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Litchfield City Council approves additional Optimist Park upgrades
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The improvements keep coming for Optimist Park in Litchfield.

The baseball park, home to Litchfield teams from high school to town ball, will receive dugouts expansion, an extension of left field foul line fencing and improved sound system in the near future following Litchfield City Council approval of the upgrades.

The flurry of improvements are part of an effort to prepare Optimist Park for the state’s annual amateur baseball showcase – the Minnesota Baseball Association state tournament – which Litchfield will co-host with Dassel and Delano in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the tournament.

Prior to that, Litchfield will play host to the region tournament next summer.

While the City Council must approve changes at Optimist Park — the city owns the property — all of the most recent upgrades will be paid for by Litchfield Baseball Association.

“We’ve done a lot of projects over the years without running them by the council,” said Nick Ridgeway, a member of the baseball association’s board of directors. Given the city’s recent investments in Optimist Park, however, the association understood the importance of getting City Council approval for any projects, he said.

During an early September meeting, the council approved a bid for construction of a new grandstand canopy at the park – part of a larger improvement plan that carries a $225,000 price tag.

The original estimate on the canopy was $95,000, of which the baseball association agreed to pay $50,000, including $20,000 up front and the remaining $30,000 over five years.

However, as the project was reviewed by City Administrator Dave Cziok and other city staff, its scope and cost grew.

Ridgeway told the City Council he was “a little shame-faced coming back in here” to seek approval for additional upgrades even as the canopy construction project is ongoing. But the improvements are necessary, and the association’s fundraising efforts after the canopy project was announced were more successful than anticipated, creating a pool of money that will pay for the additional upgrades.

“They had to be done,” Ridgeway said. “We probably would have just gone and done it (in the past), because that’s just how things have been done out there.”

He estimated the cost for the three smaller projects to be $17,000 to $20,000.

Mayor Keith Johnson suggested that perhaps the city and association should have another discussion about the cost share on the canopy project, given the association’s fundraising success. Council member Ron Dingmann also wondered about the situation.

“It’s kind of ironic where we’re spending more when we went overboard on the last one,” Dingmann said.

“I agree with you,” Ridgeway said.

Council member Darlene Kotelnicki objected, however, when Johnson suggested he wanted to know how much the baseball association had raised “over and above what we’ve done before.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask a dollar amount,” Kotelnicki said. She later added that, “Would it be safe to say we could discuss this in the future when (Ridgeway) has a chance to go back and talk to his board. Let’s not put somebody on the spot.”

Council member John Carlson agreed that the discussion could wait, while the improvements continued.

“I know you want the fields in the best possible shape they can be in for regionals and state,” he said. “It’s different because we’re going to have to negotiate backward on that (cost share of field upgrades).”

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Minnesota’s medical ‘maverick’ says GOP has an image problem
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When it comes to COVID-19, Dr. Scott Jensen says he’s the same skeptical physician he’s always been.

“I don’t care if you’ve got MD behind your name or whatever letters you have behind your name, people like to be reached out to and thought of as an expert, and I think we’re seeing some of that,” said Jensen, a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who sat down with Leader reporters last week for an interview. He was in Hutchinson speaking at a rally opposing vaccine mandates.

Jensen’s criticism was aimed at people such as Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the president of the United States. Jensen accused both men of basking in the national recognition they had received as the country was enveloped in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We see those bureaucrats almost thrilled to the occasion of, ‘Gee, I’ve never been so important. I must really be something.’ People like that,” Jensen said.

But like Osterholm and Fauci, Jensen was a little-known figure until the pandemic. A one-term state senator out of Chaska and the 2016 Minnesota Family Physician of the Year, Jensen had no thoughts of running for governor when he announced in July 2019 that he would not seek a second term in the Legislature. But as the pandemic hit, and as conservatives bristled at mandates and lockdown orders, Jensen’s voice of opposition became fodder.

His videos and criticisms of how the pandemic was being handled quickly caught fire on social media. Soon he was invited to appear on a primetime cable show on Fox News, and his comments were being widely publicized across the country. He had never been in so much demand, and as his profile grew, he heard his calling.

“I never said I wanted to run for governor. I said I feel compelled to run for governor,” Jensen said.

Jensen is sharp with his criticisms of Gov. Tim Walz’s handling of the pandemic, saying he used a “one-size-fits-all” approach by treating all Minnesota counties the same regardless of their size. He also said the governor surrounded himself with people wanting to please him rather than be skeptical of his decisions. But he also had some sympathy.

