Westerberg holds key to Anoka County Board

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 11:15 PM

Andy Westerberg has no more and no less power than his fellow Anoka County Board members. Yet, his vote is expected to determine who heads the County Board next year.

Commissioner Andy Westerberg

Andy Westerberg says he is just one of seven Anoka County commissioners. But he's the one who will likely determine the direction the board takes in 2012.

A year ago, the newly elected Westerberg aligned himself with self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives Rhonda Sivarajah, Robyn West and Matt Look in forming a majority that elected Sivarajah chairwoman of the County Board. But nobody is certain where Westerberg's allegiances will fall when it's time to select next year's chair.

"Andy Westerberg is a complicated human being," said longtime Commissioner Jim Kordiak. "Whatever Andy decides to do on any issue, you can be assured that it's well thought out."

Westerberg succeeded Dick Lang, often known during his five terms on the board as "Number 4" -- the swing vote that decided the fate of a proposal. Westerberg finds himself in a similar position.

"I'm a team player," Westerberg said. "I'm really proud of every commissioner on our board. We've had some enlightening conversations.

"But I always think there's more that we can do. There's always reason to think you can fine-tune the engine."

That engine is hardly sputtering, but it could shift gears, depending on the direction Westerberg takes.

The board chairman selects the commissioners who will head and participate on committees. And those decisions can reverse the county's approach.

Erhart derailed

For instance, Dan Erhart chaired the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority for years and was lauded by Gov. Tim Pawlenty as the engine behind the Northstar commuter rail line. When Sivarajah became chair, she removed Erhart, with whom she often disagrees, from the committee. He was replaced by Look, who, unlike Erhart, has not pushed for extending Northstar to St. Cloud and has not championed a proposed passenger rail line to Duluth, as Erhart had.

Westerberg, an experienced politician, knows what's at stake. Whatever route he takes, he won't be stereotyped along the way.

During four terms as a state representative, Westerberg distinguished himself as a Republican who wasn't afraid to back a cause his party didn't necessarily embrace. Five years ago, it was Westerberg who authored the House bill for a Vikings stadium in Blaine. That stadium was to be funded equally by the team, the state and Anoka County. But the state never embraced the plan, which ultimately fizzled.

"It was a way to promote our county, to utilize the county's assets," Westerberg said.

"The county is no different than the families that live in it. We have to live within our means. We also have to take advantage of the riches we have. That's still what I believe in for Anoka County."

A first for Sivarajah

At a board meeting earlier this month, Sivarajah proudly listed Anoka County's accomplishments in her first year as board chairwoman. They included reducing the levy for the first time in more than three decades, the largest reduction of any county in Minnesota this year.

She's rarely promoted the Northstar line and did not mention the approval of a $13.2 million rail station for Ramsey as one of the county's accomplishments. But included among the county firsts listed by Sivarajah: live-streaming County Board meetings, rotating the locale of those meetings, a campaign to seek employee ideas, moving closer to a paperless system, adapting a Kaizen philosophy that stresses incremental improvement, and creating a technology fund.

Two want the top job

She wants to keep her job as chair. But Kordiak also wants to be chair.

"If I was nominated, I would serve, and I think I would do a very capable job," said Kordiak. He would likely have the support of Carol LeDoux and Erhart, needing one other vote.

Enter Westerberg.

Westerberg recently talked freely about his first year as a county commissioner, but declined to discuss what might take place before Jan. 2, when next year's chairman will be named.

Categorizing Westerberg would be a mistake, others have learned. Just weeks ago, when the board first voted on whether it would support racino legislation, Sivarajah, West and Look sided against it. But Westerberg spoke emphatically about the tax dollars and jobs that could be generated by slot machines at racetracks, including Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus.

'A tax fairness issue'

"It was actually fairly easy for me," he said. "I was chair of the gaming division in the House. To me, it was a tax fairness issue. I didn't have to consult with the other commissioners. I've had a lot of time and information on this subject.

"I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I'm not always vocal on issues, but that doesn't mean I'm not confident in my decisions. I can't think of any vote as a county commissioner that I'd like to take back."

He had only positive things to say about all of his fellow commissioners, and he acknowledged that he's in "an interesting position," but would not tip his hand.

"I'm interested in relationship building," he said. "I don't deal in rumors. I don't make assumptions."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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