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Wabasha County administrator fights board for his job

WABASHA — Dave Johnson thinks the threat by some members of the Wabasha County Board to terminate him as county administrator relates to his defense of a previous board against claims made by two board candidates that it spent too much.

"Call it revenge," he said.

Johnson and some members of the Wabasha County Board have been at odds. Board Chairman Merl Norman says a  move to terminate Johnson came from strategic planning sessions last summer in which the board looked at ways to improve county government as well as save money. Johnson claims it's a personal attack.

He said he knew there might be political consequences when he replied to letters by Dave Harms and Deb Roschen, who are now on the board.

"I only cared about the truth," he said. "Part of my job is to protect the board (at the time). I only stated the facts."


But Harms said Monday that Johnson's opinion is "absolutely ridiculous — there is no merit whatsoever in it." He said he's not the kind of person to seek revenge. "I'm not that kind of person, never have been, never will be," he said.

Roschen had much the same reaction. "Are you kidding me — 2009? This is ridiculous," she said.

In a Sept. 23, 2010, letter published the Lake City Graphic, Harms, who was running for the board, said he was replying to a Sept. 16 letter from Johnson that said the board has been cutting the budget.

Harms said he was concerned that Johnson wrote the letter on county time and wondered if he wrote it at the direction of the board.

He said those not in government are told they have to share in the pain. "What is even more difficult to digest is government bureaucrats enacting compensation that insulates themselves from sharing in the current economic pain," he wrote.

Much of the inflation is caused by government, he said. The county had added 13 people in a year, going to 170 staff members.

Johnson, in a letter to the Graphic in response, said the unemployment rate in the county was 6.8 percent at the end of 2009, which is much lower than state or federal levels. Overall, the county ranks 41 from the bottom in the state in its property tax rate and is the fourth lowest in the 12-county region. While the county borrowed nearly $20.4 million to pay for a new criminal justice center, that is the only debt the county has, he said, and it's about 28 percent of the amount the county can borrow.

The board was reducing expenses, Johnson wrote.


In a Dec. 22, 2009, letter to the Winona Daily News, Roschen said the county board was "engaging in a spending spree with your tax dollars." Elected county officials have not learned to live with less, she wrote.

The board approved a 72-bed jail for the county's 18 prisoners, hoping it could rent extra beds to inmates from other counties.

She called commissioners Tom Dwelle, Peter Riester and Dave Windhorst "the Spending Three" for voting to build a new criminal justice center that cost nearly $21 million. They said it made more sense to build the new center than make the old courthouse compliant with disability laws. But after that, the county still looked at making it handicapped compliant.

"If there ever was a time our county needed strong, common sense, responsible and qualified commissioners, it's now," Roschen wrote.

Johnson, in a letter published in reply on Jan. 3, 2010, in the Winona Daily News, said "There's no Wabasha County spending spree."

After working in local government for a long time, "it never ceases to amaze me how individuals and self-interest groups can twist the truth, tell half-truths and fabricate information to further their own agendas."

He went down Roschen's list item by item, explaining why certain actions were taken, such as that hiring a new assistant county attorney was at a much lower rate than the previous one. And he explained what he was trying to do in closing one county building and trying to rehabilitate another.

"In 2009, Wabasha County had the third-lowest tax rate in southeastern Minnesota, even after the building the new Criminal Justice Center," he wrote. "That wouldn't be the case if there had been a spending spree in Wabasha County."



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