“This was uncharted territory,” Jensen said. “Gov. Walz was thrown into a hellacious situation, and I think he woke up in the morning trying to make good decisions. And I think Minnesota was with him for at least the first several weeks.”

Jensen’s skepticism of COVID-19 deaths and the COVID vaccine have made him a heel to some as much as they have made him a hero to others. His claim that doctors and hospitals had a financial incentive to inflate the numbers of deaths fueled online conspiracy theories and led to an investigation by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, which was eventually dismissed. But Jensen argues much of the criticisms against him aren’t true.

“I’m not interested in being associated with people who say that the Earth is flat, or that there is no virus, or that COVID is not real,” he said. “I get disgusted when people call me an anti-vaxxer, because they’re frankly being stupid and untruthful. I spend $100,000 a year buying vaccines for my patients.”

When asked why he is the right candidate to run against Walz as opposed to other Republican candidates such as his former colleagues Sen. Michelle Benson and Sen. Paul Gazelka, Jensen called himself a “maverick” who can work across the aisle.

“I’ve been willing to have conversations,” he said.

But while his opinions have made him an outsider to some of the medical community, a look on his website drscottjensen.com shows a list of priority issues typical of Republican candidates. He wants to address public safety and “Minnesota’s crime epidemic.” He favors a strong second amendment and “secure elections.” He also says the “public school system is broken” and that “school choice is going to be a big part of that,” referring to school vouchers.

And while he champions “medical freedom,” he explicitly says that should not include abortion rights for women.

“To me, the fertilized, growing, in-utero baby has the rights to my body, my choice also,” Jensen said.

Winning a Minnesota statewide election has been difficult for Republicans in the past 20 years. Gov. Tim Pawlenty won in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006, while Sen. Norm Coleman and Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer won in 2002. But that’s it.

Jensen says Republicans have an image problem. Too many people see them “as a caucasian party interested in the status quo with no desire for any government, or any government beyond what is absolutely necessary.” He says more needs to be done to bring in groups of people who are not traditionally considered conservatives.

“At some level, we’re all immigrants, or at least our ancestors are. I think we’ve done a poor job of respecting the concerns of women, especially, I think, in the metropolitan areas,” Jensen said about Republicans. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job of going out and having conversations with multicultural groups and saying, ‘What would you want?’ … I think we preach at people rather than converse with them. I don’t know that we’ve had a really strong effort to say to Millennials and the Gen Zs, ‘Hey, I don’t have the answers. Can you help us do some problem-solving?’”

If any Republican can bring those groups together under government, Jensen believes he is the one who can do it. He calls himself “foolishly” candid, but “willing to roll the dice” in doing so because whether he wins the gubernatorial election or doesn’t even make it out of the GOP primary, he won’t let this candidacy change him.

“My life doesn’t change much either way in terms of how I live inside my head based on this governor’s race,” he said. “I got the best job in the world right now, I’m a family doc.”

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Graduating to a new life with help from drug court program
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Drug and alcohol use and related trouble led Ben Miller to spending much of his teen and adult years in the court system.

But in early September the 37-year-old Litchfield man moved to a life beyond the courtroom, as the 54th graduate of the Eighth Judicial District’s Treatment Court program, also known as “drug court.”

Miller, who had spent more than two years in the program, received a diploma and a hearty handshake from Judge Steven Wentzell following a drug court session held in Litchfield’s Central Park, a serene setting created by COVID-19 precautions.

“It means a lot to me,” Miller said as he held the framed diploma. “It means I achieved something I set out to do, that I was able to make it.”

Drug court is an 18- to 24-month program that seeks to help chemically dependent individuals who might be at higher risk of reoffending, through intensive supervision and oversight. The program includes phases that need to be followed by participants such as treatment, establishing in the community, job and housing stability, and ultimately living a lifestyle of recovery.

The Eighth Judicial District Treatment program is marking its seventh year of operation this year, a term in which participants and administrators agree has seen significant positive change. According to statistics provided by the court, of the 54 graduates of the program during the past seven years, 70 percent have not been charged with a new crime, and 63 percent have no known relapses.

In addition to the reduction in the cycle of criminal activity and chemical dependency, administrators say, the program has had other positive benefits for participants. Twenty-two graduates entered the program without a valid driver’s license, but 19 had earned a license by the time they graduated. Nine graduates earned a high school diploma or GED while participating in the program.

