Czeczok wants a vote along with a voice

Anyone who's observed local government in the past 15 years or so has likely encountered Crow Wing County Board District 3 candidate Jeff Czeczok. A staunch advocate for open meeting law and governmental transparency, the 51-year-old Brainerd res...

Crow Wing County Board candidate Jeff Czeczok talks about his plans for the county. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Crow Wing County Board candidate Jeff Czeczok talks about his plans for the county. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

Anyone who's observed local government in the past 15 years or so has likely encountered Crow Wing County Board District 3 candidate Jeff Czeczok.

A staunch advocate for open meeting law and governmental transparency, the 51-year-old Brainerd resident, a self-described "full-time citizen," serves on two Brainerd city committees - the Transportation Advisory Committee and the ad hoc Walkable Bikeable Committee - and since 2012 is the city appointee for the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission. Czeczok also frequently speaks during public forums at city and county meetings. He's twice run for Brainerd City Council and lost, in 2010 and 2012, and also unsuccessfully applied for the open at-large council seat left vacant by the death of Bonnie Cumberland, council president, earlier this year.

Czeczok discussed his decision to run for county board in an interview at his northeast Brainerd home earlier this month. When no one stepped forward to run against Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, the District 3 incumbent, who four years ago was re-elected to the post in an unopposed race, Czeczok filed his candidacy less than an hour before the filing period closed in August.

"There was nobody running against Rachel that I could get behind," he said. "I wanted to give people a choice, but I wanted to give them a good choice."

Czeczok said he was motivated to throw his hat in the ring in part because of Nystrom's involvement in a 2011 dust-up over former airport Commissioner Doug Kuepers and his construction company's financial ties to an airport remodeling project. Soon after Kuepers' reappointment to the commission, Czeczok raised the potential conflict of interest at an April Brainerd City Council meeting, noting Kuepers Architects & Builders was hired by engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson (SEH), Inc. as an on-site construction manager for a sum of $135,000.


At the time, Nystrom spoke at a county board meeting on the issue and said it was SEH's decision, not the airport commission's, and she did not believe it was a conflict of interest.

The prolonged dispute peaked with a legal opinion from former city attorney Thomas Fitzpatrick, who affirmed the existence of a conflict of interest and said the commission did not follow proper procedure in acquiring one of its commissioner's professional services. Kuepers resigned from the commission in May 2011.

"It was a clear conflict of interest, and all they (the airport commission) did ... was dig their heels in and say, 'We didn't do anything wrong,'" Czeczok said. "I'm of the belief that if you get on one of these appointed committees as a member, it is your responsibility to know the rules and to find out if you're not sure."

Some of Nystrom's statements, which Czeczok said unfairly characterized his raising the issue as "lies" and "innuendo," stuck with him.

"That's been on my mind for a long time," he said. "The only opportunity for me to do anything about it is for people to re-elect somebody different."

The Kuepers conflict of interest issue is but one of numerous questions the candidate has raised of local governmental bodies over the years, and he acknowledges his inquiries are not always received positively.

"I've been labeled, I think, by many as a troublemaker, a watchdog," Czeczok said. "I feel like I'm doing a civic duty by following things and letting people know, perhaps, things they're not getting otherwise."

Czeczok points to a number of tangible changes in government practices his questions and concerns have led to. He's corrected the county on overcharging the public for copies of documents and informed administration of a statute requiring a copy of all materials before a board or council be available to the public at a meeting.


He notified the Cass County Board it would be in violation of open meeting law if a quorum of its members toured a wood processing plant without allowing press coverage, which led to cancellation of the full board visit last September.

As an airport commissioner, Czeczok pushed for updating recording technology from cassette tapes to digital and supported the commission's decision this spring to retain meeting recordings for three years instead of three months. He informed the commission of a statute that requires staff evaluations be recorded, although not publicly available. He challenged the inclusion of the cost of coffee and cookies in the airport's bills, refreshments provided to visiting legislators. The airport is co-owned by the city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County and receives one-third of its budget in the form of tax dollars.

