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Roschen is hero to some, 'impossible' to others

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Wabasha County Attorney Jim Nordstrom

ZUMBRO FALLS -- Not that long ago, Deb Roschen didn't care about politics.

"Even as a young adult, I didn't understand it and could not have cared less about it," she said Tuesday at the Rochester church where she works. "I just wasn't interested."

That changed about a decade ago, when she got involved in state Rep. Steve Drazkowski's early campaigns for the Legislature, then took an interest in Wabasha County's plans for a new jail and courthouse project that was estimated to cost $30 million at one point.

One thing led to another, and she ran for county board in 2010.

Four "deeply hurtful" years later, Roschen is ready to step aside. She would have quit by now if she could have. She blames health problems — her own and her husband's — on the controversies, especially the extraordinary recall attempt that was organized less than a year after she was elected.


More than once in interviews, Roschen said she needed to get out of the political storm to keep her marriage intact. "Jim has had it," she said. "He would not be in favor of it if I were to continue."

She joked, "He wouldn't vote for me — he would hope I lose."

Her parents, who still live on the Wabasha County farm where she grew up, have been hurt by all the attacks, she said. Her eyes mist up when she talks about the toll her political career has taken on her family.

There has been plenty of name-calling to go around, though. In one interview, Roschen said, "It's just evil what's going on" in county government. She has referred to the county board chairman, Don Springer, as "Dictator Donny."

Springer said Roschen "likes being in the middle of chaos" and "it's her behavior that's gotten her in hot water."

Sheriff Rodney Bartsh calls her "impossible" to deal with and the one person responsible for the divisiveness in county politics.

This kind of thing isn't happening anywhere else in the area. You don't hear words like "dictator," "evil," and "hate group" used in the politics of other county boards.

Why is it happening in Wabasha County?


'Moral issues' led to politics

This has not been a garden-variety political dustup, but even so, it's hard to imagine "greatly disliking" Roschen.

That's what an anti-Roschen Facebook page is called: "I Dislike Deb Roschen Greatly (Because We Do Not Say Hate in This House.)"

Roschen, 47, is outgoing and chatty, dresses casually in jeans and boots like a farm girl, and talks often about her husband of nearly 30 years, Jim, and their daughter Megan, who's a physical therapy student at Mayo Medical School. Roschen is smart, well-spoken and a woman of deep convictions, personal and political, which she doesn't hesitate to share.

The Roschens live about a mile north of Zumbro Falls, in the rolling hills of the Zumbro valley, along a short stretch of U.S. 63 that's four lanes. No one can remember exactly why the road is four lanes there — one theory is that it was done to dress up the road before FDR drove it from Rochester to Lake City in 1938.

In any case, it was done long ago and many people would say it was a waste of taxpayer money, which Roschen says is her animating cause — cutting wasteful government spending.

On the approach to the house, there's a sign on a fence post that says, "If you can read this, you're in range." She said it was a Christmas gift from someone to Jim years before all the controversy of the past four years, "but there's irony there now, for sure."

Along the same lines as the "you're in range" sign, Roschen uses an edgy quote from Voltaire with her email signature: "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."


"I think it's very applicable to what I'm going through right now — as I raise questions and criticize, I'm retaliated against."

She graduated from Lake City High School in 1985 and married Jim Roschen later that year. Jim, 52, also grew up on a farm near Lake City. The park on the city's east side, along Lake Pepin, is named for Roschen's family.

Deb took some college courses with a plan to be a dental hygienist, but when their daughter was born, they couldn't afford for her to return to college. "I did a lot of odd jobs — cleaned houses and waitressed at night," and later was an office manager at a chiropractic clinic.

She took a job as a plant clerk at Horizon Milling , the Cargill flour mill in Lake City, in 1999 and worked her way up to administrative manager. She left the mill last fall and now works in the business office at Christ Community Church, the evangelical church she attends. Her husband has been a metal fabricator at Valley Craft Industries in Lake City since 1985.

Roschen said she had zero interest in politics when she was younger. "I did my share of partying in my teens and 20s — a lot of people know that about me — and it was after I became a Christian that the moral issues became more interesting to me."

That's when she got interested in politics, driven by "abortion and things like that."

Among her first steps was working on the state Senate campaign for Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, in 2004. "I was attracted to his campaign because of the moral issues," she said. "I was a volunteer for a good share of it," and later, after his campaign manager stepped down, Drazkowski "asked if I'd help out" in that role.

