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Candidate Q&A: Washington County Board District 4

(From left) Wayne Johnson, Marvin Taylor, John Thorson and Bill Sumner.

Ahead of the Aug. 14 primary, RiverTown Multimedia spoke by phone with each of the four candidates running for the Washington County Board of Commissioners District 4 seat.

District 4 includes Cottage Grove, Denmark Township, Grey Cloud Island Township, Newport, St. Paul Park and portions of Woodbury and Hastings.

Jeff Swenson has left the race, citing time commitments he said he thinks would interfere with his ability to best serve the board.

Answers have been lightly edited for length.

Wayne Johnson

Wayne JohnsonJohnson lives in Cottage Grove and has served on the City Council for about a year and a half. He also owns Furnace Doctors.

What qualifies you to hold this position?

Right now I sit on the Cottage Grove City Council, which is the second largest city in the county (and) biggest in the district. And what that has provided me with is the experience of working with budgets for a bigger public entity, working with different departments and budgets, and bringing that all together.

I also am working with tough issues like water, which is a leading issue moving forward. We had to deal with that last year, making tough decisions on the watering ban. ...

As a business owner, I'm used to getting more out of each dollar without relying on always trying to raise taxes, trying to be more efficient, and be mindful of people's budgets.

What would be your top priorities if elected?

The top priorities ... are going to be transportation, and then the water supply. ... There is a huge percentage of people who live in the county but work somewhere else and we want to be able to provide more efficient methods for them to get to those locations. The other thing that's going to be a top priority is safe water. Safe water is, as we know, very important. As we went through it in Cottage Grove last year, one of my top priorities is going to be to ensure that the money that is designated to us stays with us and addresses the ongoing water supply we have.

What issues do you think need more attention in Washington County?

People are not aware of how many homeless people are in washington county, which also means people who are transition, who have lost their home because of higher prices of rent and stuff like that, who are out of their home through no fault of themselves ... And I also think the drug issue, with the opiods and the effect on families, communities, neighborhoods. We should look into ... more solutions, and better solutions to address that. Because it does affect everybody, from employers to families, to the police, to the public safety, everything.

What strengths or expertise do you think you can add to the board?

As a business owner ... I am very good at being able to look at the dollars we have available and how we can use them most effectively and efficiently. ... I am used to sitting down with various different people with different objectives in mind and trying to come up with a common solution when everyone wants something out of a situation. ...

I also have worked with budgets, so that's something I command also. ... And these are all things that are very important because the county, our budget is taken up almost 80 percent or more by mandates. So we have to be creative in providing services to our residents of Washington County without always having to raise taxes.

What skills or traits are important for a county commissioner to possess?

One of the traits that's very important is the ability to listen, and to understand what is going on. And being able to communicate at a respectful level. And being able to explain what you're trying to achieve. So that everybody is playing a part of the common goal going forward. There is no ego in this position. It is a serving position. You have to have that trait and know that you are there serving your constituents and that's the only reason you are there for.

And also ... financial skills, (such as) dealing with big budgets, big numbers and being able to be creative and thinking outside the box to try to get everything done with limited resources.

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Marvin Taylor

Marvin TaylorThe Newport carpenter serves as chair of the city's planning commission and as a firefighter. He has served nine years in the Army National Guard. He is wrapping up his Ph.D. dissertation which has focused on Minnesota's economic growth at the University of Minnesota.

What qualifies you to hold this position?

I think the biggest thing is the breadth of my experience in the field of public service. I'm currently the chair of the Planning Commission of Newport, I'm a member of the fire department as well, and I've served nine years in the Army National Guard. I've also ... worked across different labor (fields) ... being a carpenter for the last five years and having a graduate education from the U of M in geography, with a focus on economic development in Minnesota ... I think that overall breadth is important. The county commissioners have a broad set of responsibilities.

What would be your top priorities if elected?

I think my three top priorities would be more equitable economic development. ... I'm really trying to think about how the District 4 can get economic growth more on par with the rest of Washington County. ...

A second area is water quality. It's a well known issue, the groundwater contamination is weighing heavy on the minds of people, especially in St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove, but also private wells in the area. We know there's money available from the 3M settlement but I think it's going to be a long term challenge to make sure we use that money adequately to make sure we provide safe drinking water for decades to come.

My third area is health and community services. ... I'm interested in trying to find ways that we can ... put more money into (programs) in order to help with prevention and intervention to ward off the crises that often happen. Listening to community members and staff in the county, trying to identify areas of opportunity to focus on early prevention and intervention.

What issues do you think need more attention in Washington County?

My priorities are kind of built off areas that ... are neglected or overlooked. I think one thing that's been surprising ... despite being one of the most affluent counties in the Midwest and Minnesota, we're below average in number of jobs for a county our size. We're also substantially below counties with wages.

... We're also more notably, with wages with the jobs that we have, the lowest average in the seven-county metropolitan area ... So I think that's something that we need to talk about in conjunction with transportation policy. I think those two go hand in hand — where our jobs are and transportation policy. Because if we don't have jobs in Washington County, we're more reliant on transit — both highways and public transportation. Everyone's doing the right thing talking about the gold line and the red rock corridor, but we also need to get more jobs closer to home so we can shorten communities and shorten travel.

