The political balance shifted on the Washington County Board last week as a new commissioner representing the south portion of the county took her seat, and the longest-serving commissioner was elected to chair the board in 2015.
Karla Bigham joins the five-member board at a time when the county’s population has reached a quarter million and talk of economic development punctuates board meetings.
“I want to thank the voters for this awesome opportunity,” Bigham said.
She was elected in November in a decisive victory over Autumn Lehrke, a first-term incumbent.
Bigham took the oath of office from state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport.
The new board chairman, Gary Kriesel, is a 10-year incumbent serving Stillwater, Lake Elmo and surrounding cities.
Washington County’s top law enforcement officials, Sheriff Bill Hutton and County Attorney Pete Orput, were also sworn in for new terms after winning re-election in uncontested November races. Hutton, a former Oakdale police captain, is starting his third term. Orput, a former Hennepin County homicide prosecutor, is starting his second term.
The fourth person sworn into office last week, County Commissioner Ted Bearth, was re-elected by a wide margin over challenger Jeremy Olson. Bearth, a former Oakdale mayor, represents District 2 on the western side of Washington County.
Bigham, a former state legislator, brings with her promises to enlist cities and townships in county discussions about public transit, jobs and infrastructure. Cottage Grove is the largest city in her district, but she also represents St. Paul Park and Newport; Denmark and Grey Cloud Island townships; one precinct in Woodbury, and the tiny portion of Hastings that sits inside Washington County.
In an interview last week, Bigham outlined four priorities for her first months on the board.
• Red Rock Corridor: During her campaign last year, Bigham said she planned to bring more urgency to building ridership for this transit route. She would put her legislative experience to use, she said, to work with the Metropolitan Council to improve routes and schedules on existing express bus service. She said she would build public awareness on social media, find allies among leadership organizations such as the East Metro Strong advocacy group and the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce, and ask for help from residents in town meetings.
“This is a community effort that we all know is a huge tool for economic development for South Washington County,” she said. “We’ve really got to put an emphasis on it this year.”
• Housing and Redevelopment Authority: Bigham would like to expand the economic development reach of the agency, she said, to better help cities and small businesses. She proposed a County Development Authority similar to that in Dakota County.
“It would give us a lot more authority,” she said. “It’s important to not only retain current businesses but attract new ones.”
• Resource Recovery Services: The County Board will decide this year whether to review its contract with Resource Recovery Technologies in Newport, where garbage collected in Washington County is burned to make fuel for two Xcel Energy plants. Bigham said she wants to preserve the 100 or so jobs that she said are vital to Newport’s economy. She’s not in favor of the county — in a joint powers arrangement with Ramsey County — severing ties with Resource Recovery, but she’s not sure the joint powers board should take over ownership either.
“I don’t believe the county and the board are in a position to do such a thing,” she said.
• Roads and other infrastructure: Bigham said she wants to speed up road improvements to match housing growth in Cottage Grove. Specifically, she said, a priority is making sure that the 70th Street road project gets underway.
The County Board meetings, open to the public, are held Tuesdays at 9 a.m. in the fifth-floor boardroom in the Government Center in Stillwater.