Drazkowski lost the Senate race in November 2006, but a year later he ran in a special election for the District 21B House seat and won. He's won re-election in 2008, 2010 and 2012, and he'll be running this fall.


Her connection to Drazkowski, one of the more conservative and rhetorically fiery Republicans at the Capitol, is often mentioned by people who oppose her. "It's always been kind of interesting to me why," she said. "I'm friends with a lot of Republicans, I've worked on a lot of Republican campaigns ... it's almost like they're targeting him for whatever reason."

That said, Drazkowski's and Roschen's interests clearly have overlapped on many issues, including the driver diversion program, also known as the Safe Driving classes, that the Wabasha County Sheriff's Office has run for many years, and the federal lawsuit that alleges their driver's license records were illegally accessed. Drazkowski and Roschen are among the 18 plaintiffs in that lawsuit, filed in September 2013.

Since her early days working for Drazkowski, she said her political agenda has shifted to the "fiscal conservative" issues, though she doesn't call herself a Tea Party member and has attended only one Tea Party event.

"I've concluded that the moral issues, while still important, are a personal decision for people," she said. "You can't impose your morality on other people. The fiscal things are the things we can control here."

'Taj Mahal'

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that the long-running drama in Wabasha County politics began 10 years ago, when the Minnesota Department of Corrections told the county it had to replace or close its nearly century-old jail.

That set in motion a three-year process of deciding what to build, where to build it, how many cells were needed, whether it should also include new courtrooms and how much it should cost.

"It all began with the Criminal Justice Center," Roschen said. "That's really what put the fire in my belly."


Springer said, "Deb Roschen and I do not get along, and it all stems back to the CJC."

The old jail, which housed up to 14 inmates, dated from 1916 and was next door to the courthouse near downtown. In April 2004, the corrections department ordered that the jail had to be upgraded or replaced by 2007.

Several other county jails around the state, including jails in Houston and Mower counties, were in the process of being replaced at the time. In most cases, the county boards looked at ways to consolidate services, improve security and plan for growth.

Roschen said the county board invited citizens to get involved in the decision-making and she and others did exactly that, researching jails and costs in other counties. Two board members in particular invited them to get involved. "They said, we really need some help — the size and scope of this project is getting out of hand and we need citizen input to keep a bridle on it," she said. "So on a Saturday morning, they came over and sat at my kitchen table and said, we really need you guys to start coming to meetings so we can keep the size and scope of this jail project in scale.

"We said sure, we'll help you."

They went to work, doing research and coming up with myriad recommendations. "We probably did too thorough a job, because at some point, ironically, (the board members) pushed back and got angry with us. The board and the bureaucracy just tuned us out, basically," Roschen said.

"They sealed us out of the whole deal and they built the size and scope of the project they wanted."

The board voted in 2007 to proceed with a roughly $25 million project. More public meetings and "listening sessions" were held around the county, and District Judge Terrence Walters , whose chambers are in Wabasha County, wrote columns in local papers that all but advocated for the combined jail and courtroom plan, for security reasons, among others.


Roschen and others put together an organization called Concerned Citizens of Wabasha County to fight the project. They pushed for a jail only, costing more like $6 million to $7 million, rather than a combined justice center with courtrooms that they claimed would cost more than $30 million.

A flier they produced in 2007 said the project would result in "oppressive property taxes" for county residents. The "mammoth" project had an array of luxuries that included "two restrooms for one judge, TVs for prisoners" and other amenities, the flier said, and it asked, "How do you want your hard-earned money to be spent? Would you like to spend it on your family or on a fortress to honor tyrants and a palace for criminals?"

After raucous public meetings , including one in Millville in 2007 that Bartsh remembers as the worst moment in the years-long process, the board voted to go ahead with a $22 million project that included two courtrooms and a jail with 38 cells. It opened in late 2009.

"It's done, it's over, it's built," Roschen said. "Now two-thirds of our jail cells sit empty, and financially taxpayers are paying the price for it."

She calls it a "Taj Mahal."

She asserts that half the county's property tax burden now goes to paying for it, and her cohort on the county board, Dave Harms, said he believes that's about right. It's not, according to county Finance Director Deb Koenig . Koenig said the 2014 county tax levy is $11.9 million. Of that, $1.7 million is to pay back the bonds on the justice center, which is about 14.3 percent of the levy.

Springer, who was on the board during those years, defends how the project was addressed, despite all the controversy.

