By John Holler
What started as an unprecedented experiment to achieve county board unanimity turned into a free for all at the April 15 meeting of the Wright County Board, as discussion concerning Wright County’s inclusion in the Trailblazer transit system took an unexpected turn.
The gloves came off in an open forum attended by both Wright County city officials and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, as Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Mike Potter aired issues between one another in the process of transforming Wright County from the River Riders transit program to Trailblazer – an existing transit system representing Sibley and McLeod counties.
RIVER RIDER EXPIRES
At the April 1 meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners voted to appoint Sawatzke and Potter to negotiate an agreement with Trailblazer while opting to pursue a six-month interim agreement when the River Rider program expires June 30 – the State of Minnesota, which pays 85 percent of the cost for transit programs, ends its fiscal year.
Two weeks later, there was a resolution on the agenda to approve a partnership with Trailblazer that included in the “Whereas” language that “the Trailblazer Transit Joint Powers Board has expressed the desire to formally partner with Wright County and has graciously extended and [sic] offer to do the same.”
At the April 15 meeting, the offer was viewed as anything but gracious.
In what can best be termed an attempt to extend a political olive branch, Commissioner Mark Daleiden took the unusual step of removing himself from his commissioner’s chair and, complete with markers and a wide-screen white board, took on the persona of a college professor to put in writing the primary concerns of all commissioners. Before leaving his seat, Daleiden said of the resolution, “It all sounds really nice and easy, but there is a lot more involved in this whole thing than any of us was ever expecting.”
With that, he left his chair. He wouldn’t return for more than 100 minutes.
What followed was something both unique and bizarre. Daleiden questioned the commissioners and individuals in the audience representing cities and officials from MnDOT about the issues most important to them. When he asked Potter what his issues were, his response was clear.
“Timing, timing, timing, timing, timing,” Potter said. “We don’t have time and I don’t think we’re going have to be able to work on every single detail before June 30.”
“Absolutely,” Sawatzke responded.
Sawatzke then took the floor and, what appeared to be a Camp David-style attempt by Daleiden to prevent a board blowup turned into just that. Sawatzke said that he assumed a meeting scheduled for April 11 that he and Potter couldn’t attend due to a committee of the whole meeting that conflicted. It was only later, Sawatzke said, that he learned Potter attended the meeting and brought the resolution to the April 15 meeting.
“This rush – this suggestion – that we need a joint powers agreement in place by July 1 is absolutely absurd,” Sawatzke said. “We set a date of April 17 to meet again as a negotiating committee. I was a little surprised when I got an e-mail from the City of Cokato to approve a resolution today (April 15) to get this (Trailblazer) joint powers thing going. I was thinking to myself, what was this all about? We just had one negotiation session. We kind of talked out some issues. We’re trying to get some information. We laid this thing over until the 17th. And now I have someone talking about a resolution today the 15th.
“I found out that Commissioner Potter was down there and basically had a negotiation session with the (Trailblazer) board that day,” Sawatzke said. “I’m a member of the negotiating team and I didn’t even know the meeting was taking place. I had no knowledge that there were negotiations between Wright County and Trailblazer on that day in Glencoe, Minnesota.”
Sawatzke then turned his comments directly to Potter, claiming he was working on his own in a process he was unqualified to do and should have been conducting Wright County business.
“That was the meeting you were supposed to be at,” Sawatzke said. “Instead you were down there by yourself, a rogue commissioner negotiating a deal.”
Sawatzke then asked Potter if he felt Sawatzke brought up legitimate concerns at the April 1 meeting. To that, Potter responded, “For the first time in months, absolutely you were.”
Potter countered that Sawatzke turned off the Sibley and McLeod County officials by pushing the merits of the River Rider program, giving the impression that Trailblazer could learn something from a program nearing extinction.
“After the employee issue and a little (discussion) of the local share (of funding), then you started going into the ‘River Rider model,’” Potter said. “How their model is different from ours. You were talking about how (the River Rider program) is no cost to us and why don’t you look at doing it this way – the River Rider model versus the Trailblazer model?”
Sawatzke fired back, asking Potter how he could justify promoting the idea that a resolution rejected April 1 could be approved two weeks later without meetings between the full board in that time frame? Potter responded that Sawatzke came across poorly to the other commissioners in attendance at the first negotiation session.
“In all fairness to your position and your thoughts, the first meeting with the negotiating committee didn’t go as well as you may think it did,” Potter said. “The board down there was not positive that we were going to be able to come to some terms, conditions and agreement. (They concluded) it’s over. That’s where they were with their attitude. You kind Shanghai’ed the meeting, Pat. You did not interact with too many people.”
Sawatzke addressed Daleiden with his next statement, saying that, while he understood the compromise he was seeking, he wasn’t happy with the process that was taking place.
“I guess the rub I really have here is that Commissioner Potter, without my knowledge, had a negotiation session with Sibley and McLeod counties and I’m a member of the negotiations team,” Sawatzke said to Daleiden. “You can’t possibly defend that, can you?”
Sawatzke added that he believes he should be involved in all negotiations because, given his experience, he has the best grasp of what is best for the interests of Wright County.
“I think it’s fair to say that my experience with transit is more so than others here by virtue of my service on the River Riders board for all these years,” Sawatzke said. “I can’t have people negotiating behind my back and against me. There does need to be some teamwork here.”
Commissioner Charlie Borrell introduced a new layer to the conversation, saying that he is aware of a potential compromise if an agreement can’t be reached.
“There is another alternative here,” Borrell said. “I have not shared it with anyone before. River Rider is done. The entity is gone. There is a scenario, talking with a person I won’t say right now with MnDOT, that we could have Trailblazer control the transit and totally work under them. We could put a radio station (in the county courthouse), plug in a phone line and start dispatching our busses just like we do right now – charge whatever fares we want to and operate under their licensure. That’s an option.”
In the end, nothing was resolved. The minutes of the Committee of the Whole meeting that discussed the Trailblazer issue were laid over for a week over commissioner contention that key aspects of the discussion were omitted from the official record. Potter asked that the resolution approving the Trailblazer partnership be rescinded.
Sawatzke seconded the motion – the first time all day the two agreed.
Note: For those who would like to hear the full discussion of the Trailblazer debate, go to this link: http://new.livestream.com/WrightCountyMN/Board2014 and forward to the 1:35 mark to see the entire discussion.