Alyssa Ross is excited about casting her ballot for the first time in the fall general election.
The Litchfield High School senior was nervous about voting, but when Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon showed up to her college government class last week and explained the balloting process, it reassured Ross.
“I just learned a lot more about the voting process, and that there are ways that I can go in, and I don’t have to vote for (everyone),” Ross said. “I think it just makes me more comfortable knowing a little bit more about it, because I don’t think I’ve ever really been told a ton about it. And now I know — which is nice —before going into it.”
Simon often visits schools throughout Minnesota to talk to students about the key aspects of his office. He explained to Litchfield High School students that his office offers business services. In other words, if someone wants to start a business, they would go through the Secretary of State, which supplies all the steps for starting a new business.
“So we’re kind of the welcome mat for Minnesota businesses,” Simon said. “We do a lot of commercial documents, business-related documents that businesses have to file and then renew every year.”
The second service Simon’s office offers is a statewide address confidentiality program called Safe at Home. The program helps people — who may fear for their safety in cases such as domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking and others — hold a confidential address. Participants in the program receive a post office box they can use as their legal address.
The third service Simon’s office offers — as he explained it, the “major” part of his duties — is elections.
“We don’t count the votes,” Simon said. “That happens here in Litchfield. It happens in cities. It happens at townships. We don’t count a single vote, not one. We post what other people count. And we aggregate all that. We don’t own any election equipment and the other tabulators.
“We provide legal guidance,” he continued. “We do all the legislative work, and so forth. So we coordinate that, we oversee it. We are the chief elections administrator, but the nitty-gritty stuff on Election Day and others, happens at the local level.”
In the United States, young voters vote at lower rates than other countries, Simon said. Minnesota was No. 1 in the country for 18- to 29-year-old voter turnout. An estimated 42 percent who voted in 2018 were in that age bracket, Simon said.
“We do better than others but still not good enough,” he said. “I would say, it should be over 50 percent of young people, and part of it is just explaining what the rules are.”
Simon is proud of Minnesota’s No. 1 ranking for voter turnout in the past few elections, especially among young voters, he said. But he would like to see the number to continue to rise.
When Simon asked LHS students which of them plan to vote in the general election, three or four students raised their hands, and one of them was Ross.
Ross initially thought the election process was complicated, and that she must know every single running contestant — election judges, school board and others — to vote with confidence. But that is not the case, Simon said.
“But we don’t live in a perfect world,” Simon added. “So if you have a strong opinion on the presidential election this year … don’t beat yourself up. … You’re not a bad citizen. vote for president and leave.
“Ideally, you would fill out more, and over time as you get older, you will,” he said. “But don’t psych yourself out, that have you got to be an expert on what a county commissioner is, and spend hours googling candidates if you don’t know anything about them.”
Simon recommended the class steer away from going to the polls on Election Day, and instead request their ballots be mailed to them and follow instructions on www.sos.state.mn.us website and vote that way, he said.
“Have it mailed to you in your dorm room, apartment or wherever you are next fall, and that’s it,” Simon said. “Then you avoid the mess, ‘Where do I have to go and show?’ It’s just between you and your hometown election, or office, and postal service. That’s it — self-contained. You don’t have to deal with the administration. That’s my advice.”
Jeff Neidenthal has some ideas about making downtown Litchfield more vibrant.
What stirred Neidenthal's thinking was a discussion with Emily Kurash Casey, a rural program coordinator for RETHOS, a nonprofit organization working nationwide to help revitalize and reimagine the use of old buildings and sites — like the ones in downtown Litchfield.
Litchfield Downtown Council is part of the Minnesota Main Street Program, which RETHOS helps run. In fall 2016, Litchfield Downtown Council received a grant from Blandin Foundation which supports organizations that serve rural Minnesota communities. The grant helped fund Casey’s visit to Litchfield last week.
“They offer this downtown assessment to kind of find out what are the needs and the wants,” Darlene Kotelnicki, a member of the LDC, said about RETHOS. “It's like a preplanning thing. They'll come and go over stuff with us ... and they give us like a road map of things we should consider.”