"The confidence I have is, five commissioners looked at all angles on this and voted unanimously" to go ahead with the $22 million project, he said.

Regardless, that's what launched Roschen into county board politics.

"When I saw the poor use of tax dollars and the way that the government shut its citizens out of the project, it was the logical next step. I was very disappointed with the lack of leadership and transparency in Wabasha County government. I decided to get involved and try to make it better," she said.

"I just wanted to do good and make a difference."

So she challenged Dave Windhorst for the District 2 seat in November 2010 and won . Judge Walters, who had opposed Roschen's point of view on the justice center, administered the oath of office, and Roschen said he couldn't get it over with fast enough. "He never smiled, he never said congratulations," she said. "It was over in the blink of an eye."

Then the board went to work, and her real political education began.

'Our big-dollar item'

Harms, the long-time 5th District board member, and board chairman Merl Norman, who also had been on and off the county board for many years, were like-minded and in the majority, and they were determined to reduce the cost of government.

They started with a strategic planning process to find ways to reduce cost and improve efficiencies. "I had been involved in strategic planning in my 'real life,' Roschen said, "and I suggested to the board that if we did strategic planning, we could find ways to reduce the cost of county government."

The board was excited about it, she said, but it's reasonable to say that County Administrator Dave Johnson was not. Johnson had been on the job since 2008 and was aware that one idea was the elimination of his job, which Roschen has described as "our big-dollar item," paying with benefits more than $100,000.

"In all honesty, I was looking at how we can reduce our expenses," not targeting specific people who may or may not agree with the board majority, she said. At that time, Johnson became "politically active in what was going on — and I understand that. I'm not saying I'd do it any different, but I think that's when he started to be a big player and throwing fuel on the fire."

By August, the board majority put out a list of 69 ideas to cut costs and help the county run more efficiently — chief among them being the termination of the county administrator job.

"People got defensive, I guess would be a good way to say it," she said. "Those that were impacted by the various ideas got their dander up and the whole thing got very, very ugly."

Among the reasons people got defensive: The board retained a Twin Cities attorney, Erick Kaardal , to handle details related to Johnson's termination. Kaardal is well-known as a conservative legal firebrand , and he's the founder and general counsel for a website called Neopopulism.org.

Kaardal also has represented Roschen, the Association for Government Accountability and others in lawsuits such as the one against Wabasha County's Safe Driving program. He also represented Republican legislators who challenged online voter registration.

After months of heated debate , the board voted in December 2011 to terminate Johnson's job as of Jan. 1.

Johnson, who had a long career as an administrator in Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis, is now the city administrator in Merrill, Wis. , a city of about 10,000 people northwest of Green Bay.

As you'd guess, he has unkind things to say about Roschen.

"It's a blessing for the county" that she won't run again, he said this week. He's convinced that her wish to get rid of him was "deeply personal," not about eliminating the job to save money. "That is my belief. They did not like the fact that I did not kowtow to them."

Going forward, "with her being gone, there's a chance of getting someone in there who's not an obstructionist," and the county can "go back to the real business of county government, rather than her agenda," Johnson said.

The recall campaign

Even before the game was over for Johnson, petitions were circulating in Wabasha County to recall Roschen and get her out of office.

The effort was publicized by Nov. 4, when the administrator decision was coming to a head, and it was an unmistakable shot over the bow at Roschen and the board.

Among those involved were Tom Dwelle, of Lake City, a former board member who was defeated by Harms in 2010. In a letter to the editor published in the Winona Daily News shortly before the 2012 election, he called Harms, Roschen and Norman a "toxic trio" — and endorsed Springer.

Johnson used that colorful phrase repeatedly when he was interviewed this week.

A group called the Wabasha County Citizens for Responsible Government did the work to get the petitions out and signed . Their website remains online and outlines the allegations against Roschen. The petitions allege that she directed the county administrator to fire an employee, made defamatory statements about an employee and said she'd take punitive action if a county employee didn't follow up on a request.

Johnson acknowledges having signed the recall petition. "I signed it but it didn't count" because he was from outside her commission district, he said.

The recall campaign against Roschen wasn't the first in Minnesota history. There was at least one other episode, against Stearns County commissioner Don Munsterman in 2009. That one also failed, but Munsterman retired from the board the next year, which for his opponents presumably accomplished the same thing.

There was another recall in the air at that time — the attempt to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a first-term Republican who moved aggressively against public employee unions. He was the target of union leaders and Democrats who rounded up more than 900,000 signatures on petitions by January 2012. That triggered a special election in June, which Walker won easily .

When asked about the Walker recall, Roschen said, "I haven't thought of that. I just remember being amazed that they were trying to recall me because I knew I had not committed malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance, yet they were treating me as if I had.

"In essence, I was guilty before a judge even took a look at the allegations."

Roschen's opponents needed 415 signatures on petitions to get the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case. They got 505.

The court quickly threw the case out. Chief Justice Lori Gildea issued a court order in late February 2012 that said none of the allegations constituted malfeasance, even if true. She dismissed one of the allegations as being nothing more than "political criticisms."

Springer disputes that he was a "leader" of the recall effort . He said at a recent board meeting, "Not one time did I collect a signature to recall Commissioner Roschen." But Springer's involvement in promoting and encouraging the petition drive was noted on Facebook at the time, and later he joined with five other recall leaders to write a public letter commenting on the outcome.

That letter, also signed by Bill McMillin , a former DFL Party county co-chair, acknowledges that "since a recall of this type has never happened before in Minnesota, we knew that the bar would be set extremely high." It goes on to say, "There is no law against poor government. The way the county administrator issue was handled was reprehensible …"

If the court had found that the incidents constituted malfeasance, they would have gone to a public hearing to determine whether the allegations were true and whether a recall election was merited. Roschen said she was prepared to defend herself, but it wasn't necessary.

"I knew I hadn't done anything wrong and wouldn't be in trouble, but it didn't matter — they had the whole world convinced I had," she said. "In the media, I was found guilty before the Supreme Court had even ruled. My reputation had pretty well been trashed."

"When you're in elected office, you're not going to be everyone's friend. But you don't use the recall process to turn over your government," she said. "When the next election comes along, you just replace them" if you don't agree with them.

Roschen told the Winona Daily News after the court decision was announced, "I hope we can put these things to bed now and move forward for good government."

That's not the way it worked out.

Springboard to elections

The recall process served as a springboard to the fall election, as it turned out, and Springer made it clear that he was gunning for Norman's seat again.

Springer, 43, is a nurse practitioner at Mayo and has been a volunteer for 26 years with the Elgin ambulance service. Unlike Roschen, he's been in politics off and on since the age of 21, when he was elected to the Elgin-Millville School Board.

During an interview at a coffeehouse in Rochester last month, Springer said, "Merl Norman and I have traded the (District 1) position for the past 16 years, and almost always within a hundred votes" of each other. The five commission districts in the county each represent about 4,000 residents.

He said he had moved on after Norman beat him in 2008 but became re-engaged "because of the dysfunction on the board."

When the board was "working to fire Dave Johnson, that's when I started going to the meetings" again, Springer said. "There was no transparency" in what they were doing, as Norman, Roschen and Harms planned what he called "very anti-employee policies."

They took those actions "under the guise" of saving the county money, but in the end, "she has cost the county more money," Springer said, in part because of legal action that she and others have taken against the county.

The summer after Johnson's job was terminated, the board hired a coordinator, Bridget Hoffman , who had been administrative clerk for the city of Lake City. She started in August and called herself "a clean slate, a fresh start" in a Post-Bulletin news story at the time.

In the meantime, a government study committee appointed by Judge Walters was looking at the administrator issue, with recommendations to be issued in late 2012. That group, initiated by a citizen petition, had been meeting since January and gone through fractious times as well.

On election day and after a recount, Springer prevailed by five votes. On Jan. 2, he was sworn in and Rich Hall was elected chairman by the new majority. By the end of the month, Hoffman was fired after five months on the job and the board voted to rehire an administrator.

"The day they terminated her, I asked, what hasn't she done, performance-wise?" Roschen said. "No one had a bad thing to say about her. They had nothing negative to say about her."

Springer said in the interview last month that he wasn't opposed to the coordinator approach, "but the previous board didn't give her the authority. They didn't know what an administrator or a coordinator should do." The board had eliminated the administrator but then didn't delegate the many responsibilities of the job. "There was no direction to the staff."

Regarding the coordinator, Springer also said, "Deb handpicked the young lady to do what she wanted done."

In August, the board hired a new administrator, Larry Timmerman, and he started work in October. In late November, he quit without giving notice and without explanation. He didn't return a call last week for comment.

The county now has an interim administrator, Michael Plante, who's expected to take over the permanent job at some point. He was an assistant county attorney for four years, which as far as Roschen is concerned means he's part of the "good old boys" network that includes County Attorney Jim Nordstrom, who defended Johnson and the Safe Driving program, and has butted heads with Roschen and allies on other issues.

Roschen said it's been demoralizing to watch the current board roll back just about everything her majority had done.

"We had cut our own pay, we cut our health care benefits," Roschen said, "we were doing things to reduce the cost of government. They unwound it within the first month of the new majority. All the blood, sweat and tears we had put into it" was undone within weeks.

Springer sees it differently.

"There are so many misperceptions out in the public" because of misinformation from Roschen and others allied with her, such as the Association for Government Accountability, a citizens group that Roschen has led or been involved with at various times, and the Eye on Wabasha Facebook page, which also claims to be a watchdog group.

The assertions that Roschen and her allies make are "not all lies," Springer said more than once in interviews. "It's just not the whole truth."

He said that he agrees with her that it's a "very hostile work environment" at board meetings — and he would say throughout the county building — but it's because of what she tried to do while in the majority.

"She wants to make me the bully, but I'm not the bully. She wants to go out as the beaten woman, but there's not a woman in the (building) who would tell you that's true," Springer said.

"I think that's how I got elected. People were tired of the chaos."

Veneer of civility

As courthouses go, the Wabasha County building isn't much to look at. It's an unadorned brick box with a newer annex tacked onto the side, where the board meets. There's no tower or statue of Justice holding scales aloft on the roof. Wabasha is a historic river town and has more glorious 19th century buildings on its main street than Rochester has in all of downtown, but its major public building is incongruously pared back .

The board room is just as bland. The windowless room is only big enough for about 50 people, with a low ceiling, fluorescent lights and a cramped desk at the front for the five board members and the county administrator — or coordinator, or interim administrator, whoever happens to be in place at that time.

Go upstairs and look at the old courtroom, which has at least a touch of faded grandeur, and you'll see why the judge and sheriff argued there were security and modernity issues.

Board meetings are laid-back affairs. The dress code is generally jeans, open-neck shirts, no suits or ties, and no formality. People in the audience tend to just shout out questions and comments.

Just below the veneer of civility, however, there's hostility.

Last year, barely a month after the new majority took over, chairman Hall went off on Roschen for her alleged cellphone use during a meeting. Hall was yelling at her at one point; Roschen was astounded and made a crack to an audience member and Hall again reprimanded her. A few minutes later Springer asked her, "Would you like a five-minute recess for your giggle-fest?"

At a meeting last month, Roschen asked for an item regarding a county social media policy to be added to the agenda. She said the county needs to have an explicit policy on what's appropriate conduct by county employees — and board members — on social media.

"This isn't just about me ... who cares" about me, she said. "Someday it's going to be about another employee" who's either the instigator or the subject of social media attacks.

She cited the Facebook page "I Dislike Deb Roschen Greatly" as an example. The page appears to be dormant, but Springer's photo is among those at the top. Springer also takes jabs, directly and indirectly, at Roschen on his personal page , and she noted those.

"If you're doing (attacks on Facebook), you can't tell others not to do it," she said.

She also cited the half-page ad that appeared in the Wabasha County Herald and was paid for by the Teamsters Union Local No. 320, which called her "the real pig at the trough" when it came to receiving county-paid health care benefits. The ad, which appeared in early April, in the heat of contract negotiations between the county and its employee unions, didn't note that other board members also receive benefits, and that, in fact, Roschen and the previous board had cut those benefits, but Springer's majority had restarted them.

The online attacks are "probably the worst I've seen in people," she said. "I guess it's OK to dislike someone, but to be vicious and name-call ... that's pretty much why I brought social media up."

The issue was discussed for about 15 minutes. Plante said that some aspects of dealing with social media are addressed in existing policies. "I don't think anyone condones bullying," he said. "The county definitely values its employees."

He said the county has responded to any complaints it has received; Harms and Roschen asked for more specifics but didn't get anywhere.

"Our policies have been enforced," Plante said. "I think you're mistaken," he said to Roschen and Harms.

Finally, Springer said in a mild tone, "I think we've had enough of this discussion."

After the meeting, however, he vented. "The only time (Roschen) shows up is when she has a stunt" like the proposed social media policy, he said in an interview, "and then she calls the Post-Bulletin, the TV station" and other media to be there as well.

"She was on her best behavior today," he said. "We would like her to come (to all meetings) and do her job. She's a member of 13 committees. It's concerning to me" that her constituents are not being represented because she chooses not to attend meetings and remain involved.

"She cries foul about being picked on because she's a woman," but then doesn't show up, he said.

Then again, "these meetings run so smoothly" when she doesn't attend that "I should be glad she doesn't," he said.

The tension among board members is palpable at times. Springer typically has an iPad on the desk in front of him, and when Roschen brought up the social media policy, he turned to face her and moved his iPad — for the first time during the meeting — so that it was upright on his lap.

Roschen stopped and asked, "Are you videotaping, sir?"

All the meetings are videotaped, so it would have been unnecessary. Still, it was an odd move by Springer. He blandly replied, "No," but he kept the iPad right where it was until she was done.

A Chevy, not a Cadillac

From high on the bluffs coming into Wabasha on Minnesota Highway 60, the justice center looks like — well, a Taj Mahal. It's big, fortress-like and isolated on that end of town, with cornfields on three sides.

Up close, it's less impressive. There's no marble or brass, none of the more extravagant touches that make public buildings like the Government Center in Rochester distinctive. It's assembled of drab, pre-cast elements, on 40 acres of land that's barely landscaped.

Inside, it's plain, clean and relatively spartan, even in the courtrooms.

"That should be your first reaction, that it's nice," not grandiose, said Sheriff Rodney Bartsh, whose 12 years on the job have been shaped by the debate and then construction of the justice center. It's a major public building that will stand for decades, just as the old jail served for nearly a century, he said. "The question was asked, during the planning process, do we need a Cadillac or a Chevy?"

He's adamant that what was built is a Chevy.

Still, he and others are sensitive to the criticism that it was overbuilt — too many cells, unnecessary courtrooms, too many bathrooms. When he met us in the wide-open lobby area on the main floor, he explained without prompting why that area is so big, as if to anticipate the idea that it's wasted space.

But he's not reluctant at all to defend the justice center.

"It's 100 times better" than the old layout in terms of security, he said. "People had too much access to the judge, to the county attorney" and others in the courtrooms. "There was nothing you could do" to assure security, whether inside the courtroom or transferring prisoners.

The old jail had 14 cells. The justice center has 38 and can hold 72 prisoners. That was one of the flash points in the process, that there was no need for nearly three times as many cells.

The day we walked through the justice center, 27 prisoners were being held, which Bartsh said was a "fairly low" number, though he acknowledged that's been the trend. The count that day included about eight boarders from Winona and other counties, which pay to have them held here.

"We were running 40 to 45 inmates during the meth epidemic of 2004-2005," when the building was being planned, Bartsh said. "We didn't know if we were building it big enough." As it turned out, trends in crime rates and incarceration have improved, which is clearly good news. But trends change. Bartsh mentioned the current surge in heroin use and related crime as a concern.

Houston and Mower counties were planning new jails at that time also, "and everybody needed more beds," he said. "Now they need more inmates." That's the ebb and flow of law enforcement and criminal justice.

"We built for the future," he said.

The controversy over the cost and design of the building was due, in part, to how it was rolled out as "a $30 million design," as presented by the planners and architects, without adjustments and input from others. "That was a big mistake," he said. "There was sticker shock," and it allowed critics to get traction that the project was unaffordable.

"It didn't help the dynamics," he said.

The cost later was reduced to about $22 million, but the genie was out of the bottle.

The low point in the whole process was at a public "listening session" at the American Legion club in Millville on March 22, 2007, he said. Roschen was there, among others — he said Drazkowski turned up at other meetings — and "they got the crowd so worked up" that people felt physically threatened.

At one point, as officials were talking about how inmate safety was also a priority, "the crowd was in such a state that one person said, 'Let 'em die,'" Bartsh said. "That was the lowest point in my career. The prisoners we hold in this jail can be their neighbors, their friends or family members. It was so embarrassing to hear that."

The Twin Cities architects were concerned about their safety after the meeting and asked to be escorted to their cars, Bartsh said.

"This animosity about the justice center started back then, and it continues with Deb Roschen and her friends. Their hatred of local government" is the fuel for all the disagreements, and with Roschen in particular, he asks, "How can you sit on the board of a government you hate?"

Roschen and "her friends" also took aim at the sheriff's Safe Driving program, which a district judge ruled earlier this year was illegal and has since been shut down.

To those who believe the justice center is a palace, he said, "Tell them to come in and take a stroll through here. Show me where it is so extravagant. It's Sheetrock, it's cement, it's paint. We keep it clean."

