All three candidates for the Winona County Board District Two seat laid out their positions on the 2013 zoning ordinance amendments, frac sand, employee morale, and financial priorities at a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum last week. Challengers Marie Kovesci and Jerry Moen faced off with incumbent Wayne Valentine.
Moen said he did not support the 2013 zoning amendments, which allowed exceptions to bluff and feedlot setbacks for pre-existing rural properties. "I think they are starting to dismantle the zoning that was set forth four years ago. I am a little bit disturbed with it, but obviously we're in a situation where there's a pack: 3-2," he said, referring to the split vote on the most contentious zoning amendments. "That's why it's important to put a neutral person that is going to [vote in the direction] the constituents want. I think right now it's a foregone conclusion that if anything comes up Wayne is going to vote with [commissioners Steve] Jacob and Marcia Ward."
Kovesci said the amendments are beginning to take apart rules regarding bluff land protection. She agreed that constituents have expressed strong concerns about "the 3-2 voting block that Mr. Valentine is participating in."
"I did support and I do continue to support the amendments," Valentine said. He said that he openly opposed the 2010 ordinance when he was elected and that the feedback he received about people struggling with nonconforming properties galvanized that position. "I believe that the changes I made addressed the issues I heard," he said of the amendments.
"I am for frac sand mining if it's regulated properly," Moen said, when asked about his stance on the issue. "I would like to see U.S. independence [from foreign] oil someday and I think with the opportunity that we have in North Dakota and other areas is a viable solution to our energy problem," he added.
"Each mining application should be submitted and judged on on its own merits," Valentine said, noting that the industrial sand mining requires a conditional use permit under the current zoning ordinance. He pointed out that the County Board can add conditions to permits, such as the 30-plus conditions it required for the only sand mine permitted through the county to date, the Nisbit mine.
When commercial interests come into conflict with public health and welfare, how would you weigh the importance of the two issues? asked LWV moderator Brein Maki. Valentine said he would weigh the two sides by researching the issue and gathering as much input as possible. Kovesci agreed, but added "public health and welfare have to trump any other issues involved." Moen said he would give equal weight to commerce and public welfare. "We'd have to look at them equally and see how they benefit Winona County," he said.
How would the candidates promote transparency in county budgeting? Valentine pointed out that the current board made a change to be more involved in the budgeting process and as of last week began receiving early, preliminary budgets for each department, giving commissioners more time to examine the budget and ask department heads questions. He added, "Our budget, I think, is pretty much an open book and people can comment on it at any time."
Kovesci supported the increased information and rationale that departments are providing in the budgeting process. Both she and Valentine called on citizens to become more involved and provide feedback on the budget. Kovesci suggested that the county hold meetings at different locations throughout the county to seek out public input on the budget.
"I would like to make it simply transparent," so that citizens can obtain all of the budget information and comment on it, said Moen.
On the issue of financial priorities, Moen said, "it is very important that we stay within our means. Obviously our federal government is out of control, and our state government sometimes gets out of control … We would always want to go forward with a balanced budget."
Valentine pointed out, "In the past four years we have not increased our levy, and we've had to make some tough decision to do that." He said he expected to continue the trend.
Kovesci said she believed in balancing services with efficiency. "Government needs to be big enough to provide the services and small enough to be efficient and effective," she stated.
When asked how he would improve the morale problem among county employees, Moen said he wasn't sure if there was one and commented, "Let's listen to our employees as much as we can, but the cross training and things that had been taking place at Winona County are necessary to operate efficiently and we need to continue down that road."
Valentine said there is a morale problem and addressing it is one of the board's goals. He said the county has and is currently surveying employees and soliciting feedback on improving the situation.
There is an issue, Kovesci agreed. Providing opportunities for professional development and investigating staff's concerns could be relatively simple solutions, she said. "There is some work to be done, and I think our new administrator is going to have to have a plan for addressing this particular issue," she added.