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Dist. 2 county board candidates give voters tough choice

Jason 'Buck' Johnson1 / 2
Matt Dotta2 / 2

The next commissioner from Hubbard County's District 2 will be an energetic, enthusiastic family man with a wry sense of humor who will do what it takes to get the job done.

Voters will have to choose between a lifelong resident and a relative newcomer, each one a father of teenage girls.

Tuesday night's League of Woman Voters candidate forum highlighted few differences between Jason "Buck" Johnson and Matt Dotta, who are running for the seat being vacated by retiring board chair Dick Devine.

Johnson is a degreed Emergency Medical Technician who works for North Memorial Ambulance Service in Park Rapids. Dotta works in the county assessor's office, a position he would have to resign if he wins.

"It would be a conflict of interest," Dotta told a large audience gathered at Northwoods Bank's community room.

Dotta is running as an outsider. He, his wife and five children moved to the Park Rapids area more than two years ago from California.

He has a finance degree and was a financial officer for non-profit organizations while working at his family's cattle farm. The Dotta family moved here to be closer to his wife's parents, he said.

Johnson was born in Park Rapids. His father, Larry, was a former Hubbard County Sheriff. He volunteers as a Hubbard First Responder and has served

on a regional radio board assisting with the narrowband conversion that is under way.

Both men agreed the city and county should cooperate as much as possible and suggested regular joint meetings.

Both seemed to take a prudent approach to conflict. Johnson said an old-fashioned sit-down is best for resolving issues between agencies or government and personnel.

Dotta suggested an approach that would let the mechanisms in place work as they should. If policies don't work, they should be amended, he said.

Both thought the city and county have a good working relationship at the present time, but that cooperative efforts, not duplicating, was best for both jurisdictions.

Both supported development of The Wreck, a youth and community center in the embryonic stages. But neither pledged county money, saying if any governmental agency should step up, it should be the city.

"We all hung out on Main," Johnson said of his youth. "Kids need a place to sit around and talk."

He jokingly suggested "a parking lot with vending machines. We'd make a mint."

"We should tap any and all resources that don't require a check to be written," Dotta said.

Johnson cautioned that the county saw "litter and bonfire problems once we got chased off Main" and suggested kids need a safe place to gather.

Both men supported the fight against Aquatic Invasive Species, saying the county can't afford to wait for the state.

"The impact could be anywhere from insignificant to quite severe," Dotta said, reminding the audience that 60 percent of the county's properties are water-influenced.

The county can't afford to see property values plummet if area lakes are infested, Dotta said.

"Absolutely, the state should get on board," Johnson said. "If history serves me we can't wait for the state or we're in trouble."

He advocated pushing for funding for prevention of scourges like zebra mussels, and working with lake associations and the Coalition of Lake Associations.

Here's how they stand on other issues:

n ATV/OHV use in the county: Dotta said he doesn't have a strong opinion either way, but believes

the county should oversee trails under its control. Johnson said as a member of ATV and snowmobiling clubs, he sees value in the trail system for tourism reasons.

n Enforcing ordinances: Both men advocated for strong enforcement of ordinances. Johnson said in a democracy, enforcement is doing what's best for the whole. Dotta said it's a matter of fairness, treating everyone equally. Both said if an ordinance is unpopular, it could be changed.

n Domestic violence: Johnson, as a First Responder, said he's seen it firsthand and the public needs to recognize the red flags. He urged stronger penalties for repeat abusers and more safe houses for victims and children.

Dotta questioned whether the county board was the proper authority to deal with such issues, and urged they be worked out in law enforcement and the courts. But he said the county should offer the appropriate services.

"If you fix the foundation, you fix the ancillary things that go with it," he said.

n Logging: Johnson said, "There's lots of dollar signs sitting on the ground" and urged harvesting more fallen trees and clean up of windstorm damage. He urged finding a "happy medium" to provide the types of trees lumber mills will buy.

Dotta suggested wise management and a stewardship approach to county wooded assets. He said he would defer policy issues to the county's Land Commissioner.

n County historical museum: Both men advocated funding for the museum, to keep it structurally sound and accessible to the public. Johnson said it has nostalgic appeal for locals.

n Eldercare: Dotta said from a psychological and lifestyle perspective, keeping the elderly out of institutions makes sense if there are support agencies in place. He said healthcare dollars should be allocated for such services.

"We need to support those agencies and entities," he said.

Johnson said there are untapped opportunities and employment in home health care, and urged people to seek out those job prospects.

"St. Joe's home health is understaffed," he said of the community health entity. "Our nursing homes are packed to the rafters." He said the county has excellent facilities for the elderly, but if people can be kept at home safely, he supported that option.

"Depression sets in when they're taken out of their happy place," Johnson said.

n Uniform building code: Dotta said he "has not formulated a position on adopting" the building code and expressed reluctance. "I came from a place where all things were regulated," he said, speaking of California.

But for uniformity and safety reasons, he said a "seal of approval" makes sense and adds value to properties.

"I'm for it," Johnson said. "Houses should be built to code."

But he couched his remarks this way: "I'm speaking for the people. If they don't want it..." But he also said a minimum standard of building codes should be implemented.

In closing remarks, both urged people to vote.

"Diversity on the board is good," Dotta said. "I bring new things, a non-local perspective. The local perspective is (already) very well represented."

"I want to make sure the community stays engaged," Johnson said. "My roots are here."

And he urged people to go to the polls even though the sacred season of deer hunting will have begun three days before the election.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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