Casey visited New Ulm in January to begin a downtown revitalization project.
“2020 is the first year that we’re really devoting time to going out and doing this kind of work,” Casey said, adding that Willmar was the next location — including other towns.
Casey met with Litchfield residents and surrounding areas last week to learn about Litchfield downtown. Among the questions she asked participants:
Even though Neidenthal lives in Grove City, he wants downtown Litchfield to grow and improve. He said he thinks that the reason for the decline of the city’s downtown is that owners of some of the buildings live outside of town.
“We got to get people to have ownership and commitment to making (downtown Litchfield) successful,” Neidenthal said. “And that's not going to happen until we get more local ownership in these buildings.”
Many of the downtown buildings are also in a bad shape; they are old and crumbling, Neidenthal said.
“I bet that once this Highway 12 is done through town, we have the opportunity for a Renaissance,” he said of the planned highway renovations this year. “So we have to start working now, such that by 2021 when that road is done, the owners of the buildings will see some promise and start making some additional investments.”
Investments may include a ground-up refashioning of downtown buildings, which could attract new businesses to open there, Neidenthal said. Ideally, the owners of the businesses in town would also live in Litchfield, he said.
“It's like if you want a bar or restaurant, you have to work it,” he said about running a local business successfully. “You got to be in that bar or restaurant and make it successful because, with absentee owners, it just doesn't work. Nobody has the ownership, nobody has the passion, nobody has the caring to go in there and make sure it's clean, well run, well managed — to watch every penny like a hawk — so it can be successful.”
After Casey studies the survey results of various groups, she will share ideas that cater to Litchfield, which the town could use for taking steps toward a more energetic downtown life, she said.
“And we'll come back to the LDC and say, ‘Here are some ideas for revitalization that you could try in your downtown.’” Casey explained. “It could be something like, you have a lot of senior citizens, so maybe consider having some benches for when people are walking downtown and need to rest.
“Or it could be building on something that's already really successful — like the Christmas decorations are really great — building some ideas around there,” she said.
Casey said a lot of the changes she helps supply rural towns may take two to five years to be fully operational.
With Casey’s help, Litchfield Downtown Council will renovate downtown right the first time, Kotelnicki said. In addition, the downtown council is working on fundraising for an antique clock back on Main Street, which adds to the improvement they want to see, she said.
“LDC will also follow Minnesota Main Street Program's four main points, which include economic vitality, design, promotion and organization,” Kotelnicki said.
The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board heard good news Monday about its current budget.
Business Manager Kathryn Haase reported that higher-than-expected enrollment this year has resulted in $227,000 more state aid, plus some additional special education and school safety revenue. Strong preschool enrollment will also increase the district’s community services income by about $93,000. This has more than offset slightly decreased federal special education revenue to raise the district’s total projected revenue by almost 4.5 percent.
Coupled with slightly lower-than-expected expenses (about 0.5 percent), the district’s fund balance is expected to increase by $610,000 by June 30. (By comparison, at the end of 2018-2019, the difference between revenues and expenditures was $301,000 in the black.)
Although the district hired additional kindergarten and preschool staff to accommodate the higher enrollment, and also increased teachers’ overall contract compensation, the extra state aid and a lower-that-budgeted need for substitute teachers this year more than offset those increases.
Superintendent Nels Onstad also reported positive “value engineering” negotiations in the construction work that is taking place at the elementary school and that will begin soon at the high school campus. It appears that $50,000 in savings have been engineered, and there is potential for another $50,000 by slightly modifying the roof slope. There is also about $40,000 in additional costs that have developed, but since those would be covered in the board’s contingency budget, the savings may allow the addition of a few alternative projects later.
Construction will be disruptive to school operations during the summer, particularly in Atwater, but Elementary Principal Kodi Goracke reported that alternative arrangements have been made for summer school. Space at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Atwater will be leased for 11 weeks, three days per week, and a summer school bussing program similar to past years will be implemented. Summer school will be coordinated with summer recreation activities in the ACGC communities, Goracke said.
