ADVERTISEMENT

Minn. mayor relishes return to life as prankster

  • Article by: ERIK BURGESS
  • Associated Press
  • December 14, 2013 - 12:05 AM

MOORHEAD, Minn. — For a little more than a decade, Moorhead residents have trusted Mayor Mark Voxland with the key to the city. But starting soon, you might not want to trust the master electrician with the key to your house.

Voxland, who is retiring Dec. 31 after 12 years as mayor, has a penchant for practical jokes, a trade he begrudgingly set aside during his mayoral term but hopes to pick up again once he's left office.

There was his spree of exchanging his friends' perfectly decent lighting fixtures with hideous, gaudy ones he collected over the years.

Or his finely tuned craft of filling dish-shaped fixtures with neon Jell-O.

"Nobody lets me babysit their house anymore," Voxland told the Forum newspaper (http://bit.ly/1bTS23v) with a smile during an interview.

But some close to the mayor said as Voxland and his good-spirited sense of humor head for the exit, it marks the stark difference between two eras of the Moorhead City Council here — the past, when council members would get along and compromise, and the future, where they won't.

"There doesn't seem to be quite the respect for differing opinions that there used to be, so (Mark) felt really bad about that," said Donna Voxland, Mark's wife of 42 years. "It's a very unfortunate change, and that really bothers him."

With his quiet but steady voice, Voxland was the perfect "referee" in Moorhead's weak-mayor system, where the mayor doesn't vote except in ties, because he encouraged camaraderie and cooperation, said outgoing Councilman Mark Altenburg.

Being mayor is a strange career choice for someone who doesn't like the spotlight.

"We're both more introverts," Donna Voxland said. "So it's not a natural thing to put yourself out and forward that much and also to put yourself in the middle of controversial issues and to allow yourself to be the whipping boy in a lot of cases.

"The patience that he's had with people, it's just amazing, I think."

Voxland was persuaded to run for City Council in 1988 after the incumbent called him not once but twice to encourage him. It's not like the electrician was poorly trained to be a leader. He graduated in 1972 from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in political science and economics. That same year, he started serving as scoutmaster for local Boy Scout Troop 637.

"He has been a public leader since probably high school," said Curt Bye, a longtime friend who worked on all three of Voxland's mayoral campaigns.

After Voxland served several terms on council, Morrie Lanning announced he was done as mayor in 2001. Voxland was again persuaded to run, this time for mayor, and he won in a landslide, capturing 62 percent of the vote.

After winning, the quiet electrician said he usually spends "more time listening than talking," according to a Forum story from Nov. 8, 2001, two days after he was elected.

Twelve years later, that sentiment hasn't changed a bit, and Voxland almost gave an identical answer recently when asked of the challenges of being an introvert and a mayor, a job that often thrusts him into the limelight as the city's spokesman.

"It's very different for me," he said. "I'm not a loud and talkative person."

Voxland took the helm as mayor expecting to serve only two terms. That is, until the devastating flood of 2009, when much of the city was evacuated.

"That was very stressful," Donna Voxland said. "It was a very helpless feeling for him."

But it was the mayor's response to the flood that marked one of his greatest accomplishments, Altenburg said. In just four years' time, Voxland worked with the state to get $100 million in comprehensive flood protection for Moorhead.

"He's really a guy who gets things done," Altenburg said. "That was impressive to me, and that was a huge project."

Perhaps it all goes back to Voxland's career as an electrician, a job he reluctantly took up one summer in college to help his father, from whom he eventually bought the family company.

"I started this (electrician job), and I kept doing it because I enjoy starting and finishing projects and getting things to work," Voxland said.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the mild-mannered mayor —other than the holster he wears to make sure he's always carrying a bottle of Tabasco hot sauce, a love he developed while eating bland food on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters —is all the practical jokes.

With proud gusto, Voxland can recall step-by-step the best prank he's ever pulled. It was the early 1980s, and his neighbor at the time —David Haarstad —wanted Voxland to help him sod his yard. Haarstad said they'd plan a big party, invite all their friends, and have a beer or two while they did the job.

But the day the sod was delivered, Haarstad forgot he'd be out of town at a softball tournament.

"So here I am babysitting his house, and it's a hot, miserable day," Voxland said.

When the work was done, Voxland and his friends had about half a pallet left of sod and didn't want it to go to waste.

"I said, 'Let's put sod on the roof,' " he recalled matter-of-factly, as if it were the only option.

Once the shingles were covered, Voxland wiped the sweat from his brow and realized the grass was probably a bit thirsty, too.

"We thought, 'Well, jeez, it's going to turn brown by the time he gets home,' " Voxland said. "So we put a sprinkler on the roof."

The mayor insists now that his neighbors thought it was "pretty funny."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Forum of Fargo, N.D.

© 2014 Star Tribune