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Anoka County is about to become "an island unto itself" as it prepares to leave the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), which includes all Minnesota counties, and the Minnesota Inter-County Association.
The county says its potential disassociation with these and other organizations is about money -- Anoka County pays a total of more than $400,000 in annual fees to nearly 70 groups. But others say a rift between County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah and former county senior manager Steve Novak forced the county's pending January decision to leave the Inter-County Association (MICA), which recently hired Novak as a lobbyist.
"We're talking about isolationism," said longtime Anoka County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, who is livid about the prospect of the county leaving these associations and severing "beneficial relationships."
"It's not about money; the amount of money needed for these associations is in the budget," Kordiak said. "The moment there was an indication of Steve Novak's departure from this county" and that Novak might be hired by MICA, there was "immediate discussion about withdrawing from MICA."
Sivarajah, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010, was the only Anoka County commissioner to vote against a proposed Vikings stadium in Blaine in 2006. Novak, a former DFL state senator, was Anoka County's lead negotiator for the Vikings stadium. Any relationship they had seemed to deteriorate after January 2011, when Sivarajah became chairwoman of the board and Novak was one of the county's senior managers.
Novak declined to be interviewed. Sivarajah said MICA's hiring of Novak months ago was not a factor in county discussions about leaving MICA. In a letter sent to MICA members on Dec. 14, Sivarajah never mentions Novak as a reason for MICA and Anoka County possibly parting ways.
But Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, MICA's treasurer, said he heard grumbling from Anoka County about MICA's hiring of Novak as a lobbyist months ago.
"The politics inside the boardroom of Anoka County, to me, are kind of frightening," he said. "They're a polarized board. They never said, 'Don't hire him.' But it was clearly understood that if we did, it would create issues for them."
When asked recently if the county was considering leaving any associations, County Commissioner Matt Look, a member of the board's fiscally conservative majority, asked why the county should support MICA after it hired Novak.
MICA is a nonprofit organization of growing or urban counties. Anoka County Commissioner Carol LeDoux says MICA "allows us to network with other counties and build relationships that may produce healthy relationships we may have to call upon to accomplish a project."
County lobbyist Kathy Tingelstad, the county's lobbyist, said membership in associations like AMC and MICA are crucial when networking at the State Capitol.
"I am concerned about the voice of Anoka County not being heard in important decisions being made at the Capitol," Tingelstad wrote concerning AMC and MICA in an e-mail to Anoka County Administrator Jerry Soma. She noted that AMC had staff members dedicated to every legislative committee affecting counties.
'An island unto itself?'
Soma said discussion concerning the county's membership with MICA and other associations began in January. Anoka County pays $77,778 in dues to MICA, which is primarily a lobbying group. Anoka County's dues for AMC are $43,327. Soma said a proposal to discontinue memberships to both will be brought up at the Jan. 8 board meeting. With only Commissioners Kordiak and LeDoux certain to vote against a proposal to leave MICA, it is assumed that Sivarajah has the four votes needed to sever county ties to MICA or AMC.
Soma said he received a call from MICA Executive Director Keith Carlson in July, just before Novak's candidacy became official. "Yes, it's going to have an effect," Soma said he told Carlson of Novak's application to MICA. But, looking back at that conversation, Soma said, "Does it have an effect? I don't think so."
Schmiesing thinks it has. "Anoka County is going to become an island unto itself," he said.
MICA moved its January meeting to Elk River after tentatively setting it for Anoka.
Anoka County would not be the first county to leave MICA. Hennepin and Ramsey counties no longer are members. Washington County left years ago, after questions about the group's leadership, but it returned.
Ambivalent about rail?
In June, Anoka County stunned supporters of a proposed passenger-rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth by suddenly withdrawing from the alliance supporting that line.
Sivarajah said the county does not plan to withdraw from the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, the governing body behind the commuter-rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. But the county no longer is pushing to extend the line to St. Cloud anytime soon.
Several board members have been vocal in their opposition to Northstar. When the city of Ramsey held a ribbon-cutting in November for its new $13 million Northstar station, only Look, a Ramsey resident, attended.
Leigh Lenzmeier -- Stearns County commissioner, Northstar Corridor chair and MICA vice president -- noticed that key Anoka County commissioners were missing. "Until they notify MICA, I'm not going to get too concerned," he said. "What's great about Anoka County is you don't have to guess with them."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419