by CHRIS ROGERS
This fall, Winona County Board member Marie Kovecsi will seek her first re-election since upsetting Wayne Valentine in 2014 in a campaign that focused on his votes for frac sand mining and her opposition to it. In her four years as a commissioner representing western Winona and Goodview, Kovecsi has been a champion for environmental issues and she has supported funding for criminal justice reforms and social service programs. She is facing an experienced challenger in Michael Charron, the dean of arts and humanities for Saint Mary’s University, a member of the Minnesota State Arts Board, and former Republican state representative and City Council member in Woodbury, Minn., in the 2000s.
“I appreciate that citizens last time gave me their support,” Kovecsi stated. She said that the values she learned as a Girl Scout still influence her approach to civic leadership: “That idea of leaving a place better than you found it.” Kovecsi has advocated across various local governments for pedestrian and bicycle safety and for more recreation programs on Winona’s west side. She cast a decisive vote for the county’s frac sand mining ban and has said the county should do more to reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater from agriculture. “We are all stewards of the land,” Kovecsi said. “I’m an advocate. I don’t apologize for that,” she added.
Charron said he is running in hopes of uniting the sometimes divided County Board. “I guess one of the reasons why I’m in this is because being on the County Board of Commissioners is supposed to be nonpartisan,” he stated. “At the County Board, it seemed like people weren’t listening to each other, and I think in the last few years it’s gotten worse,” Charron said. The County Board is occasionally divided along rural-urban lines over environmental issues, agriculture, and taxes and funding. “Why can’t we come to a consensus? Why can’t we compromise?” Charron asked. He was reluctant to comment about Kovecsi directly, but when asked how he would differ from her as a commissioner, Charron said, “I think there have been times where she’s already made up her mind.” He added, “It’s not that I disagree with her position. It’s that I’m willing to listen to the people who are passionate about the issues she’s interested in and I’m interested in listening to all sides … What does the business community have to say on an issue? What do family farm folks have to say?”
Divided votes are not a sign that County Board members are not listening to other perspectives or not doing their best to represent citizens, Kovecsi stated. “I don’t really like to have a 3-2 vote,” Kovecsi stated. “I don’t think anyone likes those, but we all vote our best and we respect each other for that … It’s not realistic to say we’re going to be 5-0 on everything. So we do the best we can and we all respect each other.” She added, “I think we come together when it counts for the people of our county.”
Everyone on the board is listening to all sides and seeking compromise, Kovecsi said. “I don’t have my mind made up [ahead of time]. You can’t,” she continued, explaining that she never knows what issues other commissioners will bring up until each meeting. “I think we’re as good as any board and maybe as bad as any board,” she stated.
In 2015 the County Board voted 2-3 to reject a proposal to study possibly raising the limit on livestock feedlot size. Proponents of the study said that the county’s rules needed to change with modern agriculture and allow farms to get bigger. Opponents said that lifting the cap would hurt smaller farmers, might contribute to groundwater pollution, and that reopening debate over the rule would only divide the county. Kovecsi and her urban colleagues voted against the study; rural commissioners voted unsuccessfully for it. “Why can’t we study it?” Charron asked. If the Planning Commission or citizens want to raise that issue again, they can at any time, Kovecsi said.
After Kovecsi and commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy passed the frac sand ban, many citizens cheered, but opponents vowed to flip the majority on the County Board in this fall’s election and repeal the ban. Asked if he supports repealing the ban, Charron responded, “To me, it’s an issue that was decided, and it’s unfortunate that it’s still being litigated in court.”
The county did a careful job in making its decision to ban frac sand mining, and District Court Judge Mary Leahy’s ruling reflects that, Kovecsi said. “I still have five or six [frac sand] operations in my district that are regulated by the city, and if we were to get more sand from Wisconsin, they could start up. So people are watching it and they’re still concerned,” she added.
On taxes and funding, Kovecsi said, “There have been times we’ve been faced with no other option [than raising taxes.]” Leaders across the county agree that, because of Minnesota labor laws, there is little the county can do to resist giving county unions cost of living increases. Kovecsi added, “If you’re not increasing the budget to meet those increased wages and benefits, you’re losing ground.”
“I think our property taxes are high here,” Charron stated. “They seem high, but I’m not going to denigrate taxes because you get what you invest in. For example, if you invest in mental health, it makes a difference in your community.”
For his part, Charron did not stake out many specific policy positions. He said he is still learning about some issues and looking to hear from as many citizens as possible. “I haven’t made up my mind yet, and that’s my point. Elect me because I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Charron stated. He did add, “I really believe when we have a vibrant economy a lot of things go right for a community … I want to be able to responsibly support businesses.”
On the county’s most divisive issues, is there a middle ground to be reached or do the citizens themselves want divergent policies? Charron responded that maybe he could help citizens see things differently, too. “Maybe that’s my calling. I really want to try to get people listening to each other,” he stated.
Kovecsi and Charron seemed to agree on the value of investing in mental health initiatives, the important of anti-recidivism programs in the local criminal justice system, and the virtues of small-scale democracy.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misquoted Michael Charron as stating "I'm going to denigrate taxes." He actually said, "I think our property taxes are high here. They seem high, but I’m not going to denigrate taxes because you get what you invest in. For example, if you invest in mental health, it makes a difference in your community.” (Emphasis added.)