A reflection on county serviceDeparting county commissioners discuss their time in office
WORTHINGTON — In their final meeting as Nobles County commissioners, David Benson, Diane Thier and Vern Leistico were thanked for their combined 40 years of service.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — In their final meeting as Nobles County commissioners, David Benson, Diane Thier and Vern Leistico were thanked for their combined 40 years of service. The three will not return to the board room bench in January after Thier and Leistico opted not to seek re-election and Benson lost his seat in a close District 3 race.
“We want to wish you well in your retirement,” said Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr.
“We dearly appreciate what you commissioners have provided,” added Commissioner Marv Zylstra. He and Demuth will be the only returning commissioners on the board.
“Over the years, you’ve mentored us. We just appreciate everything you’ve done,” Zylstra added.
Benson has served Nobles County the longest of the trio, first sworn into office in 1992.
“I can’t believe it,” Benson said of the 20 years that have passed since he first took his seat on the board. “It wasn’t boring.”
Through the years, Benson not only worked to represent his constituents and county residents, but also became heavily involved in issues that affect southwest Minnesota, the state and the nation.
“One of the high points is working with good people — department heads and staff — people that do a good job and want to do a good job,” Benson said. “I’ve met and worked with people from other counties, through AMC (Association of Minnesota Counties), good people that want things to work well and do an efficient job.”
This past year has been one of rebuilding in Nobles County — rebuilding trust, relationships and a sense of pride among county departments. As board chair, Benson was at the forefront in helping turn the tide.
“I’m really proud that we were able to change the culture of leadership and involve more participation from staff,” he said in reflecting on 2012. “We need to build relationships with neighboring counties — we kind of became the bully in the school yard. I’m sure the new commissioners understand that and will try to work in the same way.”
While much of Benson’s time this year was spent on improving the culture in county government, he continued to advocate for public and mental health and ensure that counties with wind turbines be able to collect the wind energy production tax.
“Early on we got involved in the wind energy task force,” he said. “We were one of four counties to form that. It was something that we didn’t know much about.”
Today, nearly 20 Minnesota counties are represented on the task force.
“One of the things I’m most proud of and I will continue to work on it — is the wind energy production tax,” said Benson. “More than $1 million (was collected by the county) this year, and more will come in next year. We need to be recognized financially for what we provide.”
Benson said he will continue to be an advocate for the wind energy production tax, and intends to remain involved in aspects of government as he returns to the private sector.
Matt Widboom will take Benson’s seat on the county board.
“With mental health, I think I can find a place where I still have a voice,” Benson said. “Mental health, health and human services — the county spends a lot of money in those areas.”
After 12 years as a Nobles County commissioner, Diane Thier opted not to seek re-election to her District 2 seat this fall.
Sworn into office in 2000, Thier said her main goal at the time was to repeal a proposed bike trail the county was planning along Nobles County 35 from Worthington to the Rock County line.
“It was a bike trail … that went to nowhere,” Thier said. “After the previous board had OK’ed it, we did a lot of research. It wasn’t viable — we were short of money for roads. I was very happy for that, as were a lot of other people.”
During her dozen years as a county commissioner, Thier served on the county’s planning and zoning commission — a board that regulates construction of livestock facilities, gravel pits and other land uses. She advocated for expanded livestock production and was often outspoken when it came to construction delays caused by a protected species of minnow.
“The Topeka Shiner is always an ongoing thing,” she said. “That has cost our county and a lot of counties a lot of money.”
While Thier wasn’t able to do anything about the Topeka Shiner, she served on the mental health board, which has seen some successes in recent years, including the construction of a new Unity House on the former Central Elementary site in downtown Worthington, and the new Southwestern Mental Health Center office building now under construction on the same location.
“I’m very happy that we have a new Unity House and we’re putting up a new office building,” said Thier of the project, a collaboration between five counties.
She is also pleased with the board’s decision in recent years to dedicate more funding to county road and bridge projects.
“We’ve done a lot in this county for roads and bridges,” said Thier. “These old bridges had the sides on, and with the big equipment, that just doesn’t work.”
Like Benson, Thier also hopes to remain involved in some aspects of county government. She will continue to serve on the Community Wind South board and hopes to serve, at some point, on the library board as a lay person.
“I will definitely stay involved,” she said. “There’s a lot of things I’m going to look at and try to be involved in. Wind energy and the library are the two I’d really like to stay involved in.”
Despite her plans to remain involved, Thier will miss serving on the county board of commissioners.
“It’s going to be really different when the first Tuesday of the month comes and I don’t have to get to a board meeting,” she said. “I will miss it terribly.”
While she will no longer be a county commissioner, Thier encourages people to still call her about issues in county government. Her district, the largest in land size of any in Nobles County, will be served by Gene Metz following his oath of office Jan. 8.
“I’ve talked to Gene quite a bit and I think he will do a wonderful job — not only for this district but also for Nobles County,” she said.
Commissioner Vern Leistico also opted not to seek reelection this fall. Sworn into office in January 2005, he completed eight years on the board.
“It’s been very educational, very interesting and I’ve enjoyed it,” Leistico said. Taking his seat on the board is Donald Linssen.
All three of the departing county commissioners said they are hopeful the new board will continue to move forward on plans for a new Nobles County Library in Worthington.
While Thier hopes to join the library board at some point, Benson said he may join the Friends of the Library, a group that will work to build up funds for the newly established library foundation.
“I really hope this board continues on with the library, but I also think the city of Worthington ought to step up a bit,” said Thier. “They’ve got a lot of money left from the sale of the hospital. If we don’t have a library, we don’t have much.”
Leistico said he’d also like to see the city involved in financing a new library.
“The city’s got $10 million — some of that would go good with that library,” he said. “There isn’t any reason why you couldn’t get them to partner, to some extent.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.