Because of the construction, classes at both buildings will adjourn for the summer in early May, meaning that some high school students enrolled in college-level classes may not be finished with their coursework prior to graduation. This means that academic grades and credits for those classes will not yet be turned in, High School/Middle School Principal Robin Wall reported. Because of this, diploma folders will be presented on graduation day, with the actual diploma certificates mailed out later, she said.
Homecoming week at ACGC High School will look different in 2020, senior class adviser Kristin Straumann told the board. One change is that it will be earlier than usual, from Sept. 14-18. The coronation will take place on Friday afternoon, during an all-school pep rally, and following a week of activities and interaction with the candidates. Although all secondary students will vote for the royalty, the candidates will all be seniors. “It’s to get the students more involved with everything,” another senior adviser, Shane Haggstrom, explained, noting that, in recent years, not many students have attended evening coronations. The homecoming volleyball game will be Monday evening, and the football game will be Friday evening.
When Republicans took control of Congress and the presidency in 2016, Gregg Tangeman believed that his biggest concerns about the federal government — out-of-control spending and ballooning deficit — would finally be addressed.
“Now we’re going to get something done,” Tangeman recalls thinking. “And then … nothing.”
That reality, combined with a Fox News program about a Convention of States, turned the Willmar resident’s frustration into action.
He joined a growing national movement in which people are calling for a Convention of States to address what they believe is a federal government run amuck.
That desire for change is what brought Tangeman and about 25 other people to the Litchfield Public Library Saturday morning. Tangeman, a district captain for House 17B, was joined by Jackie Burns, state director of Convention of States Action, and Kevin Fuhrman, a district captain from Coon Rapids.
Fuhrman, who described himself as a musician and teacher, said he never considered himself a political person. Outside of voting — which he believes is extremely important — he didn’t get involved. But like Tangeman, Fuhrman said, he was moved to join the Convention of States effort by the tremendous growth in federal government.
“Regardless of who is in office, spending continues to climb,” Fuhrman said. “It’s going to get untenable very, very soon if we don’t so something about it. We keep hearing about how we want to do more and more and more, and the deficit keeps going up.”
Fuhrman said that he believes “our system is broken,” and little resembles the intent of the original U.S. Constitution. Included in information he shared Saturday was a brief video that explained the Constitution was just 7,000 words, but that concise document has grown — through Supreme Court decisions — to fill 3,000 pages of a book weighing nearly 10 pounds.
“We’re trying to get back to the 7,000 words … to get back to the original intent” of the Constitution, Fuhrman said.
Getting back to the “original intent,” Fuhrman, Tangeman, Burns and others believe, will require a Convention of States.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows a Convention of States, if approved by the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, at which amendments to the Constitution could be offered and voted upon. Amendments offered at the convention could be ratified with three-fourths of delegates to the convention approving.
So far, the Convention of States Action organization’s website claims nearly 1.5 million signatures to a petition calling for a convention. In addition, legislatures in 15 states have passed a resolution calling for a convention.
The two-thirds requirement demands that 34 state legislatures approve the resolution. Those leading Saturday’s meeting were optimistic of achieving the goal, thought they acknowledged that it may take time.
They hope Minnesota will be among the states to pass the resolution. And Darrin Anderson, Meeker County GOP board member, told attendees Saturday that state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, is generally supportive of the effort.
Supporters know they have a challenge convincing some to join the effort, however. Once a convention is called, federal and state governments have to influence over actions taken there — a cautionary note used by those opposed to a Convention of States.
Some also frame the Convention of States issue as just another partisan political struggle, with Republicans generally supporting it and Democrats generally opposing. But Fuhrman said he doesn’t believe that’s true.
“I don’t see it as a right and left issue,” Fuhrman said. “Really, it’s about federal and state (powers) … an up-and-down issue, not a left and right.”