"I explained that this is a nicety, it's not a necessity. That's what government should be concerned about is necessities and not be paying for niceties," Czeczok said. "Many people can't afford their own coffee and cookies, why should their tax dollars pay for ones out here?"

The catalyst for Czeczok's studious devotion to local government can be traced back to when he began using Brainerd's public transportation. In 1990, at 26 years old, Czeczok went blind as a result of Type 2 diabetes. After diagnosis with the disease as a sophomore at Brainerd High School, Czeczok said one of the great mistakes in his life was failing to take care of himself.

"Had I to do it all over again, knowing what I do now, I'd do things differently, but I can't do that," he said. "You have to be cognizant of what the fallout is if you don't do what a doctor tells you."

When the city changed local bus contractors, he and others who rode the bus found the service was "deplorable."

"We were complaining and all these different things were wrong. And then I started attending transportation committee meetings."

Czeczok was appointed to the committee in 1996, where he said he served as the first committee member who regularly used the bus until 2004. He was re-appointed to the committee in 2012, but in the meantime, he said he attended nearly every meeting as a resident.


Czeczok is unemployed because of his disability, although he has held various jobs in the past, including as an ironworker, a bellman and an on-the-road book salesman.

"I'm in a very good position to be an elected official, because I'm not working," he said. "I don't have other things taking up my time. That's why I'm able to devote so much time to being a county board member."

As for what he would like to accomplish as part of county government, Czeczok said he has no agenda and few specific goals, hoping only to represent people "in a way they haven't been represented."

"I want to make sure people are getting good representation," he said. "If people call me up and they say they have a problem, I will be there to do whatever I can as a county board member to help them."

He said he would work to maintain or reduce the county property tax levy, which is on a downward trend for the fifth straight year, and would focus on needs over wants when it comes to what the county is asking its taxpaying residents to pay for.

"People don't have a choice. They have no choice in paying their taxes," he said. "The choice they have is to either go to jail or pay their taxes. I think most people are going to choose the latter instead of the former."

Some ways Czeczok would seek to reduce costs is by scrutinizing expenditures by county departments to assess need and by finding areas where sharing services could be an option.

"Can we get by with something less expensive? Can we get by with a little bit lower costs on some of these vehicles they (the sheriff's department) drive around?" Czeczok said.


He added, "I like sharing services. I'll be looking into that further to see how much of that is actually going on and what kind of savings we're achieving by that."

Czeczok said if elected, he would push the board to record its committee of the whole meetings, which although open to the public are not recorded in an official capacity for residents unable to attend. The committee of the whole meetings are held once a month and are attended by a quorum of commissioners. No actions are taken and the meeting is intended to be an opportunity for more in-depth discussion among the board.

"There's no action taken, but there's interesting information given out," Czeczok said. "Why should the public have the right to know that? Because a lot of people can't make the county board meetings at 9 a.m. on Tuesday mornings."

He also noted some kind of action would be needed on vacation rentals by owner, an increasing trend in the area's tourism industry. Concerned property owners brought the issue to the county board at a July meeting, outlining a number of complaints related to capacity, noise, overflowing sewers and littering at summer rental properties.

"I have respect for those neighbors," Czeczok said. "Those are the people I'm most concerned about, not the individual property owner that wants to rent out his place and let God only knows what goes on there when he's not there. There has to be some kind of monitoring going on, there has to be some kind of penalty."

Czeczok said although he would be elected by District 3, he would represent all of Crow Wing County as a commissioner, and his active history in local government illustrates he is highly qualified for the job.

"I challenge anybody on that county board now: what did you do before you were elected?" he said. "I don't think anybody would come close to what I've done."

After eight years with the same elected official, people deserve new representation and he is the one to fulfill that role, he said.


"I'm a fresh face to the county. People don't know me, maybe they're afraid of me because they saw my involvement in some things considered controversial. ... The people who don't vote for me don't know me."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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