Inside every Dakota County building, there's a plaque.

It lists the county commissioners who were in office when the building -- a library, a maintenance garage, a courthouse -- opened.

Joseph Harris' name is on almost every one of them.

Harris, the county's longest serving board member, retires at the end of the year after 32 years of helping to build what is now the state's third largest county.

For the first time in decades, his name isn't on the ballot to represent the southern Dakota County district that includes Hastings, Farmington, most of the townships and small cities. Christy Jo Fogarty of Farmington and Mike Slavik of Hastings are running to replace him.

"It's going to be a big change for the board," said Nancy Schouweiler, the Dakota County Board chairman.

Harris, whom colleagues credit for setting an expectation of respectfulness even when opinions are divided, has long played the role of frank, pragmatic problem-solver and confident leader.

"He's always professional, respectful, able to leave the issues behind us and move on," Schouweiler said. "He's been the constant example of that for such a long time."

Harris, 57, mostly grew up in Hastings, with an eight-year interlude during childhood on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin.

He was in his 20s, working in the county treasurer's office, when he ran for the county board seat and defeated an incumbent in 1980.

"Originally, I thought I'd be here for maybe 12 years," Harris said. "I didn't have visions of being a lifer."

But then one issue led to another -- most of them revolving around land use in his sprawling, largely rural district on the suburban fringe -- and he stuck around.

In the 1980s, it was controversy over possible landfill sites that had him criss-crossing the county and getting to know constituents who may have been affected.

That later morphed into a battle over whether or not to build a garbage burner, which ultimately never happened.

Debate flared in the 1990s about building an expansion of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Dakota County farmland, another project that never came to fruition, to the relief of Harris and many of his constituents.

That pressure to develop, combined with growing support for environmental issues, led to the county's voter-approved Farmland and Natural Areas Program to preserve open space in 2002 and an ongoing effort to clean up the Vermillion River.

Sprinkled throughout were other political battles and growing pains of the rapidly expanding county: whether to keep the county seat in Hastings, a switch from five commissioners to seven, the addition of roads and growth of county programs to serve fast-arriving residents.

"He's extremely dedicated and he's been a hard worker," said Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson.

When a contentious vote on the county budget came down to the wire, Harris, on leave and recovering from surgery, was wheeled into the boardroom to cast the tie-breaking vote ensuring passage.

"I don't know what we would've done at that point" if Harris hadn't cast that vote, Richardson said. "To me that just spoke volumes."

That work ethic carries over to relations with constituents. After decades of attending township board meetings, church socials and community events, he seems to know nearly everyone in his district -- or at least a relative of theirs -- by name.

He returns every phone call, even if he knows someone is upset and his answer may not appease them.

"I ask people, 'Do you want the reality of the facts or do you want me to sugarcoat it?'" Harris said, noting that they almost always opt for the facts. "Even though I'm not telling them what they want to hear, for the most part people appreciate that."

That commitment to constituents came across to those Harris worked with.

Mark Ulfers, executive director of the Dakota County Community Development Agency, said Harris can be "as sophisticated as anybody else" in a business meeting while also working at the local level to keep rents down at the agency's affordable apartments for senior citizens in his district.

"He can just relate to everybody," Ulfers said.

Others point to those same skills as keys to Harris' success as Dakota County's longtime point-person for legislative matters and a leader with the Minnesota Intercounty Association.

"Joe didn't make a lot of noise," said Barry Tilley, who recently retired as Dakota County's lobbyist at the state Capitol. "He had the details, had the information and was very effective for the county."

Once his county service ends, Harris intends to focus his energy on his insurance business and spend more time with his wife Pam, his three grown children and his grandchildren.

He said he has no plans to endorse either candidate running for his seat but is pleased that both Fogarty and Slavik have experience as elected officials.

As for the comments about how much he'll be missed, Harris laughed about people trying to build his ego.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with change," he said.

His insurance office is just down the street and he lives not far from the County Administration Building in Hastings.

Still, after more than 30 years, he said, "It's going to be hard to give up the key."

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286