Jones says county board write-in challenge is about character, leadership
A first-time political candidate, Arlene Jones said she was asked to run as part of a concerted effort to find a well-known person with the skills necessary to challenge Paul Koering. She said no at first. But recent statements and actions by Koering — who found himself at the center of controversy when he openly supported a challenger to another incumbent commissioner in a different district, a contributing factor in his recent ouster as board chairman — prompted Jones to change course.
CROW WING TOWNSHIP — When the candidate filing period closed in May, it appeared Crow Wing County District 1 voters would see an uncontested commissioner race for the second election in a row.
That changed in September when Crow Wing Township resident Arlene Jones announced a write-in candidacy challenging incumbent Commissioner Paul Koering, who’s filled the seat since 2012. While Jones acknowledged a successful write-in run is a challenge, she said her strong networking skills, demonstrated success in collaboration and willingness to listen and learn, give her an edge.
“One of the things that I have learned over the years is the importance of networking and partnerships,” Jones, 56, said last month while seated at a picnic table at The Farm on St. Mathias, which she runs with husband Bob Jones. “If I don’t know the answer to the question, I know who to go ask, and I’m not afraid to go ask that question. And I’m also not afraid to ask people to help me do the work. People do want to be engaged, people want to be involved, people want somebody that’s committed to asking the people who are the most deeply impacted by any decision to have input and voice at the table and I strongly believe that. I am firmly committed to it, and it’s part of the general practice of work that I do — whose voice is missing?”
Write-in challenger takes part in county board candidate event
A focus on local
It isn’t out of Jones’ character to dive head first into the unknown. Look no further than the origins of The Farm on St. Mathias, an 80-acre destination farmstead that’s served as a host for a number of nonprofit fundraisers, music festivals, weddings and other events, along with attracting area families for fall-themed fun. A state employee for 23 years, Jones had never farmed before when she and Bob purchased the property in 2006 — a surprising fact for someone who's contributed much in the area’s local foods movement.
Developing the agricultural venture into a success would take input from others and hard work to learn the best practices, Jones said she realized. The couple took the course to become University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners and Jones joined the Sustainable Farming Association, which exposed her to like-minded people who sought to reduce the impact of farming on the environment. In 2010, as chair of the central chapter of that association, Jones helped to coordinate efforts to implement Farm to School programming in local school districts. This push incorporated locally grown produce into school lunches, and it wasn’t long before the need outstretched the capacity of Jones’ farm.
Solving this logistical puzzle required Jones to collaborate with other local growers who began contributing to the steady flow of vegetables landing on area students’ plates. And from this cooperative endeavor, another organization was born — Sprout MN, a nonprofit food hub with the stated mission to strengthen the local food system by offering producers the opportunity to become more economically viable through the use of shared resources to distribute and market their products.
Progress: Growing a movement - Local food hub connects people with what they eat
With Jones at the helm, Sprout MN took over a vacant warehouse space in Little Falls in 2016 that now includes an area for market vendors, commercial kitchen space and food storage areas for public use. The organization positioned itself as a place where food, art and culture collide, seeking to become a major player in regional vitality.
Jones said none of it would’ve been possible without listening to the needs of the community and seeking to fulfill those needs — and that’s what she said she plans to do if elected Crow Wing County commissioner. Her connections in the world of agriculture and strong involvement in the community position her to be a strong voice for the residents of District 1, a heavily agricultural area of the county, she said. District 1 covers the southern portion of Crow Wing County, from Fort Ripley east to Roosevelt Township and north to Oak Lawn Township. The extreme northeast portion of the city of Brainerd also falls within District 1.
A first-time political candidate, Jones said she was asked to run as part of a concerted effort to find a well-known person with the skills necessary to challenge Koering. She said no at first. But recent statements and actions by Koering — who found himself at the center of controversy when he openly supported a challenger to another incumbent commissioner in a different district, a contributing factor in his recent ouster as board chairman — prompted Jones to change course.
“The actions of late, specifically name-calling of current sitting commissioners — I just find that to be an ineffective way to lead, when you’re not only an elected official, but carry so much weight in decision-making for the residents of Crow Wing County,” Jones said. “I think we can do better. … I believe that the residents of District 1 deserve equal representation and somebody who has a greater capacity to have a larger scope of what the issues that the residents and citizens are concerned about.”
Jones said she first considered a run against Koering following his 2019 comments at a committee meeting suggesting it would be better to not save people who’ve overdosed with the use of Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
“I don’t know why we’re in such a big hurry to save somebody like this,” Koering said during a March 2019 presentation addressing the county’s growing drug problem. “I guess it sounds kind of harsh, but it kind of gets rid of a problem, in my mind.”
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The statement led to statewide and even national criticism of the Crow Wing County commissioner.
