Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.
Ahead of next year’s presidential election, the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area discussed a wide variety of topics Thursday, Nov. 14, with Crow Wing County officials.
“We’d like to know what’s going on in the county … how they operate, what their views are, … what are the hot button issues,” said Rebecca LaPlante, league president.
County commissioners Bill Brekken and Steve Barrows, and County Administrator Tim Houle spent an hour fielding questions at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse in Brainerd.
“Once elected, we all represent the 64,000 people, approximately, of Crow Wing County ... and try to understand the various issues of the ag group in the south, the populated area in the center and the lakes up north … from everybody’s perspective,” Barrows said.
Brekken said, “I’m a connector. People need to reach out and talk and at least be listened to. … When you have a turnover of commissioners, you kind of have a turnover of culture, too.”
The county board is the governing body of the county. Board members, in partnership with county staff, work to ensure the delivery of services and essential programs in the county.
“We are a mini state Legislature because of the scope of the issues that we deal with on behalf of the people of this county, so it really was an eye-opener for me and has been,” said Barrows, who, along with Brekken, are the latest elected members of the board of commissioners.
League members brought up methamphetamine, affordable housing and homelessness, aquatic invasive species, recycling costs, vacation rentals by owner, lake associations, climate change, water resources and more at Thursday’s informal meeting with county officials.
“There are lots of issues that cause me to not sleep at night … but it’s also very rewarding responsibility, and I look forward to it every morning when I get out of bed, so I appreciate the opportunity that the people of my district gave me to do this job,” Barrows told league members.
The job can be daunting at times, according to Brekken and Barrows, although they argue progress has been made addressing some of residents’ concerns, even if it is incrementally.
“We still are struggling with drug caseloads and meth in particular,” Houle said.
Houle is the chief operating officer for the county and reports directly to the county board of commissioners and acts as a liaison between the board and county departments.
“The planning commission deals with our zoning ordinance and making changes to our zoning ordinance and so it’s the law of the land as it relates to land use planning,” Houle said in response to a question.
League volunteers work year-round to register new voters, host community forums and debates, and provide voters with election information they need.
“We invite different elected representatives to whatever meetings we can as long as it doesn’t conflict with elections,” LaPlante said. “It always surprises me when people don’t worry about voting for county commissioners because of how much they actually affect our lives.”
The League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area is a nonpartisan political organization with a 90-year history of educating Minnesota voters. It encourages informed and active participation in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
“We’re also working with the law enforcement community to try to identify what is a mental health issue as opposed to a criminal issue. Mental health issues will manifest oftentimes in a criminal behavior, but it’s not the underlying, driving cause,” Houle said about the county jail.
Attendee Burma Brekke replied, “I’m always concerned about the sex offenders that come around here.”
Houle said he was not aware of someone re-offending after there has been a community notification meeting about the sex offender.
“It makes people aware, so knowledge is power,” Houle told Brekke.
The national League of Women Voters encourages “informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.”
“Next month, we’re celebrating a hundred years of the 19th Amendment, and we’re making suffrage hats and doing trivia on the suffrage act,” LaPlante said before the meeting.
Houle talked about how divisive politics has become and people’s unwillingness to compromise and offered a solution.
“Usually, that’s just about listening to each other and being respectful in your dialogue and listening to understand,” Houle said.
Membership in the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area is open to men and women of all ages. For more information, visit lwv.org/local-leagues/lwv-brainerd-lakes-area or call 320-866-7731.