Scott County's 'gang of three' stays on offense in campaign

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2012 - 11:11 AM

Three commissioners blamed for ugly divisions maintain they were justified in their pursuit of a top staffer.

The three Scott County commissioners blamed for creating what one of them in the heat of the moment denounced as a "circus" are not exactly backing down now that campaign season is here.

Each is adopting a combative stance, arguing they were right to tackle a fishy situation.

At stake are the seats held by the two rural commissioners, Joe Wagner and board Chair Tom Wolf, and the one representing Shakopee, held by former sheriff Dave Menden.

In the eyes of the other two commissioners, Jon Ulrich and Barb Marschall, who are not being challenged, the three of them cooked up a secretive plot to topple County Administrator Gary Shelton for improper, largely personal, reasons.

Under murky and heatedly disputed circumstances, the three of them played a role late last year in launching an investigation aimed at Shelton.

An unhappy department head coming forward with a long list of allegations against his boss, including intimidating behavior, played a role as well. He was fired after the Shelton inquiry fizzled.

Several months later, all five commissioners seem eager to relive the mess, as the three challengers stand by shaking their heads in dismay.

Menden is perhaps the most aggressive. He asserts that he was never happy, when he was sheriff and Shelton was his jail employee, about Shelton parlaying his role there to create a home-monitoring technology concept that Menden thought should have yielded income for the county but turned into a private business on the side.

"Gary, on county time, created a multimillion-dollar business out of it, and it still makes me mad," Menden said. "That money should go to the county. He's supposed to be our county administrator full time."

Shelton has said that he puts in a full workday at the county and confines his side business to lunch hours and the like.

Wagner also defends his concern about Shelton. "I didn't like the side issues going on," he said, including an investment club in which people were jointly buying shares. "We needed a new administrator."

Wolf said that commissioners were merely responding to an employee coming forward with charges that needed to be checked out. And he trained fire at Marschall, who, he said, managed to get a second government job, something he only sniffed out after she started dodging committee assignments.

Marschall said she merely switched assignments, and it's not a government job anyway -- it's a job with a nonprofit, albeit one with government ties.

All three candidates challenging them, meanwhile, are positioning themselves as peacemakers who find the whole atmosphere poisoned and pledge a return to civility. Said Jerry Kucera, who is challenging Wagner:

"The board doesn't always need to agree, but they do need to be collaborative and respectful, and I don't see that at all. I don't see some being respectful in dealing with county administration, and I would change that."

General agreement on issues

The election may well be decided based on voters' take on those kinds of questions. Once the candidates discussed other issues at a forum, there was more agreement -- both among incumbents and challengers.

All of them, for instance, support transit and road investments. And almost all are fans of recent expansions in parks and libraries, though Kucera did question some parks spending.

There's some disagreement on taxes: All three challengers either agreed with current tax levels or, in Kucera's case, abstained, while Menden declared that taxes and spending are too high.

"I laugh when I hear talk about economic development," he said, pointing to steep rises in property taxes for some commercial buildings. "Who are we kidding? We can't expect businesses to improve buildings or hire someone. We need to lower taxes."

Although Marschall and Ulrich aren't being challenged, both took part in the event, which was videotaped for webcasting and perhaps broadcast as well. Leaders of the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce said they hope to post the tape on both their site and the city's.

Ulrich, in particular, came prepared to make the case that the county has ridden from triumph to triumph in recent years, whether it's opening new park-and-ride stations, successfully lobbying for the removal of stoplights at 494 and 169, or making a host of other road improvements, such as a new leg of County Road 21 and a new free-flowing intersection at Hwys. 13 and 101.

Implicitly, the argument was for defeating dissident candidates such as Menden, who argued that Scott County doesn't need to grow any bigger, and replace them with more mainstream figures, more in line with the county's business and political establishment, who will support renewed momentum along those lines.

"We have gotten an amazing amount of money" from outside sources to make dramatic improvements, he said, "and although I'm concerned about the Metropolitan Council's plan to spend most future money within the 494-694 beltway, up to this point we've done quite well."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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