“Oftentimes through the years, I’ve seen Commissioner Koering belittle and discount residents of our county, in particular those that are struggling with addiction,” Jones said. “And so that was the first time when I actually thought about it seriously, and I just permanently moved to the farm this year and I’m now a resident of District 1.”
Although a new resident of the district, Jones has called Crow Wing County home for 35 years, raising her and husband Bob’s six children in the Pequot Lakes and Brainerd school districts and living in Pequot Lakes, Nisswa and now Crow Wing Township. Since electing to run for county board, Jones said it’s been a crash course in familiarizing herself with the recent issues the board has considered and decisions they’ve made. Her free time has been dominated by reviewing meeting recordings and minutes, along with painting campaign signs, organizing mailings and knocking on doors.
On the issues
When asked which issues she would first focus on if elected, Jones said she’d like to see an increased emphasis on proactively addressing the root causes of problems, rather than spending tax dollars on reacting to them. She offered the example of a collaboration between law enforcement and community services that seeks to prevent recidivism among those who’ve spent time in Crow Wing County Jail. County leaders embedded a social worker in the jail in 2019 to help those incarcerated navigate life and connect with needed resources upon release. It’s part of a broader effort to reduce out-of-home placements of children, a significant driver in budget woes the county has faced in recent years.
“I think that you have to have those strategies in place to actually get to the root cause of the problem before you get to the point where you see all those dollars that are coming out of the (property tax) levy to support these programs that are not having any kind of positive impact, not only on the citizens, but on the bottom line of the budget,” Jones said. “And if you don’t get to the root cause and you actually don’t start addressing that, it’s just going to be a circular conversation that continues to happen over and over again.”
Jones said while these types of programs might not show a return on investment initially, she believes residents will appreciate their tax dollars supporting initiatives intent on improving life in the Brainerd lakes area.
“I own three properties in Crow Wing County. I am not interested in raising property taxes any more than anybody else is. But having a zero percent levy for how many years in a row is starting to finally catch up, and there’s no more reserves,” Jones said, referring to the county board’s recent eight-year run of reducing the amount of money it collected from property owners. “It costs money to employ people. It costs money to provide their health care … but we need to retain those qualified workers as well. And so my philosophy is the return on long-term investment has to be at the top of the thinking pattern or you’re going to have no investment — not in the short term and long term. Your infrastructure is going to crumble, you’re going to lose your human resources, you’re going to lose valuable services to the residents and the citizens.”
Another area Jones said she’d emphasize is investment in the economic development of tourism. She said the popularity of mountain biking in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area is an excellent example of what can happen when there’s buy-in into an idea to draw people to visit the area. But balancing recreational opportunities on forested land with conservation efforts is important, she said, given the central role lakes play in attracting tourists.
“We need to continue to provide resources to continue to develop that as an economic development strategy,” Jones said. “ … Regarding what is near and dear to my heart, which is care of the land, care of the soil, care of water … we have to protect those resources so our lakes, working with the DNR, aquatic invasive species, we have to keep the quality of them and protect them.”
She said the biggest concern she hears from her neighbors in District 1 is the desire to keep that portion of Crow Wing County rural, protecting it from multi-unit housing developments. She said many of those she’s spoken with do not feel as though they’re currently being represented on the county board. She said while some District 1 residents may align with Koering due to his outspoken conservative beliefs and support of President Donald Trump, she has no interest in wading into partisan politics.
“I would say that I have not built two businesses without being fiscally conservative, and that I understand, you know, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. You don’t always get what you want,” Jones said. “ … I am not running for any office that has anything to do outside of Crow Wing County. Any decision that I would make does not impact any statewide or federal laws, rules, regulations or influences. And I will shy away from any kind of statements or comments about who I am and where I stand politically on a national realm.”
When it comes to the pandemic, Jones said as someone who does business regularly with schools and restaurants, she’s seen firsthand the detrimental impacts the coronavirus has had on the community. Her own businesses have suffered from the effects — the Farm on St. Mathias did not have its annual corn maze this year, due to challenges posed by the need to social distance. She said she recognizes the severe financial hardship it’s caused for many people, up to and including county government, but also noted she thinks it’s important to listen to public health experts when allowing businesses to be open in a way that’s safe for everybody.
Ultimately, Jones said she would have a lot to learn about the intricacies of county government if elected, but learning and growing are things she’s never shied away from.
“I think that one of my strong suits is working in collaborative environments, being a good facilitator, being a good listener, doing the research necessary that it takes, and always stepping out every day, knowing that respectful behavior and collaboration are going to be two key items of merit as we move forward,” she said.
Informing voters they have an alternative to the incumbent commissioner, whose sole name will appear on the ballot, and how to vote for her as a write-in, are just two more challenges Jones said she’s equipped for and ready to face.
UPDATE: This story was updated to correctly reflect the township in which Jones lives.
The Dispatch regrets the error.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .