Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering may not have an opponent in this year’s race for county board, but he’s still campaigning — in a different district against fellow Commissioner Doug Houge.
The two-term county board member Koering, who represents the southern portion of Crow Wing, is openly supporting first-time candidate Michael Starry in the three-way race in District 5, which includes Houge and candidate Tom Nixon. Voters in District 5 — which covers the northeastern portion of the county including the cities of Crosby, Cuyuna, Deerwood, Emily, Fifty Lakes, Ironton, Manhattan Beach, Riverton and Trommald — will narrow those candidates to two in the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 11.
“I guess it’s just like any candidate that I’m supporting. It’s just like President Trump who I support, who I think is going to do the best job for this country,” Koering, who lives on South Long Lake, said during a July 27 interview. “I think Michael Starry, from what I’ve, the conversations that I’ve had and getting to know him, I think he would be right for Crow Wing County.”
In an earlier July interview, Starry said Commissioner Rosemary Franzen is also hoping he wins the election, adding he’d received advice from her including how to file for office and the benefits of using campaign signs.
“Rosemary messaged me the other day about, ‘I saw a bunch of your signs,’” Starry said. “ … About what I get from them is, ‘I wish you luck and I really hope you win.’ That’s like the support that I get from those two at this point.”
Franzen, however, denied she’s supporting Starry in an email to the Dispatch, beyond directing him on how to file.
“I’m not sure what makes you think I do!” Franzen, a Baxter resident, wrote. “I live in District #4.”
When informed Starry was the source of this information, Franzen did not respond to a further request for clarification. Franzen declined numerous requests for in-person or phone interviews, and would only respond to questions by email.
This situation isn’t sitting well with other commissioners who expressed disappointment over the apparent meddling by their colleagues in another commissioner district. It also appears to be a contributing factor to tension among board members that’s been simmering in the boardroom for months.
“In the 13 years that I’ve been on the board, I’ve just never witnessed something like that,” Houge said in early July. “Normally, we all stay in our lanes — we have a district to represent. And for a commissioner to go out of their way to support an opponent of a sitting commissioner is about the lowest thing I think I have seen in the 13 years that I’ve been on the board. I just, I don’t understand it. Again, it goes back to probably something personal.”
Emails with Starry
It appears Franzen and Koering first aligned with Starry when he led the charge for a resolution that would’ve declared Crow Wing County as Second Amendment-dedicated. That resolution did not ultimately receive majority support. Instead, commissioners approved a changed version drafted by County Attorney Don Ryan June 23.
Commissioner emails pertaining to the Second Amendment resolution obtained through a data request by a resident show Koering responding to an email from a resident thanking him for his work on the resolution.
“Thank you for doing what you could regarding the resolution,” Justin Granholm wrote June 25. “Any suggestions?”
Koering responded the next morning, “Yes send some money to Michael Starry for his campaign that’s what you can do.”
Franzen never explicitly states she’s supporting Starry in the emails, although the two were in communication. In her own post-vote response to the same email from Granholm, she lamented the outcome and shared what she’d learned from Starry.
“Michael Starry said he needs to speak to a couple attorneys about this over the next couple days to see how to proceed. I think that everyone needs to wait and see what he finds out and what he thinks is the best way to handle this situation!” Franzen wrote back the same night.
Prior to the vote, Franzen forwarded the emails of two constituents opposed to the resolution to Starry, to which he responded with commentary. Koering also forwarded two constituent emails, and both commissioners passed along emails from Ryan as well, including the one in which he shared with all commissioners the edited version of the resolution.
Koering and Franzen each shared with Starry emails from local attorney Paul Jacobsen, who urged the board not to vote for the resolution.
“How in the heck does a guy like this even become an attorney?! Reading comprehension is important everywhere but the State Bar Exams? Sheesh!” Starry responded to Franzen.
Of the more than two dozen emails sent by Franzen in the file, she forwarded just three to a personal email account containing her last name. All were Starry’s responses. When asked about these actions, Franzen said her emails are public information and she shares them. She said she can’t take responsibility for what Starry says.
“At times, commissioners will forward emails that they want to keep to a personnel (sic) account since the county only keeps emails for a limited time,” Franzen wrote.
Crossing district lines
In July, Houge said he was especially surprised by Koering’s actions because of Koering’s own emphasis on commissioners not involving themselves in other districts. He pointed to a recent disagreement between Koering and Commissioner Steve Barrows, when Koering became upset because Barrows attended an Oak Lawn Township annual meeting.
During a phone interview, Barrows said he attended the meeting in 2019 because he does not represent any townships and was interested in the process. He noted he informed Koering ahead of time he planned to attend. When Barrows arrived, he said people he knew from other contexts asked if as a neutral party he’d be willing to run the annual meeting, which historically became contentious. Barrows agreed and was nominated to do so. Koering also attended the meeting, and Barrows said he sensed anger from Koering at the time.
This spring, Barrows said he was asked to run the annual meeting again and he said yes. But after he told Koering about it, Barrows said Koering became really upset and asked him why he was stepping on his district. Because of Koering’s reaction, Barrows said he withdrew from the meeting.
“We’ve been told by (County Administrator) Tim Houle that that’s the best approach, just stay out of the business of any other commissioner in their district. If you need to go in there, some constituent wants to talk to you, make sure you notify the district commissioner of that area that you are going there to talk to a constituent. Or if they want to handle it, they can,” Barrows said.
