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Greg Robbins is the Litchfield School District’s first building and grounds director. He was hired on March 2.

Construction well underway on U.S. Highway 12 through Litchfield's downtown

Construction on Litchfield’s main street continued last week, with work crews working on the storm sewer between Third and Fourth streets.

Work on the storm sewer will continue to move south on North Sibley Avenue from Third and Fourth, and a second work crew was to begin installing sanitary sewer a block behind the storm sewer work.

Installation of the water main is scheduled to begin this week.

Downtown businesses remain open, with access through both front and back doors in many cases, though the stay-home orders in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected what businesses can be open.

With downtown Litchfield an active work zone, automobile traffic is encouraged to use the detour, which routes traffic entering from the north on U.S. Highway 12 east on Minnesota Highway 24 then south on County Road 34 back to Highway 12.

MnDOT will be flying drones in the construction zone to take photos and videos of the work being done, according to a news release from the department.

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Local legislators grapple with election safety during pandemic

Local lawmakers aren’t enthusiastic about a push by Secretary of State Steve Simon to expand mail voting in Minnesota in response to COVID-19.

Simon appeared before the Minnesota House Subcommittee on Elections during a recent digital meeting to support a bill that would permit him to send each registered voter a ballot in the mail. The proposal would be limited to peacetime emergencies in response to infectious disease outbreaks. The number of polling places could be reduced while elections administrators would be given more time to process ballots under the proposal. He also proposed giving his office the power to change polling locations, citing the need to move them from vulnerable locations such as senior care facilities. Candidates would also be able to file by mail, fax or email.

A witness signature is required for mail-in voting.

“The administration of elections has become a public health issue,” Simon said. “Minnesotans should not have to choose between their health and their right to vote. After talking with elections professionals from all levels of government throughout the state, the goal became very clear to me: We need to minimize exposure at polling places and maximize voting by mail.”

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, acknowledged that Minnesota presently has mail-in ballots, but questioned if it was wise to have everyone do so.

“I think we need to approach this with some caution,” he said. “It’s worked well when it’s spread out the way it is.”

Urdahl said it was fortunate that the current system has caused little fraud, “but I am concerned about more possibility for shenanigans. It’s something we can look at, but we have to be very cautious.”

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, also opposes mail-in ballots. He believes such a method lacks built-in safety measures to maintain the integrity of the system, and that if there is more opportunity for people to violate the system it will disenfranchise people who feel like their legitimate vote was minimized.

“I would not at all be interested in using the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to begin shifting further into the mail-in ballot system,” he said.

Newman favors changes to make voting places safer for those practicing social distancing.

“For those who don’t want to vote in person, then they should be able to exercise their right to vote with an absentee ballot,” he said, noting that voters no longer need to provide a reason for an absentee ballot.

He said absentee or mail-in voting would both require county auditor offices to be operational to some degree.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said the House Republican caucus opposed the proposal, and he did as well because of, “the amount of fraud that can take place with mail-in ballots.” He said voters should have to show an identification at the polls or obtain an absentee ballot. He said absentee voting must accommodate those with disabilities or safety concerns.

“But I do oppose a total mail-in vote,” he said.

Gruenhagen felt the health risk of voting at the polls would be mitigated by the time state primaries come around in August.

State Republicans have proposed expanding the number of polling locations to ease the number of people packed into one building. Deborah Erickson, chair of the Minnesota Association of County Officers Elections Committee, said earlier this month that election officials are already facing shortages of election workers and judges, and adding more polling places would exacerbate the issue and make it harder to meet state statute. Though elections are later this year, training and ordering of ballots will come in the next few months.

“A significant number of election judges statewide have expressed concerns about potential exposure to COVID-19 or fall into an at-risk category,” Erickson said in a letter to legislators. “Additionally, social distancing guidelines, if still in effect, will be very difficult to maintain in many of the polling places across the state, and voters themselves may feel some concerns about their own personal safety impacting their accessibility to a safe balloting option.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested moving to mail-in voting to reduce contact among voters and to avoid the sharing of pens and other equipment. States have received $400 million from a federal COVID-19 stimulus bill to respond to election challenges.

“We can spend some of this money on hand sanitizers and wiping down tables and all the rest. And that might, on the margins, help people feel a little more comfortable,” Simon said. “But I don’t think we’re kidding anyone that if we spend a bunch of money on hand sanitizers and disposable pens that people are going to be comfortable en masse to the tune of millions going to polling places.”

Newman noted one other factor in the discussion. He believes if an expansion of the system came by way of the Secretary of State Office’s authority, or through an executive order from the governor, it would invite a lawsuit.

“This issue of voting and mail-in voting, that’s been a hot topic around the capitol for many years,” Newman said. “It’s very sensitive. ... There are groups in Minnesota that I think would gear up.”

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Watercade 2020 canceled

Litchfield’s annual summer celebration became a victim of the coronavirus pandemic Sunday night as the Watercade Board of Directors announced via its Facebook page that the 2020 festival would be canceled.

“Yes, it is true,” the post began. “Watercade is being canceled for 2020.”

