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5 candidates face off for District 4 commissioner

Randy McCuskey1 / 5
Mark Thell2 / 5
Michael Gay3 / 5
Susan Zmyslony4 / 5
Brenda Martini5 / 5

There are five candidates vying for the Carlton County District 4 commissioner seat during the primary election Tuesday: Susan Zmyslony, Michael Gay, Brenda Martini, Randy McCuskey and Mark Thell.

District 4 includes Mahtowa, Barnum, Holyoke, Wrenshall and Twin Lakes Township.

Commissioners are paid $23,033 annually, plus a $60 stipend for specific meetings they attend, but not every regular board meeting.

Commissioner District 4 candidate: Susan Zmyslony

Zmyslony is seeking re-election. She is married and has two adult children. She has lived in the county for 30 years and is employed by Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative. She currently resides in Barnum Township.

In addition to the 18 committees she serves on as a commissioner, she also serves on five other community committees and is active at Salem Lutheran Church.

Zmyslony believes the experiences of serving on the many committees have helped qualify her for the county board seat. While on the boards, she worked with a variety of budgets, personnel, policies and procedures over the years.

Commissioner District 4 candidate: Michael Gay

Gay is married and has three adult children. He graduated from Moose Lake High School in 1983, left for college and moved back to Cloquet, where he has been in banking for 20 years. They moved to Blackhoof in 2000.

He believes he is qualified to be a county commissioner because of his daily work.

"I have been the president of a $90 million bank for nine years, Franzen Bank and Trust," Gay said. "I certainly have the ability to successfully manage a sizable business. I have to deal with budgeting and understanding financial statements as well as to be efficient."

He is also serves on several boards and is very involved in the community.

Commissioner District 4 candidate: Brenda Martini

Martini, who has adult daughters, lives in Twin Lakes Township and works at Duluth's Miller Hill Mall in the service sector.

She believes her experiences at college help make her a qualified candidate for the position. She graduated from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet in 2016. She served on the student senate and was a communications director. While in college, she helped FDLTCC create its strategic plan and traveled to the Twin Cities to lobby state representatives as part of a college class.

She is passionate about the environment and has concerns about the Enbridge Line 3 coming into the county.

Commissioner District 4 candidate: Randy McCuskey

McCuskey is married, lives in Holyoke and has two adult children. He is a 1975 Wrenshall graduate.

McCuskey retired after 33 years at the Carlton County Transportation Department, where he was maintenance superintendent for 14 years.

He retired as a chief master sergeant from the 148th Air National Guard after 28 years. He has been serving on the Holyoke Town Board for 38 years.

He believes his job experience working with the county and in the military make him qualified for the position.

Commissioner District 4 candidate: Mark Thell

Thell is married and lives in Blackhoof Township on his family's beef farm. The farm supplies the beef for Duluth Grill. They also raise pork and chicken.

He is an Air Force veteran who has worked at Potlatch for 28 years.

Thell cites his life experiences, including planning and supervising meetings, as qualifying him for the position.

Candidate Q&A

The five District 4 candidates met with the Pine Journal to discuss Carlton County issues.

PJ: What do you see as the two biggest issues facing Carlton County?

Thell: We have to do more in the county for economic development. We have to attract more industry and we have to go out and promote the qualities we have. I have been a champion of that in the 20 some years I have been on the Minnesota Cooks. It makes this community look that much more attractive.

The other big reason I am running is Mrs. Clark. She's lost hope. She is a senior in Olsonville. She is disappointed that nothing ever happens to fix her water supply and she has to buy bottled water. There has to be something we can do to help them. Their properties are not worth anything and who would buy them without water. No resident in Carlton County should have to go buy bottled water.

A different change of strategy of how we do county services. We can't just keep on buying buildings and putting employees scattered all over. Roads are another issue.

McCuskey: One, I think, is spending. I feel we need to control spending. I would like to look at some of the programs that they support, like the Fair Board, the Historical Society, the Friends of Animals. They are programs the county puts money into (and) is not obligated to do that. They are extra programs.

Another big issue is zoning in the county. I feel some of the rules hinder development in the county. For example, if someone sells their house, they need their sewers inspected. I feel that hurts people from wanting to buy in Carlton County.

I would also like to see our economic development push that (zoning) and help small businesses. Small businesses hire local people and I feel that helps communities.

Martini: I found some disturbing things related to our farmers. The unlucky farmers who fall into the Enbridge Line 3 construction zone will have to shut down. How are they going to pay their bills if they are forced out of their pay. How are they going to pay their property taxes? How are they going to support their family? I would like to reframe how we look at our farmers. They live in the middle of our business community and provide our food.

Property taxes and landowners — what happens if they fall into the construction zone? How will that affect their resale values?

The Carlton School is another issue.

There's no easy answer for any of these issues. There are still a lot of things I am still thinking about.

Gay: The No. 1 reason I am running is the real estate taxes are becoming a burden on business owners and people on a fixed income, retirement-age people. They can't afford the taxes to keep going up. We're seeing it from the school districts and the county and hospital district. All of these pressures keep driving property taxes up. We are losing businesses.

I am a commercial lender primarily. I hear from all of these business owners that they do not want to come to Carlton County and invest in residential real estate and apartments because of the property tax burden doesn't allow it to be economically feasible. It's really about being more efficient.

Second-most important to me is getting behind our law enforcement and dealing with the crime coming up I-35 and dealing with the drug trade that we hear and see about. I (would be) a strong pro-law enforcement commissioner.

Zmyslony: The top issues continue to be decreasing taxes and spending.

We can do this by looking at what is working as well as review every program and every facility in the county to look for cost savings. To improve productivity and efficiency, we need to do budgetary reviews, evaluations of personnel and have conversations with department heads on a routine basis. Fiscal responsibility and tough choices are required to achieve a balanced budget.

The second one is pretty huge. We need to take a look of our overall health and wellness. This includes so many things. It includes safety, the drug epidemic, mental health awareness. By improving the quality of health and wellness it reduces the strain on our county services. It's a trickle-down thing.

Other issues

The candidates all agreed rising taxes and spending are issues for the county.

When they were asked about the Carlton County Jail & Criminal Justice System Planning Study, only Zmyslony said she has read the document. Completed in late 2017, the study identifies justice system issues and maps out options for the future. Zmyslony said the study is informative and extensive. She noted that some changes recommended in the study are being implemented.

None of the candidates said they were definitely in favor of building a new jail facility. They agree there is not an easy answer.

The candidates had a similar answer for the need for an animal shelter in Carlton County.