by CHRIS ROGERS
Tuesday’s election didn’t produce any major shakeup in Winona County government. Voters opted to maintain the current political balance of the Winona County Board, as incumbent commissioners Chris Meyer and Marcia Ward cruised to reelection. The race to replace outgoing commissioner Marie Kovecsi was won by Dwayne Voegeli, who shares some key positions with Kovecsi. Also winning were incumbent Sheriff Ron Ganrude and Chelsi Wilbright, who currently works as a deputy auditor and will now replace her boss as the elected auditor-treasurer.
Tuesday’s results did produce one unknown: Because current County Board member Steve Jacob was elected to the Minnesota House, the county will need to hold a special election sometime next year to replace his seat representing western and northern Winona County. The board could set the election for as early as next February.
In eastern Winona, Meyer’s contest with former county administrator Ken Fritz was one of the more closely watched races. Meyer won handily, though, with 2,208 votes (62 percent) to Fritz’s 1,323.
In the race to represent central and southern Winona County, Ward had an even wider margin, earning 2,821 votes (65 percent), while Bob Redig earned 1,495.
Voegeli earned 2,393 votes to fellow candidate Jerry Obieglo’s 1,460.
Meyer said the results were about what she expected. “But of course you never know. There’s no polling data, and you could be 100 percent wrong. So I was glad, but I really did not know … Things are so different these days, and with the things that had happened in the media even in the days leading up to it, I really had no idea of knowing how that would affect things.”
Less than two weeks before the election, the Daley Farm — a Lewiston dairy that has been suing the county to get permission to expand its feedlot — filed a new lawsuit against Meyer and other County Board members personally. The new case builds on a previous judge’s ruling that the County Board intentionally stacked a county committee against the Daley Farm, but an attorney for Meyer said the new case lacks merit.
“I would like to thank all the folks who were supporting me, and the many letters to the editor that people wrote, really being kind and sort of testifying to my character …” Meyer said. “And going forward, I will try my best to really represent everyone in District 1 and the entire county. And, of course, it’s always my goal to make decisions based on information for the good of the greatest number of people.”
‘Thanks to all the people who supported me and our campaign and to everyone who took the effort to get out to try to help get the word out,” Fritz said. He added, “One thing hopefully the campaign did was to bring some awareness that some of the rural folks have or some of the other folks in the county have that feel like they haven’t been heard.” He pointed to the county’s COVID response, the animal unit cap on feedlot size, and county funding for outside agencies as issues he hopes will get more attention.
“I’m very grateful and very humbled,” Voegeli said of his win. “Jerry is a fantastic guy and a very tough opponent, so I was surprised by the results.” Voegeli said that, while campaigning, he heard a desire from voters for leaders who will tone down divisive rhetoric and get things done. “That’s one thing I hope we can do at the County Board level, is to just work together and get stuff done. We’re not going to solve all the world’s problems, but we can make a difference.”
“Of course, I’m honored and humbled that District 5 feels like I’m doing the right job by reelecting me,” Ward said. “It feels good that I have the support of a good portion of my district.”
These results reinforce the status quo on one of the county’s hot-button issues, its limit on livestock feedlot size known as the animal unit cap, which is at the center of the ongoing legal battle between the county and the Daley Farm. Supporters of the cap continued their electoral successes in the cities of Winona and Goodview with Meyer and Voegeli’s victories, while rural voters in District 5 once again supported Ward, who opposes the cap.
“I’m a city commissioner, but I was born and raised on a fourth-generation dairy farm, so I’m very comfortable talking to people about farms,” Voegeli said, adding that he’d already made plans to visit a farmer who supports removing the cap.
Asked about the political differences of the new board, Ward said, “One of the big things, and I served with Dwayne Voegeli earlier in our time. Can we have the discussions? To just shut down the discussions and say we’re not going to talk about it, to me, is wrong. Hopefully, I think Dwayne will allow the discussions, and we can figure some things out. That’s my hope: that we can have some good honest discussions.”
Sheriff Ganrude won reelection with 11,133 votes, while challenger and Deputy Charles Rolbiecki earned 7,865.
“I’m very happy with the results, obviously,” Ganrude said. He added, “I so enjoy going to work every day. I like the staff that I have. I like the way things have gone the last eight years, and I’m looking forward to another four years as sheriff and getting the jail done.”
As for some of the work ahead, Ganrude said, “I’m eagerly waiting for the jail to get finished so we can open that and get our program going so we can keep our inmates in town instead of sending them all over the state.” Keep the project on schedule and on budget will be a top priority, he said.
In the auditor-treasurer race, Wilbright — who talked about steps she would take to assure citizens local elections are fairly run — earned 10,555 votes against John Eger’s 6,871. Eger ran on his business background and said he would make some changes to the local election system, such as blocking county staff from serving on the absentee-ballot-counting ballot board.
Wilbright wasn’t immediately available for an interview. She posted on her campaign Facebook page, “I’d like to thank everyone for their support!”
Recorder Bob Bambenek and County Attorney Karin Sonneman, both unopposed incumbents, also earned reelection.
Ross Greden and Tom Scarponcini won unopposed races for the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Board, and Winona County District Court Judge Nancy Buytendorp was reelected.