“I don’t think that that’s currently being honored by at least one of those commissioners for staying out of commissioners’ districts. You have to have some — be honest and have some integrity and when you say stay out of my district, that means they stay out of other people’s districts also, and I don’t feel that’s being done at this time.”
Koering said he doesn’t believe the situations were comparable, noting it would be just as if he went to south Baxter and set up meetings to reach out to residents there.
“That’s that commissioner’s job to do that in that specific district,” Koering said.
He said he didn’t feel as though he was telling the residents of District 5 who to vote for and he wasn’t writing letters to the editor or otherwise campaigning in a visible way for Starry. He said he’s looking out for the entirety of Crow Wing County by supporting Starry in favor of a more conservative county board, noting Starry supports limited government and spending reductions. He said Starry wouldn’t have voted for an ordinance regulating vacation rentals.
“I just want to make sure that moving forward we’re not going to be hiring 19 new employees every single year,” Koering said. “I want to make sure that we’re not raising the levy 10, 15%. And I think that with him being elected, I think that he would bring that kind of fiscal responsibility to the county board.”
Koering said if he’d known former Commissioner Paul Thiede was going to lose his election in District 2 to Commissioner Bill Brekken in 2018, he would’ve been “campaigning for Paul Thiede every single day.” He also indicated in two years, he might campaign against other people on the board. But when asked how he would feel if he had an election opponent and knew other commissioners were supporting that opponent, Koering said, “Yeah, I’d be pissed off.” In response to the same question, Franzen wrote, “It could cause hurt feelings.”
Asked for a response to Koering’s comments about wishing he’d campaigned against him, Brekken supplied a prepared statement.
“If this is true, I’m disappointed,” Brekken read on the phone. “This is decisive partisan politics, which will not be of any benefit to the residents of Crow Wing County and should have no place on the board of county commissioners.”
When Koering was asked whether he thought his support of Starry had any impact on the effectiveness of the board and trust among commissioners, he said trust was lost a long time ago.
“That’s why I’m not supporting him (Houge),” Koering said. “ … Just because I think things have changed here. There’s a lot of things that have changed where there’s three county commissioners that have really kind of delegated all the authority to really the administration here, and nobody asks me my opinion anymore. They (staff) don’t ask Rosemary her opinion anymore.”
Koering said he thought more decisions should be made by elected leaders, and if Starry were on the board, he would provide the third vote to take back control. He also accused Barrows of helping Houge with his campaign, stating he’d heard that from multiple sources. Both Houge and Barrows denied the latter had any involvement in Houge’s campaign. Barrows said he encouraged Houge to run, but he encourages anyone considering running for public office to do so, including his own opponent in the 2018 election.
In her emailed responses, Franzen described her position on commissioners involving themselves in other districts this way: “On constituent issues, we should let each commissioner handle their own district. On issues of countywide importance, however, we regularly hear from and respond to citizen’s countywide.”
She wrote “it’s probably not a good idea” for a commissioner who lives outside of a district to weigh in on an election. “We have to work with whoever wins!” Franzen wrote.
A board majority?
Koering’s frustration with not having a third vote was echoed by Franzen in at least one email found in the data request. In the same June 25 email to Granholm, Franzen said the majority had spoken on the Second Amendment issue.
“As long as the composition of the board remains the same, the results won’t change,” she wrote. “ … Elections have consequences and I feel like my hands have been tied since Commissioner Thiede was defeated and I am now in the minority on many issues!”
An evaluation of split vote data from the past five years requested by the Dispatch shows there’s no clear majority on the nonpartisan board.
Franzen and Koering have voted nay together against Houge six times in five years. The motion successfully failed in two of those instances: once in 2018 in alliance with former Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom against a motion that would’ve asked commissioners to forgo a 3% wage increase, and again with help from Barrows in 2020 denying Grand View Lodge the opportunity to waive late tax payment penalties. Notably, Franzen and Koering voted together on a split vote only two times in the last five years before this year.
Franzen’s found herself on the same side as Houge against Koering four times, twice successfully, while Koering and Houge have voted together against Franzen three times, prevailing once. The three voted together in opposition twice, both in 2019: against a motion that would have removed parcels in Nisswa from the tax-forfeited land sale and against denying a petition for a land use amendment. On the latter issue, however, a follow-up vote with a slight modification saw Franzen switch to supporting the measure. As for votes each has taken alone in opposition, Koering’s voted nay in 4-1 decisions 11 times; Franzen, eight times; and Houge twice.
Franzen acknowledged the data shows no clear voting bloc in her emailed responses, but did not answer a follow-up question seeking her reasons for beginning to align herself with Koering more frequently in 2020.
If Houge wins, how can relationships be repaired on the board? Franzen said she plans to do what she’s always done.
“I don’t socialize with the other county board members. Our relationship is strictly business,” she wrote. “We disagree on things at times, but we agree the majority of the time. We don’t need to be buddies to decide what’s best for the county!”
Houge said he doesn’t understand why anyone would view county board as a body with a majority or minority.
“Commissioner Koering is probably the biggest majority-minority proponent that we have right now. I don’t understand why he sees things that way,” Houge said. “There are things that Steve (Barrows) and I don't agree on and we move on, you know, he's got people to represent. I understand his reasoning for doing that. … They’re different districts and they’re different needs and wants. So you're not always going to support everything. I would hope that someday Commissioner Koering understands that.
“ … He can support whomever he wants. I just know that I’m going to do the right thing and not stick my nose in other districts.”