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Published November 09 2011

Election 2011: Local issues drive city shakeups

MOORHEAD – The people have spoken, and local government leaders heard loud and clear.

Tuesday’s municipal elections in Minnesota forced high turnover in some area cities, with many longtime officeholders ousted in favor of new representation.

Clay County-area officials said a desire for change sparked an anti-incumbent mood that likely swayed voters’ ballots.

Among the casualties on Tuesday’s ballots, two out of three incumbents were unseated from the Moorhead City Council, including one member who’d served for 10 years.

In Barnesville, three out of four council members up for re-election were also cast out, and two-time Mayor Fred Dahnke was 20 votes shy of the same fate.

However, Barnesville leaders had been forewarned about the potential outcome of this year’s election, Dahnke said

A plan to revamp Barnesville’s Front Street this summer included replacing nearly 100-year-old sewer and water lines, with nearby property owners footing some of the bill through costly special assessments.

The project pitted residents and business owners against city council members who went forward with the project.

“I‘ve heard this all summer and all fall: If you do this, there’s going to be hell to pay,” Dahnke said. “Some (residents) wanted to clean house.”

The multimillion-dollar project was completed in August, but resentment lingered among some residents, Dahnke said.

“People wanted change, and I respect people’s opinions. We’re not going to always be on the same side,” he said. “But I’ll hold my head high because I’ll stand for what we’ve done. We were proactive and moving forward. It’s beautiful, and it’s done.”

Dahnke faced a threatening write-in challenge from former Barnesville Mayor Gene Prim. In a coincidental twist, Prim – like Dahnke four years ago – won the 1999 mayoral election as a write-in candidate.

In Moorhead, the forced exit of longtime incumbents came as a surprise to some.

Council member Brenda Elmer – whose 3rd Ward counterpart Dan Hunt was among the fallen – said a “general discontent” with incumbents this year might have contributed to Tuesday’s results.

“I think it’s also issues that are unique to each of the wards,” she said.

For instance, Elmer said flood mitigation projects are especially contentious in her and Hunt’s ward, which includes several blocks along the Red River on Moorhead’s south side.

For both cities, though, officials said they’d like to leave any previous animosities in the past.

“The message has been sent. What more can they fight over?” Dahnke said. “Some people are unhappy, but we’re trying to put this to bed because we need to move forward.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541