The post went on to say that an official video post would be made Monday.

“Please, when that video is posted, take a moment to watch it ... so you can understand that it was not an easy decision, nor one that was made lightly,” Sunday’s post added.

Watercade 2020 was scheduled to run July 9-12 this year, and board members had held out hope that the pandemic threat might be at least reduced enough to allow the celebration to go on. But health concerns, as well as business concerns, became too much to overcome.

In an email to Art in the Park vendors, Watercade Board Chairwoman Heather Winkelman said that, “Many factors played into this decision such as the Covid-19 virus, financial burdens on many local businesses who normally are very generous in helping make Watercade a reality every year, a current ban on ‘sales on public property” in Litchfield which, as of right now, is the case all the way through August, and other factors that are out of our control.”

Watercade would have been marking its 64th community celebration this summer.

- Brent Schacherer

Ripley Elementary parking lot plan draws tough questions

Litchfield School Board members took a first look at plans for parking lot and building improvements at Lake Ripley Elementary School during their meeting April 13.

For some, the plans — and process — for the improvements that will come as a result of district voters’ approval of a $33 million bond this past November, fell short of expectations.

The plans unveiled by ICS consultants and Wold Architects and Engineers came as a result of meetings with a “user group” that includes district administrators, staff, Lyle Hicks of Hicks Bus Line and members of the public.

A diagram for a new parking lot, with bus pickup on the east side of Lake Ripley Elementary School, drew lengthy discussion and some criticism from board members who said the plan did not match what they described to district voters prior to the referendum. That plan called for buses to travel along the north side of the school property and drop students before exiting onto Swift Avenue on the west edge of the school property.

Space limitations and other considerations, however, led the user group and consultants to configure a route in which the buses will enter and exit the parking lot from Sibley Avenue.

Board member Chase Groskreutz said he was unhappy with the parking configuration and the fact that there was no student drop-off on the north side of the school.

Board member Julie Pennertz said she agreed with Groskreutz on the configuration and also thought that it would be “difficult for buses to get out of the lot and onto Sibley.” It was because of that concern, Pennertz said, that the idea for the north property line route and exit onto Swift Avenue was conceived.

Ryan Hoffman, a project development manager with ICS, explained that 12 buses will have to enter and exit the Ripley Elementary lot during the average morning and afternoon drop-off and pick-up. “If we think about 12 buses, some go south, some go north (on Sibley), it’s not going to be a tremendous amount of time to leave that site.”

“I’ll still question why we didn’t do more legwork,” Groskreutz said, of the original plan, adding that he thought problems with that concept should have been discovered – and brought to the board – much earlier. “I get we may have to make some changes, and I get additional costs. I still think we need to have one entrance (to the school) the way we planned.”

Board member David Huhner expressed similar sentiment, saying that he didn’t want to start over on the planning, but that he did want consultants to understand where the board’s frustration came from.

“My point is, I understand the initial drawing was not set in stone, (but) when you change it 360 degrees on me … (that) tells me you didn’t do your research,” Huhner said. “I don’t want to see it happen again.”

Board member Greg Mathews countered that point of view, however, saying that the original plan “wasn’t the 10 Commandments. It was a plan. As far as changing it, I don’t have any problem with changing.”

Vaughn Dierks, partner at Wold Architects and Engineers, said he understood the frustration of board members upon seeing a different plan than they anticipated, even though the goals of the project still are being achieved.

“And in the future, if we do see this kind of change, we’d want to bring this sooner and present and explain,” Dierks said. “I do believe this plan is a workable plan and from a cost standpoint keeps us on budget.”

Board member Marcia Provencher said she thought the board should rely on the work of the user group, which was assembled under their direction.

“I think that since we’ve had a task force and people that have gone over and come up with this plan, I hate to see something be postponed or waylaid and going back to Phase One,” Provencher said. “If Hicks thinks it works, I’m in favor of going ahead with this.”

In the end, the board’s consensus was not to delay the parking lot project and to proceed with the plans presented at the meeting.

The board also agreed to go ahead with plans for a kitchen and cafeteria addition on the north side of the school, secure entrance and administrative suite, and a new playground area.

Bidding on the building work is planned for May, with construction to begin in June.

Student Council reps discuss blood drive, mentor program

Litchfield High School Student Council conducted a blood drive April 1, and even though the drive took place off campus due to the COVID-19 school closure, it was successful, according to George Tepfer, the student council’s representative to the School Board, along with Nora Lagergren.

The drive, which took place at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, brought in 51 units of blood — five better than the student council’s goal of 46 units, Tepfer said. Normally, student council representatives assist at the blood drive, but only Tepfer and Lagergren could participate in the April 1 drive due to the pandemic.

Blood donations exceeded the goal, despite the fact that there were only five or six student donors this time. “We usually have more student donors when we’re at school,” Tepfer said.

Lagergren told the board that she and Tepfer worked with Candace Boerema, student council advisor, on a letter to send to teachers in the district about a mentoring program. Student Council members would act as mentors and/or tutors to students who request the help.