Farm Horizons, October 2012

After 20 years on county board, Jack Russek is still learning

By Ivan Raconteur

From ditches to dog kennels, farms to fee schedules, Wright County Commissioner Jack Russek knows as much about the day-to-day duties of a county commissioner as anyone.

He has served in that role for 20 years.

Russek’s term is up at the end of this year, and he is not seeking re-election. He recently shared some thoughts about his career and the duties of a county commissioner

Prior to becoming a county commissioner, Russek served on the Franklin Township Board for eight years. During that time, Russek said he never saw a county commissioner, and that was one of the things that prompted him to run for the office. He wanted county government to be more accessible to residents.

Since he was first elected, Russek said he has made an effort to attend meetings of every city council and township board in his district at least three or four times per year to learn about the concerns of the residents and cities, and to answer any questions they have about what the county board is doing.

“It’s good to go around and be available to other government bodies,” he said, adding that he is often able to explain a new ordinance or other action the board has taken.

“You have to know what everybody else is doing,” Russek commented. “Otherwise, you’re doubling-up, and that’s a waste.”

Russek also noted that when he became a county commissioner, people in his part of the county didn’t know what the county board was doing, because the Delano Eagle did not cover the board. Russek began submitting a weekly summary to the newspaper to let residents know what was happening at board meetings.

Russek comes from a farming background, and he has used that experience while on the board.

“It’s been a mission of the county to preserve agriculture, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it,” Russek said.

He has served as liaison to the planning commission for 19 of his 20 years as a commissioner, and has seen some challenges during that time.

“With this board, we recognize that agriculture is still the biggest business in Wright County,” he said. Development pressure has threatened this, and some people who have moved into agricultural areas from the city have objected to having farming operations nearby.

“If they can’t farm in an agricultural district, where are you going to send them to farm?” Russek has asked some new residents.

The population of the county has grown dramatically during Russek’s time in office, from a population of about 86,000 to about 126,000 in 2011.

Another issue that Russek has addressed on the planning commission is gravel mining. People have told him they don’t want mining near their property, and he has had to explain to them that, “you’ve got to mine gravel where the gravel is.”

The planning commission is also involved in permitting dog kennels. Russek said the commission has not received complaints about the kennels it has permitted, if they are done properly.

Land use can be a sensitive issue, and Russek said the planning meetings can be “much more interesting than county board meetings.”

Russek said the county planning and zoning commission always takes into account the wishes of local people.

“The first question [at planning meetings] was always, ‘What did the township say?’” Russek said.

The county board also serves as the ditch authority for the county.

Russek explained that county tax dollars are not used for ditch maintenance. The cost of maintaining county ditches is assessed to the benefitting property owners.

“We can order ditches cleaned out to the original depth and width, but we can’t go deeper or wider, because that would be an improvement,” Russek explained. “Until then, it is maintenance.”

At one time, Russek said, all of the county ditches were agricultural ditches. Now, some of them are starting to get over-run by houses, which changes the use of the ditches.

For example, he noted, County Ditch 28 is now part of the city of Delano’s storm drain system. Delano has also applied to discharge storm water from a proposed industrial park into County Ditch 34.

In the St. Michael/Albertville area, Russek said, county ditches 9 and 21 have become part of city storm sewer systems.

“I’ve learned a lot about ditches since I’ve been on the county board,” Russek commented.

A county commissioner’s duties include a variety of committee assignments, and many commissioners serve on other boards, as well.

Russek is chairman of the Crow River Organization of Waters, a 10-county joint powers board that is concerned with issues related to the Crow River watershed. He is also the chairman of the Mid-Minnesota Mississippi River Resource Conservation and Development Council, which focuses on environmental education.

Russek serves as the county board’s liaison to the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District, and to the Wright County Fair Board.

Commissioners are required to attend meetings during the day, and often in the evening.

In addition to scheduled meetings, special meetings are also required. “If someone calls a meeting, you better be there,” Russek said.

One change that Russek has seen is that people were more accepting of board decisions when he was first elected. “Everything is subject to challenge now, because there are so many attorneys running around,” Russek commented.

After 20 years as a county commissioner, Russek said he is still learning.

“You have to always be in a learning mode, because something is always changing,” he said.

Many of the changes are mandated by the state.

Russek said the thing that best helped prepare him for his role as a county commissioner was the new commissioner school sponsored by the Association of Minnesota Counties. He said he hopes all new commissioners will participate in that training.

“That’s where we learned the nuts and bolts of being a commissioner – what we can and can’t do,” Russek said. “You have to learn what the state mandates you to do, and what the state allows you to do. There is a learning process, and you are not going to come in knowing it all.”

Russek noted that each commissioner represents only one of five votes, and if a commissioner loses a vote, he should accept it and move on.

“With any elected office, just because another person doesn’t think the way you think, it doesn’t make them all wrong, or you all right. That is a very important thing to realize,” Russek said. “You have a county to run, not a battle to win.” n

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