Thirty-three of the 54 graduates entered the program unemployed, but 29 of them were working at least part time when they graduated, while another took a part-time job shortly after graduation, according to Karon White, treatment court coordinator.

More than $23,000 in fines, fees and restitution have been paid or worked off through community work service by participants. All participants also are required to complete a 50-hour volunteer project.

“Drug court is one of the most researched programs in the country to be proven to be effective, and evidence-based programs,” White said. “So we believe in that program, and we’re going to continue to push forward to continue the program as long as we can.”

The program’s most recent graduate is just one of many examples of the difference it can make.

Miller began the program in April 2019 with a lengthy history of chemical use. He entered the court system as a 13-year-old and couldn’t find his way out. Charges of felony domestic assault and fleeing a police officer brought him into Treatment Court.

He didn’t immediately qualify for the program, which normally does not allow offenders with a crime of violence on their record. But Miller wrote a few letters asking the judge to make an exception, he said, because he had reached a point where he knew he needed help.

“I wanted to change my life for the better,” Miller said. “I wanted the community to stop looking down on me, for my past and my family’s past. I wanted to change something, I wanted to be looked at as a positive influence in the community.”

As much as he wanted the change, however, it didn’t come easily.

“Ben struggled in the program initially and was given multiple technical violations in the beginning of the program,” White said. “However, he continued to try, and so we continued to try.”

The “we” referred to by White is the Treatment Court team that includes the judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, treatment providers, social workers, case management workers, law enforcement agents and White.

That team meets prior to every court session, of which there are three each month, to discuss progress — or problems — of each program participant.

Treatment Court sessions see each of the program participants take their turn on the witness stand to talk with the judge. The questioning isn’t the adversarial type portrayed in TV courtroom dramas, however.

During the early-September court session, following which Miller graduated, Judge Wentzell called each of the roughly dozen participants to the stand and talked to them. His questions often led to celebrating a participant’s successes, but in a few instances they were strong reminders of the commitment each one had made to following program requirements.

“For the most part, you want the participants to say the most and be talking the most,” said Wentzell, who was appointed to the bench in 2017 and accepted drug court duty in summer of 2020. “Most of their motivation comes from when they speak and are able to realize, kind of process themselves, what’s going on with their lives and all the major changes. I think that’s the goal of drug court too, is not really to lecture, it’s not really to point out what they’ve done well, or what they haven’t done well, it’s for them to … have that self-realization and be able to reflect that during our sessions.”

Those conversations in front of other participants who are dealing with the same issues can be a powerful element of change, Wentzell said. The local drug court follows national practices, which show that a conversation of at least three minutes can improve a participant’s success and chances of continued sobriety, he added.

“(The goal is to) keep them accountable, be there to support them,” White, the program coordinator, said. “You know, a lot of individuals that are in our program have more things going on than just their chemical dependency. I mean, unstable housing, unstable employment, lack of education. So we try to really look at that as a whole … if we don’t have those basic food, shelter and clothing, we’re not going to get up that ladder at all.”

For Miller, the accountability piece was important. It helped him stay on the right path, but it also created a different image for his four children. In addition to the three court sessions each month, participants are visited regularly by law enforcement or parole officers.

“One of the things I appreciated and like the most about it was the officer, Sam, coming out and stopping at the house to build a relationship that was other than just getting put in cuffs and drug off,” Miller said. “I was building a relationship with the police officers in town that was a positive relationship. That really helped my kids, because before that they always seen Dad get taken away, in the cop car … when the cops show up, Dad’s going away.”

Some of those officers and other court officials were in Central Park to see him graduate in September, and offer their congratulations.

At the time of his graduation, Miller had reached 450 days of sobriety, the longest period of his adult life. Miller is also a key holder at the church where Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held. His dedication to volunteer work — over and above the 50 hours of court-ordered community service — was lauded during the graduation ceremony.

“(Miller) can often be found helping others when they are struggling,” White wrote in a statement used during the graduation. “He is not just sober but living a lifestyle of recovery. He does this, however, while maintaining his own unique personality.”

Among those at the graduation ceremony was Tracy Wheeler, Miller’s aunt, who proudly attested to the change in her nephew.

“It’s been a very long road,” Wheeler said. “And as far as the family knew, this was his last resort. This is his last chance to finally, finally get himself clean. And he did it. He’s got a lot of energy, and he was able to channel that energy in the right direction. He was able, with the help from all these people in the drug court, to use his energy for good.”