The 40-acre site "allows for future expansion for the rest of the campus to move out here," he said. That possibility wasn't discussed much at the time, but surprisingly, Roschen said last week that if that concept had been pushed, it might have made more sense than the way things turned out.

"If you're going to go big, at least make it useful," she said. "It's unfortunate" that the building is now "too big for what's out there but not big enough to accommodate" all the county offices that remain near downtown.

Asked how he would describe Roschen, Bartsh said without hesitation, "The first word that comes to mind is 'impossible.' I can work with anybody, but I learned early on that if I didn't do things her way" that they would butt heads and he would pay the price.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all that she claims to be a victim" of how events have played out since the 2012 election, he said. But "one person in the county has made us a laughing stock" for government dysfunction and animosity: Roschen.

In the sheriff's corner office is a guitar he's been learning how to play. On the wall are his own pencil drawings of a mountain lion, a swan and a raccoon, as well as a "brag board" with photos, cards and notes from and about his staff.

There's also an old shotgun mounted on the wall, a relic of the old jail.

For Bartsh, dealing with Roschen and associates who probe and promote conspiracy theories and file lawsuits has been a process of disillusionment. "I've lost a sense of trust in people. I believe there's good in everyone," he said, but he's more wary.

"It's often said that going through tough times will build character. Well, this didn't build character, it took a piece out of me that I may not get back. Things will calm down, but it will be a long healing process."

Bartsh, who grew up in Plainview and has served with the department for 25 years, looks forward to November. He contends that "all the employees are excited about better times ahead for the county. Everybody hopes we can move on. We can't keep looking back — it just never ends."

Regardless of how the elections turn out, "we will not be better for what we have gone through," he said. "We will have officially set a low point in the history of our county for these last four years."

He didn't mention it during the interview in his office, but later that day, Bartsh announced plans to run for re-election.

'Politics at its worst'

At Christ Community Church , the fast-growing evangelical church on 55th Street Northwest where Roschen works, there's a sign out front that declares the mission, "Restoring Our Broken World."

Roschen is right at home in this setting. "I'm happy here," she said. "I come to work and people are happy — there's joy here." When her term is up, she plans to get more involved at church and spend more time in her flower garden and with her family.

One place you probably won't find her much is in the Wabasha County board room. "I may go from time to time. I'll still be inquisitive and want to know what's going on, but I won't be on the front lines."

Though she doesn't rule out another run for office — "I have been asked to run for higher office," she said — it's nowhere on her radar.

Springer said flatly that if Roschen were to run for re-election, she'd lose. He also said he's not surprised she'd leave the door open to a run for higher office. "She has the ego for it."

One candidate, Jamie Mehrkens, has announced he'll file for her District 2 seat. She said he'd be a good commissioner but doesn't say much more. Mehrkens wrote a letter to the editor in the P-B last spring that said, "Ms. Roschen has represented her district well, and it is sad to see her treated in this way."

In his statement when he announced he was running, Mehrkens said, "Citizens have had to endure a lot over the past years, and it is time for a change in leadership ... upon being elected, my first goal is to work to build relationships with the other commissioners, and work cooperatively to address the shared concerns of Wabasha County citizens."

Springer already has weighed in on his Facebook page to say that Mehrkens "is a strong supporter of Debbie ... Let's send a message. We know the facts."

Harms doesn't expect the board's direction to change in any case. Three seats are up for grabs — Roschen's, Mike Wobbe's and his own. "I think no matter how it goes, the board makeup is going to remain the same, whether it's 3-2 or 4-1," said Harms, who plans to run again.

Dwelle, the former board member who Harms ousted in 2010 and who was among the leaders of the Roschen recall, plans a rematch.

Wobbe, who was elected along with Roschen in 2010, also plans to run. He said the "bickering and fighting" of the first two years of their term "were absolutely worthless. We got nothing done. Myself and Commissioner Hall, we left every meeting like we got whipped."

Things have improved since Springer's election and the new majority, he said. "The meetings that Commissioner Roschen hasn't been at a lot in recent months — they've run pretty smoothly. It probably hasn't been much fun for them ... she and Harms say they may as well not be here. But we're doing what we think is right."

Regarding the justice center issue, which pre-dates his time on the board, Wobbe said, "Maybe it would have been cheaper to not build or to send the prisoners elsewhere, but it's one of those things that you can say coulda, woulda, shoulda.

