Over 40 county residents attended a candidate forum for the District 5 county commissioner race, held at the Legion in Spring Grove on Oct. 27.

The seat is currently held by Tom Bjerke who was elected in 2004 and faces challenger Brent Newgaard. The event was sponsored by a local farmer, Jeff Gerard, who also served as moderator.

Each candidate was allowed to give an opening statement and closing remark. The rest of the hour and half event was centered on lively discussion, answering questions posed by audience members.

In his opening remarks Bjerke thanked the audience for the last four years and he explained, "I have learned a lot. It takes a couple years just to get familiar with the acronyms, departments and more."

Newgaard stressed that he didn't run against Bjerke "because I am against him. I don't harbor any bad feelings, I just want to see things done differently."

Issues raised from the audience included the following:

• Wind power and alternative energy options being used by the county and promoted within the county. Both candidates were in agreement that all options should be considered and promoted if there was a reasonable return on investment. Bjerke suggested 10 years or less.

• The proposed new jail versus criminal justice center project was discussed. Both candidates agreed that a scaled down version was in order (a jail with sheriff's department) versus the full-blown justice center (with courtrooms and additional office space).

Newgaard felt the jail was somewhat over ambitious. "The state has mandated that we have to build a new one... but it has grown into a monstrous building."

He added, "I have talked to deputies and we will fill the new jail. When the county didn't want a new jail it wasn't full, 'now we got to fill it up!' Who are we filling it up with?"

Some audience members thought a regional jail and possibly court system should again be pursued.

• Land use/zoning issues. These items took up the bulk of the discussion and varied in intensity and concerns from protection of ag (and the perceived lack of protection) to residential density (one per 40 acre) concerns.

The candidates differences were most striking in this area, with Bjerke defending many of the current policies and decisions while Newgaard accused the county of only recently enforcing its policies (within the last 10 years or less) and punishing the majority of landowners to protect everyone from the few "crazies" out there.

In Bjerke's defense he did point out two things that had not been previously noted by the county board.

First, that only two townships (Black Hammer and Spring Grove) out of 17 have raised serious concerns about the current zoning that has been in place for 30 years.

"The county board has to weigh everyone's concerns when it looks at these matters. Some townships actually want to see it made stricter."

The other area concerned the organized land rights group that has been placing ads and petitions around the county. "We have never been brought any specific plans, just been asked to throw out what we currently have."

Bjerke made it clear that the board would never consider scraping its whole zoning ordinance and that it just needed some fine tuning in his opinion.

Newgaard did agree that some sort of zoning ordinance was needed, especially for non-residential ag and business applications.

He also agreed with one audience member that some items related to septic systems, feedlots, etc. are dictated by the state and federal agencies that oversee those areas.

"The state wants the county to do all the regulating for them. It's only going to get worse with the state's budget shortfall," Newgaard said.

Some audience members felt strongly that the Planning and Zoning Board should be made up entirely of elected members. Right now they are appointed by the county board with one county commissioner also serving on it.

It was also suggested that zoning changes should be voted on with all members of the county having a say-so before they are enacted.

Other issues discussed were:

• Sheriff sharing office space with chief deputy;

• Deputies sharing cars (to cut the number of squads in half);

• Shortfall of funding from the state;

• Future of court system in Houston County;

• Cost of shipping prisoners versus building a jail facility; and

• New equipment purchased by highway department versus money spent on roads and bridges.

Top three priorities identified

Bjerke identified his top three priorities as

#1.) finding a way to keep needed services in the face of levy limits over the next three years;

#2.) Get the jail project figured and get it built; and

#3.) Address space issues for departments like public health that are jam-packed.

Newgaard identified his top priorities as:

#1.) Zoning

#2.) Jail

#3.) Cutting the fat

#4.) Roads

Newgaard did not elaborate on specific plans or ideas in regards to his priorities.

By the time most of you read this article, the election will be history and one of these men will be our county commissioner. Good luck to both candidates.