What strengths or expertise do you think you can add to the board?

I think one of the biggest things is ... I'm raising a family, working a full time job, a blue collar job. ... I think it's important to have people of a different generation. ... You could have someone of a younger generation with a different work experience background.

I haven't run for political office before, so a lot of my thoughts and the way I approach issues has been shaped by my public service and my academic background. So I think I can be a little more creative and critical in how I approach problems.

What skills or traits are important for a county commissioner to possess?

You really have to have allegiance to everybody. You have to seek out, you have to work with people from all walks of life and viewpoints ... It's an ability to work across divides, work across differences is one of the most important parts. That's something I've experienced in my life, I enjoy talking to people with different ideas as we work on these problems.

I think the second thing is ... the willingness to put your time in ... I think putting a strong consistent work ethic into it is particularly important.

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John Thorson

John ThorsonThorson lives in Cottage Grove and serves as director of workforce development for Hennepin County. Prior to working for Hennepin County for the last four years, Thorson spent 20 years working with policymakers at the city, county and state level for Education Minnesota, a union of 70,000 teachers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

What qualifies you to hold this position?

I worked with state, local and federal government policy makers for the last twenty years, primarily on issues related to employment and finding employment for folks who have been incarcerated. And in the last four years working with (Hennepin) County, ... I have a good understanding of what a county can do on things that matter to a community.

What would be your top priorities if elected?

The four things I want to focus on as a commissioner are: safe, clean drinking water; higher quality jobs in our community; more reliable bus service; and then also protecting pollinators, because I think those four things are essential to the quality of life for folks in Washington County.

What issues do you think need more attention in Washington County?

As far as what requires the most attention, hands down it's safe drinking water to meet both our current needs and future needs of residents of South Washington County. I think that safe drinking water is a have-to-have, not a want-to-have. And then making sure that the settlement with 3M goes towards remediating the contaminants in our drinking water is the most important issue our community faces.

What strengths or expertise do you think you can add to the board?

Again, I understand county government. Having worked with county governments in the metro for 20 years ... I really understand what the counties are responsible for and how they should be approaching things.

Should I be elected, I would be the only commissioner who draws water from a private well. And when it comes to focusing on water quality issues, that's something i think about ... It's a unique perspective in terms of the water issues and how central they are to my life.

What skills or traits are important for a county commissioner to possess?

I think it's deciding what problems to solve for. Knowing what to be patient about and what to be impatient about. And bringing people along to get things done.

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Bill Sumner

Bill SumnerSumner lives in Newport and currently serves on the City Council, as well as the Washington/Ramsey Recycling and Energy Center Board. Now retired, his previous experience includes working as an auditor and investigator for the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

What qualifies you to hold this position?

I'm the only candidate who has ten years of experience as a city council member. I have 15 years with the state of Minnesota as an auditor and investigator. As an investigator, I worked jointly with the Minnesota State Patrol in cases involving people evading their motor vehicle taxes. Prior to that, I (spent) 14 years at the University of Minnesota as a manager, scientist (and) researcher in their dairy research center. And for the community, I have been a member actively working with the Stone Soup Thrift Shop for 18 years. At Stone Soup, we recycle and help re-use hundreds of thousands of items. Things are available for purchase by the general public at very low rates. And for those most in need, we've given away over a million dollars worth of product.

Also, I'm currently on the joint powers organization with Ramsey and Washington counties, I'm their liaison for their recycling and energy center. So I've got extensive multi-agency involvement.

What would be your top priorities if elected?

Everything that relates to proper management of a 200 million dollar budget. And to do that, I've been the only candidate attending county board meetings, workshops, lectures, tours. So I am going to come into the position well versed in the issues. ... When you review each item on the budget, you understand that we are looking at roads, parks, human services — all of these are equally important. And it's important that they're done productively and with cost awareness.

What issues do you think need more attention in Washington County?

Well, certainly, people have stopped me and asked me to put a control on the escalating property taxes. And as a researcher, auditor, and investigator, with experience controlling cost in Newport, I will aggressively look for ways to control and reduce county taxes. I have experience doing that, we've done that in Newport. And naturally, the water issue is huge. County commissioners have little direct impact on that, but I was very involved with reviewing and rewriting Newport's well protection program (about three) years ago ... I was proactive in protecting water.

What strengths or expertise do you think you can add to the board?

As I mentioned, I've got 10 years of experience in successfully managing a city government on the (Newport) City Council. ... I've got the unique experience of being an auditor, and I taught classes for the Minnesota Department of Revenue, so I've been exposed to significant amounts of statutory requirements. For the city of Newport, I reviewed and offered suggestions to revise a large number of city ordinances. ... So with that, I'm detail conscious. For the Department of Revenue, we had to enforce laws and I wanted to make sure that the regulations are reasonably written, understandable, relevant.

... One other thing that uniquely qualifies me: I am retired. So I have all the time necessary to do this job well. I won't be distracted.

What skills or traits are important for a county commissioner to possess?

You've got to have knowledge, you've got to have an ability to grasp complex issues. You've got to have an ability to balance needs that are mandated to the county with the fact that residents that are paying these taxes can only pay so much. ...

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