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Published April 01 2012

Grace under fire: After floods, Georgetown mayor looks to next challenge

GEORGETOWN, Minn. - Traci Goble recalls dropping by Georgetown’s preschool one day to pick up her daughter, Amanda.

“That’s Amanda’s mom,” she overheard one excited preschooler say to another. “She’s the president.”

Well, not quite. Goble is the mayor of Georgetown, population 129.

Even so, the 38-year-old has experienced more excitement, media exposure and drama in her last four years as mayor than many city leaders do in a lifetime of public service.

She has appeared on “Good Morning America,” rubbed elbows with Sen. Al Franken and been promised major flood protection funds by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton – all because she heads one of the most flood-prone communities in the Red River Valley.

Georgetown is surrounded by rivers. Just a mile south of town, the Sheyenne River dumps into the Buffalo River, which flows through the west side of town and empties into the Red River north of here.

For three of Goble’s four years as mayor, those rivers have experienced major flooding. Spring in Georgetown has brought emergency meetings with the Corps of Engineers, frantic dike projects and even evacuations.

Yet the outwardly reserved, petite Goble, who almost seems shy when you first meet her, has handled the chaos and criticism with a level-headedness and a spine of iron.

When Goble first entered office, she recalls an older man, also a mayor, telling her she would “have to grow a tough skin.”

That man didn’t last his term, but Goble continues to hang in there.

Now the state has come through with more than

$4 million in funds to help the city build a permanent dike system 3 feet higher than its existing levee. City officials hope the levee will be in place by late next fall.

There’s also a down side: The project involves buying out 19 of the 42 residences in town.

“I can tell you I’m probably the worst-hated person in town,” says Goble. “That’s the way it is. If I didn’t have an enemy, I would feel like I’m a dishonest person, because that would mean I was playing both sides of the fence.”

‘Best mayor town’s had’

Longtime Georgetown councilman Don Culp sits at a long table in the Georgetown Community Center, which has served as the town’s “floodquarters” for many springs.

He describes Goble as a good leader who often doesn’t get the credit she deserves.

“I think she’s the best mayor this town’s ever had,” Culp says. “I don’t think people even realize how much she does. It’s a thankless job. If she’d received a little more praise and recognition, she probably would have stayed on longer.”

Indeed, Goble won’t run for re-election in November. Having waded into the turbulent waters of public life, she now hopes to run for the Clay County Commission. Further down the road, she’d like to try for the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“It’s been great here. It’s just that I’ve grown,” she says. “I need to move up. I need to better myself.”

Goble has always had political aspirations. The second-born in a family of four kids, she grew up a block from the beach in Detroit Lakes. Her dad, Wayne York, worked for Dynamic Homes; her mother, Kathy, ran a café.

“I thought I was going to be mayor of Detroit Lakes,” she says.

Fate took her in a more westerly direction. Friends set her up on a blind date with Darrel Goble, a Georgetown native.

When Darrel invited her to meet his parents for the first time, she asked if she should pack an overnight bag. “I had no idea where Georgetown was,” she says, laughing.

They married 11 years ago and have three children: Austin, Amanda and AtiMae.

Goble was the city’s relief postmaster before becoming the city clerk. She worked alongside Myron Maurstad, the city’s mayor of 30 years.

As the 2009 election approached, people urged her to run against Maurstad. They told her she already did a lot of the work anyway and that the job was getting to be too much for the aging mayor.

She admits her mentor was hurt when he learned she would challenge him. “But when we evacuated the next spring, he said he was glad he didn’t have to do that anymore,” she says.

As a new mayor, Goble says she welcomed Maurstad’s continued attendance at city meetings. “He was like my security blanket. It was hard for me when he passed away (in 2011),” she recalls.

Trial by water

Goble’s first year in office was a trial by fire or, more accurately, water.

Amid record flooding, the Corps of Engineers hurriedly raised the town’s existing dike 2 feet.

A standard town hall meeting became a frantic flood meeting. Engineers were worried about a breach in the dike. One family had to be rescued by airboat. And residents were given less than 24 hours to evacuate.

“We went from 125 people to 25 that night,” Goble recalls.

She was one of the 25. “It would have been like a captain leaving his crew behind,” she says.

Eventually, a sobbing Goble was persuaded to leave – but only after former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Moorhead Mayor Morrie Lanning urged her to do so.

Afterward, the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid a contractor to remove the temporary dike, but the contractor removed too much. As a result, FEMA had to pay another contractor to come in and fix the damage.

Some residents were furious for months and weren’t shy about expressing their frustrations.

“I just let it roll off me,” she says. “People just needed to vent, … They just get tired of fighting (the river) every year.”

Although the need to make difficult decisions has sometimes made Goble a scapegoat, she does express a fierce loyalty for the town.

She talks proudly of a young oak that is planted in the downtown park to commemorate Georgetown’s 150th anniversary in 2009. The city, she points out, had the first post office and school in Clay County.

And she bristles when critics suggest this tiny community, with its many dirt streets and handful of businesses might not be worth the resources it takes to save it.

“How do you pick up a town?” she says. “How do you leave your home behind and uproot people who have lived here all their lives? You just can’t walk away from it. You’ve got to fight for what you’ve got.”

After all, Traci Goble knows a thing or two about fighting.

“I’m not a quitter,” she says. “I wanted to keep fighting for flood protection. Now, even if I never do one thing more, this just has been a huge accomplishment.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525