Ahead of the Aug. 13 primary, the District 1 candidates answered questionnaires via email, explaining why they are running, what issues are important to them and what they believe to be the top challenges facing the region.   

The eight hopefuls are Douglas Blomberg, Nicole Frethem, Jodi Hultgren, Randy Jessup, Marty Long, Steve Scott, Nick Tamble and Mark Voss. 

Mounds View City Council member Bill Bergeron filed to run and his name will appear on the ballot, but he has since dropped out of the race due to time constraints. 

 

Blomberg, 77, is a Shoreview resident who said he has lived his entire life in the county. After studying math and computer science at the University of Minnesota, he spent a large part of his career working for Control Data Corporation. 

He said his experience as an IT systems analyst, installing new software and troubleshooting issues on the fly would serve him well if elected to the county board.

As a retiree, Blomberg said he has time to spend working on county issues and devoting himself to the role of commissioner, which is a full-time salaried position. 

He said he hopes to keep taxes low; his plan includes getting rid of the wheelage tax — a county tax on license plate tabs — and repealing a recent 2.5% commissioner salary raise. Resolving TCAAP issues outside of court is another of his priorities.

Additionally, Blomberg said he hopes to partner with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, city administrators, young people and police officers to help curb the number of people using firearms illegally. 

When it comes to affordable housing, Blomberg said he wants to look into whether the issue can be solved by building more units or by putting in place more assistance programs to help residents pay for existing housing stock.

 

Frethem, 36, is currently a supervisor in the childcare services division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The Shoreview resident also grew up in the county, and has spent the bulk of her career working in childcare. 

After running a childcare center in St. Paul, she transitioned into the state agency as a childcare advocate and policy specialist. Frethem said her career has given her a strong analytical background and the ability to turn quantitative data into policy decisions.

She received a master’s degree in early childhood education from Concordia University in St. Paul and is working on a law degree at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“One of our top challenges is growing our tax base in an almost entirely developed county,” said Frethem. “There are great needs in our county, but we cannot continue to raise property taxes when wages are not growing within it.”

Frethem said she hopes to maintain the features that the community values most, while reimagining what suburban neighborhoods can look and feel like in a way that is environmentally sustainable and economically smart. 

Her other priorities include rebuilding the relationship between Ramsey County and the City of Arden Hills, as well as coming up with a comprehensive management plan to address high water levels and flooding across the north metro. 

 

Hultgren, 56, said one of her main reasons for entering the race was to solve ongoing high water levels in District 1.

“We need a long-term plan to resolve the issue, not just continue treating the symptoms,” said the Shoreview resident. She added that transparent communication between the county and its residents when it comes to lake elevations and management solutions would be one of her priorities. 

Hultgren also expressed a desire to resolve TCAAP, saying it was unacceptable that a compromise could not be reached without taking legal action. 

Asked about challenges facing the region, she emphasized the need to grow the tax base and control property taxes while also addressing an increased need for social services. 

She said her degree in accounting from Bemidji State University, along with professional experience in finance and supply chain operations, would help her be fiscally responsible and solve problems if elected to the county board. 

“There seem to be more and more issues popping up that are all under Ramsey County control. I always ask, ‘Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?’” Hultgren said. “When I heard that the position for District 1 was open, I decided to become part of the solution.”

 

Jessup, 58, is a Shoreview resident, owner of five UPS stores and a former state representative for House District 42A. He served in the legislature from 2017 to 2018 as a Republican and was named a 2017 Legislator of Distinction by the League of Minnesota Cities.

Asked why he was running, Jessup cited the lack of any “no” votes or abstentions on board decisions thus far this year. “Residents are not being served well when there’s restricted public access, underdeveloped discussions, and a narrow field of ideas,” he said of the lack of recent dissent.

He said board transparency and public discourse would be priorities, as well as shifting meetings to take place in the evening. “Board meetings are held on Tuesday mornings, which limits public involvement.”

Jessup said he also hopes to resolve the TCAAP dispute, saying, “[the master] plan, established in 2016, was approved with public, school district and Minnesota Department of Transportation involvement. The county now seeks to usurp that public approval process.”

