After 'the circus,' heated races in store for Scott County

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2012 - 5:21 PM

The three county commissioners linked to a scheme to oust the county administrator all face challengers; his supporters do not.

The other shoe just dropped in Scott County -- and with a loud bang.

Months after an attempt to oust the county's top administrator fizzled, amid pained admissions that it had all come off as a "circus," the three commissioners associated with the effort face opponents for re-election. The other two will sail through unchallenged.

Some of the challengers have lots of experience. Among them: the woman who chairs the organization that unites all of the county's key public-sector civic leaders.

"We haven't as a district been represented," because Joe Wagner is an absentee commissioner on too many of his responsibilities, said LuAnne Lemke, a township supervisor in Louisville Township, just outside Shakopee.

Board Chairman Tom Wolf will face the man who leads the board of supervisors in Scott County's most populous rural township, Credit River. Brent Lawrence accuses Wolf of having been part of an improper cabal.

"When someone says 'I think we have three votes,' how do you know?" asks Lawrence, referring to the attempt to oust County Administrator Gary Shelton this year. "You're not supposed to be discussing this outside [a public meeting], it's against the law. And it's just plain wrong. ... Should it have happened, should the residents stand for this? As much power as the board has, residents need to have a choice."

Incumbents are bracing for a tough campaign. Said Wagner: "It's going to be a long, long summer and fall."

Political drama

The back story concerns a lot of murky backstage maneuvering over many months.

There were two interlinked narratives: one a move to topple administrator Gary Shelton, and the other a criminal investigation targeted at Wagner after he allegedly intervened in a county investigation aimed at a relative.

Neither ever came to anything. Shelton survived because the inquiry came up with nothing solid, and Wagner was cleared.

But both left suspicions behind them.

At least one challenger admits it all might not have as much of an effect as he'd like.

"I'm not sure as many people are as aware of all that's happened as need to be," said insurance agent Jerry Kucera, who is running against Wagner again, after coming close to beating him last time.

"These days people are getting much of their information from the Internet and Facebook and TV," he said, "and though I want to believe people read the Minneapolis paper and the local papers, because I do, I also think that if the majority were aware, there would have been an uprising saying 'Let's oust this character!' and I don't know that that's happened."

Wagner is worried.

"When there's a lot of smoke, and things like that, there's a natural tendency for voters to go 'You know something? I think we need new people there.'"

The Shelton affair

When Lawrence talks of the "three votes," he's referring to the belief of Shelton supporters that Wagner, Wolf and Commissioner Dave Menden cooked something up together in ways that violated open meeting laws.

Not so, Wagner said. Although he told a reporter in the immediate aftermath that he thought he had three votes, he's now walking that back.

What really happened, he said, is that he had heard Wolf talk at great length -- "20 minutes straight" -- about his misgivings concerning the county's top leader but he had no commitment as to a vote.

"'We met as three?' That comment is to the point of being almost laughable," Wagner said. He said he told Wolf and Menden privately beforehand, but not in any secret joint session among the three, "'I'm going to make the motion and there may not even be a second to my motion.' If I cooked this up so well, I would have had three votes."

In the case concerning Wagner -- and Shelton allies believe that case, and Wagner's view of Shelton's role in it, had everything to do with Wagner's move against Shelton -- Wagner was never prosecuted. He says he was merely present at an interview because he was asked for support and would have left if asked.

Lemke promises to leave that alone and concentrate on her opponent's track record as commissioner. But Kucera said he expects to delve into the background on the case: Just because it wasn't criminal doesn't make it right, he said.

Both challengers say they will stress Wagner's commitment to his job.

"Joe is on the county's insurance committee, yet I'm told he never goes to any of the meetings," Kucera said. Added Lemke: "I go to every township board meeting and only once have seen him there and that's because we requested him to come."

Wagner pleads guilty on both counts.

"I'm in contact with the township. If they make a request, I go right away. Unless they call me, I do not go. I think I was there once in 12 years."

Doesn't Wolf seem to feel it's part of his job, representing the other rural townships? "Tom likes going to them and I got to hand it to him, yes, he does go," Wagner said.

As for the insurance group: "I'm not going to take per diem for that. It's insurance, Jerry, you're in the insurance business. If you win, you start going. I'm not going to take mileage and per diem for that."

Kucera did allow that he thinks the county has an outstanding track record on insurance without Wagner's help, but added: "They've done that without reasoned conservative leadership from our representative, and I would change that."

Only one primary

The races for the seats held by Wolf and Menden, who represents Shakopee, will take a back seat for now because only one challenger is running in each. There will be no Aug. 14 primary election in those races.

Debbie Barber, who is running against Menden, is the co-owner of a medical technology consulting firm based in Shakopee.

She has been involved with county government for the past few years and now chairs the county's Human Services Resource Council.

She is well known to Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke and has become active in city affairs since he took office.

Her candidacy feels a bit like his: A younger person, newer to town, with a business background and impatience with an Old Guard.

"It's time for new voices," she said. "I'll probably be similar to how Brad approached things. Shakopee has changed a lot even since we moved here, in '99, and we need to start hearing a new vision."

One irony in the race is that Menden, a former sheriff elected as a fiscal conservative, has turned out to have sympathy for human services programs.

"He's gotten involved in the area and I think has a new perspective," Barber said, "and I sense a bit of change of message at least as to that."

Menden said he's been trying without success so far to determine what her issues are. "You know what," he said, "anyone who can afford the filing fee can always step forward for any office."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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    Representing mostly rural areas in the southwest: Veteran incumbent Joe Wagner vs. LuAnne Lemke, a township supervisor, and Jerry Kucera, an insurance agent.

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