"Let's drop the jail" issue, he said.

Harms, who's generally an ally of Roschen, said "there are some personality differences between Deb and me. I'm not as aggressive in pursuing things as Deb was ... consequently, I haven't felt the sharpness of the spear tip as she has. But I've had to watch it, and it made me very uncomfortable to see what they were doing to her.

"I think it was unmerited," Harms said. "I think she's been treated very inappropriately." The recall alone, he said, was "politics at its worst."

Lessons learned

Looking back, Roschen takes some pride in what she and others accomplished, and she said that events have borne out what she and her allies have said all along.

She says the justice center was overbuilt and the jail is now half-empty.

Depending on who you talk to, money was saved — for a short time, at least — by having a county coordinator rather than an administrator.

The sheriff's Safe Driving program is in ashes because a district court judge agreed with Roschen and allies — as well as the state auditor and other critics — that the program was illegal.

The county's feedlot management program was literally a mess and the county may be on the hook for more than $115,000 as a result.

She acknowledges mistakes and takes her share of the blame for what hasn't worked out. She was "more outspoken and questioned everything" in a way that wasn't helpful, she said. "I was naive. I thought that everybody wanted good government and wanted to work cooperatively, that we were going to have this wonderful opportunity to bring changes. But not everybody wants that."

What she won't acknowledge is using "hateful" language or "trash-talking" about her opponents in news stories, social media or advertising. "I believe I'm being 100 percent accurate in saying I have never posted anything negative on Facebook or trash-talked. I have always tried to be above board."

She also blames the news media, primarily the weeklies in Wabasha and Lake City, for what she calls inaccurate and biased coverage, and for editorials that demonized her. One in particular, by the editor of the Wabasha Herald, was headlined, "Time for our dictators to be removed," and called the Roschen majority "our very own dictatorship" that has "run roughshod over accepted democratic processes and principles."

The editorial called for all three board members to be recalled.

When asked if she sees any parallels to how the media covers her and how the media covers other female politicians like, say, Sarah Palin, she said, "I've had people say that to me. I'm certainly no Sarah Palin and I don't compare myself to her. I think she's endured far worse things than I ever did or ever will. Yet there are similarities to some of the things she endured when she started her political career.

"When you see men doing that, it's an admired quality. When women do that, at least in the case of Palin and Bachmann, there's a part of our society that demonizes them for that," she said.

Was it worth it?

Roschen takes her time to answer that one.

Short answer: "I wouldn't want to relive what I've gone through."


About the Writer

Jay Fursthas been the Post-Bulletin's managing editor since 2000 and was city editor from 1994 to 2000. A North Dakota native and a Princeton University graduate, he has been a reporter and editor for daily papers for more than 30 years.

First of all, thank you if you made it to the end of this story and you're still wanting to read more.

Today's coverage came about because several readers in Wabasha County told us we needed to dig harder and report more on what's going on there. We've had good coverage of board meetings and larger trends, but we haven't stepped back to take a comprehensive look at the personalities and politics involved in what most people would agree is a dysfunctional board.

That's what we've tried to do with this story. One reason it's so long is that all the people involved are so quotable. Roschen, Springer, Bartsh and the others are knowledgeable and interesting people who know how to use the English language well — maybe too well. They all had sharp, perceptive things to say about each other and about their disagreements.

Among the things I learned:

The key people in this dispute really don't like each other much, and they tend to express that clearly.

The problems did begin with the justice center issue.

The recall effort against Roschen was a genuinely extraordinary step, a true nuclear option, and it thoroughly tainted the well. Roschen's critics believe they had legal grounds. The Supreme Court didn't, and it noted the politics involved in at least one of the petition allegations.

Regarding politics, my opinion is that the conflict is much more about DFL vs. Republican politics than anyone lets on. Look at the people, attorneys, unions and associations involved and it looks more like a proxy war for the major parties than a squabble in a county with just 25,000 people.

Though the November election will change or rearrange who's in what jobs on the board and in county leadership, it doesn't seem likely that tempers and passions will cool overnight.

Board member Dave Harms said it well when I talked with him last week. He noted how tenacious Roschen is, but his point applies to all the commissioners and county officials — to all of us, really: "Right or wrong is a big area. You have to look at the overall picture, too. You get so focused in on your (own interests) that you lose sight of that."

I'll be glad to hear your comments. Call me at 507-285-7742 or send a note to furst@postbulletin.com.

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