Jessup has a master’s in business administration from the University of Minnesota, as well as two bachelor’s degrees in engineering. 

In his work with UPS, he said he has served as a franchisee board chair, helping oversee 4,300 stores nationally. Jessup said his leadership abilities, coupled with past collaborative efforts as a legislator, would serve him well, if elected. 

 

Long, 58, lives in North Oaks and has served on its city council since 2008. 

He said he has also collaborated with neighboring communities, serving on joint boards for the Lake Johanna Fire Department and the Vadnais Lake Area Water Management Organization. Both the fire department and the water management organization serve multiple cities in the north metro.

Long said his experience working on the joint oversight boards, along with over 21 years of experience as an elected official, would serve him well if elected to the county board.

He has a degree in business and marketing from St. John’s University and is the owner of Minnesota Mulch & Soil. 

“I believe I have a deep understanding of the issues facing cities in our area,” Long said of his reasons for running. “I understand that cities in our district need a strong voice at the county level. And I am committed to listening to the representatives of each city.”

He said he supports “common-sense discussions” about the TCAAP site, and finding a solution that will help Arden Hills as well as the entire district. 

“We need to ensure a successful, well-communicated outcome to bring new homes, new jobs and an enhanced quality of life for our community,” Long said, noting the time and money both the city and county have already invested in the project. 

 

Scott, 67, lives in Arden Hills and serves on its city council. He recently retired from his role as an IT project manager with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and has a master’s degree in business administration from Western New England University. 

Scott said his almost three years of experience in city government, as well as his time on the Ramsey County League of Local Governments board, would serve him well as a commissioner.

“I have already established working relationships with the Ramsey County League of Local Governments’ 16 member cities, one township, the county, its water and soil conservation district and five school districts,” he said. 

He added that “as the only military veteran in the race, I also have effective relationships with our rapidly expanding military units at the Arden Hills Army Training Site.”

Rebuilding trust in the county following Huffman’s resignation would be a priority for Scott, along with bringing the county back to the table on TCAAP. Greater transparency about why the county’s concerns over density and affordability were renewed last year is also on his mind.

“The master plan was complete, both sides were in agreement and mass grading of the site was imminent last spring. What happened? Only the county and master developer knows. The taxpayers deserve to know,” he said. 

 

Tamble, 45, lives in Arden Hills and is the founder and president of Lawn & Landscape Gardens, Ltd. He’s been a business owner for 29 years and served on the Arden Hills City Council from 2011 to 2012. He is also a member of the Ramsey County Capital Improvement Program Citizens’ Advisory Committee.

Asked why he is running, Tamble — who holds a degree in education from Concordia University — said he wants to improve the quality of life for those who live, work and play in the county. 

“Our community needs a strong leader who can positively communicate with city and county officials, as well as staff, residents and business owners,” he said. 

He identified community development, mass transit, and aging roads and facilities as some of the top challenges facing the district in coming years. 

Tamble said he would prioritize funding public safety, including communication technology for use between firefighters, police and first responders. He also said he would work to promote business development, especially at the TCAAP site. 

His other priorities include addressing aging county facilities and maintaining roads; improving public health services; and maintaining and improving county parks, trails, beaches and sports facilities. 

 

Voss, 40, is a White Bear Township resident and union sheet metal worker. His wife, Tina, is a longtime officer with the Oakdale Police Department. 

He graduated from an apprenticeship program at Local 10 of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, as well as the University of Minnesota’s union leadership program.

Voss said “building for the next generation” is one of the main challenges currently facing Ramsey County. He said a comprehensive plan of development and redevelopment could have a positive impact on jobs, housing and the overall economy.

“As a union member with 12-plus years of experience in construction projects of all sizes, I believe I am uniquely positioned to help build Ramsey County for the next generation,” said Voss. “I would focus on revitalizing the county through infrastructure upgrades and development.”

Voss said his top priority, if elected, would be the development of the TCAAP project. Beyond that, he said he wants to, “be a voice for the middle class, to provide a common sense approach to the issues facing the northern suburbs, and to make sure Ramsey County is focused on helping everyone in our community thrive.”

 

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

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