Having escaped a tough challenge two years ago, Joe Wagner faces a new test in the aftermath of serious turmoil.
In the battle to knock Joe Wagner off his longtime perch on the Scott County Board, voters this month are hearing very different messages.
Challenger Jerry Kucera, who came very close to deposing Wagner two years ago, is urging voters to punish him for misbehavior. "He needs to be held accountable."
Challenger LuAnne Lemke, dismayed by all the turmoil on the board, is putting herself forward as a problem solver. "I'm trying to keep it positive. How do we move on from here, how do we make it right?"
As for Wagner himself, he's just hoping voters will manage to sort through all the rhetoric and figure out what's really been going on.
"There's been a lot of politics at work," he said.
The three are facing off in the Aug. 14 primary, and on past form it promises to be close. Two years ago, a field of three ended up tightly bunched. Kucera landed in the general election with Wagner and came much closer to defeating him than Wagner has been used to, with 47 percent.
Since then, Wagner has suffered the embarrassment of being the target of a criminal investigation which, though it came to nothing, could affect voters' views.
Though Wagner was cleared of anything criminal, Kucera said it's pretty clear that "he lied. It's not probably impeachable but it gets to character. We have to hold people to at least a minimum standard when they abuse their office and power and advance their own agenda and protect family members."
Wagner says that isn't true.
The back story
The investigation stemmed from the coincidence that Wagner as commissioner was brought into the loop when a constituent -- as it happened, a relative -- came under county scrutiny.
County employees asserted that Wagner hid his connection with the relative in order to get information. It's not clear from the wording of a December memo written by Washington County prosecutor Richard Hodsdon, who helped investigate the case at Scott County's request, whether he considered that proven, or just a charge.
Wagner says the whole thing comes down to his having been informed of things in a quick phone call before he could interject that he knew the person being referred to. "It was a 30-second phone call, believe me," he said.
In addition to clearing Wagner of any criminal violations, Hodsdon's memo also hinted that the whole business could have been avoided if the county had operated differently.
"I shall not comment," he wrote, "on the wisdom ... of a policy and process by which such elected officials are provided non-public data." (The policy since has changed.)
Kucera maintains that he doesn't want to make that case the centerpiece of his campaign. Like Lemke, he stresses what he calls Wagner's non-involvement in the minutiae of governing.
Given the number of functions other commissioners perform and Wagner does not, Kucera said, "He may be the highest paid county employee on an hourly basis."
Wagner in the past has dismissed the myriad committee meetings others attend as things that end up padding paychecks with per diem payments or mileage. Kucera calls those "sorry, silly excuses. No one makes him turn in per diem or mileage. What a worthless, worthless excuse."
As Tom Wolf, the County Board chairman, points out, opponents have been raising that issue against Wagner more or less since the dawn of time. They haven't managed to dislodge a folksy gravel-voiced character with deep roots in the county.
Without exactly suggesting that Wagner alone could have, or always even should have, stopped them, Kucera points to a number of issues in the district that have made some people unhappy.
Among them are a power line being routed through the area, delays in building a costly overpass connecting segments of Belle Plaine, and controversies over silica sand mining in the rural townships. Wagner needs to be present and pushing on things like that, he said.
Wagner said he has been involved. He attended power line meetings but that was a much bigger issue than just the county, he said. He'd love to see an overpass, partly for his own business, but it's a "mountain of money." And the county has spent years pushing for protections on sand mining, which happens just down the road from him.
Lemke agrees on Wagner's non-involvement but focuses less on attacks and more on what she would do to straighten out problems.
A commissioner more involved in the job than Wagner has been, she said, could have done more to bring in tax base.
"The thing I keep hearing from people is taxes," she said from her booth at the county fair. "I agree, but we can only cut so much, and the only way to address it is to bring business into the county to help offset the burden."
She and Kucera don't have a great deal to say about one another, but Lemke does say that as an elected township supervisor, she brings more experience. "What sets me apart is that I've been doing this kind of work for six years."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285