Wright County Board’s ‘three wise men’ prepare for final curtain

By John Holler

The Wright County Board of Commissioners spent Dec. 3 to 4 in St. Paul for the Association of Minnesota Counties annual meeting and it served as the start of the going away tour for three of the county board members that have spent a combined 54 years serving their districts as county commissioners. It seemed only fitting that as the Christmas holiday approaches, Wright County’s version of the Three Wise Men are preparing for the end of their collective stints on the county board.

Commissioners Jack Russek and Dick Mattson have each been on the county board since 1993 and Elmer Eichelberg has been a county commissioner since 1998. As they prepare to head their separate ways after hundreds of county board meetings and thousands of committee meetings, each will be taking a different path heading into the future.

Russek won’t be leaving politics. After announcing earlier this year that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term as county commissioner, Russek ran for the Delano City Council and won election. Russek said he sees some unfinished business in the city that he wants to get accomplished, but has mixed feelings about leaving county government.

“I’m not going to miss the job, but I’ll miss the people,” Russek said. “I met a lot of great people here and will carry those relationships with me. It was a job I loved going to.”

In 20 years, Russek missed less than 10 meetings of the nearly 1,000 board meetings as a commissioner. He only missed one when he lost a kidney and missed two this year when he had knee replacement surgery. Although his political career will continue, Russek said he felt it was time for a change and he has no complaints or regrets.

“There are times when you look back on it and figure that you’ve got a pretty good life,” Russek said. “I enjoyed the job a lot, but I felt it was time to move on. I figured it was to get out before they vote you out.”

Mattson’s 20 years on the county board began from a relatively simple premise — he never felt the county commissioners that preceded him were available to the public. Mattson ran on the platform of being available to his constituents, a promise he kept over the last 20 years.

“I could never find a county commissioner at the courthouse,” Mattson said. “That was one of the main reasons I ran. For 20 years, I was there at 8 a.m. almost every day. I wasn’t a coffee shop commissioner or a chew-the-fat type of commissioner. I came to the county board looking to represent the people in my district and feel I did a pretty good job of that.”

Mattson came to the board at a time of unprecedented growth along the I-94 corridor and fought hard to make sure that the rural areas of the western end of the county were represented and had their needs and concerns met. Unlike Russek and Eichelberg, Mattson sought re-election, but health issues with both him and his wife this spring derailed his campaign at a time when he was planning to hit the streets to introduce himself to his vastly changed district — the result of post-census redistricting that markedly changed the cities and townships he was looking to represent.

Mattson leaves the county board with mixed feelings because he didn’t believe he was able to give his full effort in campaigning, but at this point is happy to be alive because that was far from guaranteed.

“It’s very emotional at times,” Mattson said about the time counting down to the end of his term. “I could easily have been gone this summer. They brought in three specialists to work on me. I lost a month of campaigning and then my wife was diagnosed with cancer and is going through chemotherapy now. The timing of all this was terrible. It was a tough summer for us, but as I look back on my time on the county board, I have a lot of happy memories. It’s just the recent times that have been difficult.”

Of the three, Eichelberg is the “young blood” of the board, having served 14 years as a commissioner. Like Mattson, Eichelberg felt that his home area of St. Michael wasn’t being represented on the county board. Half of his district was the city of Buffalo and the prevailing opinion at the time was that Buffalo was controlling the county board, people in his area wanted a change and Eichelberg was the man tabbed to be the replacement.

“I brought a voice for the people in my part of the county that didn’t believe they were being heard,” Eichelberg said. “My longtime friends that knew me from the St. Michael City Council thought I could make a strong candidate. Given that half the district was in Buffalo, my thinking was people there would think, ‘who is this guy from St. Michael?’ It took a little persuasion to get me to run. But I did and the rest was history.”

His initiation to the board was an apprenticeship by fire. Eichelberg came to the county board at a time when the county was in ongoing legal battles over landfill permitting and Eichelberg ruffled some feathers by siding with the landfill rather than pursuing a continued legal battle that was both costly and had Wright County on the losing end of the argument.

“As a newcomer, I was hesitant to go against the county’s opinion about landfilling,” Eichelberg said. “I didn’t think we could shut something down that had been a mainstay for so long. Those were some difficult times early on, but things got a lot better as time went by.”

Eichelberg has pondered retiring prior to his last election, but said his motivation for running was to see the county jail project through to the end. This time when election season came around, his decision was easy.

“I’m very comfortable with my decision, because I have other things I want to accomplish,” Eichelberg said. “I’m a hand’s on person. I don’t like to take off a week or so and then have to catch up. I have more time now to spend with my family and I’m looking forward to it.”

When the Wright County Board convenes in January, it will do so without the Three Wise Men that have been a staple of the board for the last two decades, but, as they see it, the timing was right.

“Change is inevitable,” Russek said. “We all had a long time of service to county and I think it’s time for new people and new ideas to take over.”

Few things are more satisfying than community service and all three of the outgoing commissioners gave a big chunk of their lives representing the resident of Wright County. While they all head their separate ways in January, their contribution to the county won’t be forgotten and the Three Wise Men will be remembered years after the board gavel falls for the final time at the Dec. 26 board meeting.