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January 24, 2021

1/8/2021 2:38:00 PM
Looking back on 2020 local highlights

The Year 2020 is unforgettable for more than a few reasons, but in looking back in the year’s newspapers  there were a number of positive news items that helped to bump the covid-19 virus off the front page once in a while....

In January 2020 the Chisago County Board selects Ben Montzka to serve as annual chairman. 
Commissioners voted 5-0 in one of their first actions to give the County Administrator job to Chase Burnham.  He’d been serving as interim   administrator succeeding Bruce Messelt and the Board gave him the post fulltime.

The North Branch School Board was advised by Supt. Deb Henton she had accepted the Director of MASA job and would be stepping down as of the end of the school year.  

The process of hiring a new superintendent got started as soon as possible with two finalists coming forward in the spring and Sara Paul accepting the superintendent post.

Rush City Prison celebrated its 20 year anniversary. The public was allowed to take tours and enjoy cake and refreshments with prison staff and meet the MN Dept. of Corrections Commissioner.

Nessel Township won a state Border to Border grant for improving internet service and options in the township. The grant was for $1,657,000.

Lindstrom Council member AnnMarie Brink announced she’d be stepping down.  Later— in April— Katie Roche was appointed to fill the seat until November’s election.

Taylors Falls celebrated its school projects being completed with a ribbon cutting at the school grounds.

Cities take actions to embrace the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program that is gaining ground. and now has an active chapter locally

The county starts a lengthy complicated process to redetermine ditches— where they are located and what the benefitting parcels exactly are— which gets through its first three ditch lengths #5, #9 and #14 and embarks on the next set of three. Covid 19 concerns stall this momentum  however— when holding a public hearing is made nearly impossible with the distancing restrictions. There will be further ditch reviewals in 2021.

North Branch Water and Light is reeling most of the first several months of 2020 as the general manager was let go at the end of December 2019 by the utility commission. An interim GM was brought on board through the North Branch City Engineering firm, who  led the utility for several months, finishing the assignment when Scott Hautala was finally hired in September from a northern Minnesota utility.  During 2020 utility employees petitioned to form a union, which was successful. The staff  won a new contract with upgraded wages and new work terms.  Employees said goodbye to two Water & Light commission members,  responsible for creating the operations upheaval, when the commission in mid-year went to five persons— from three members and two incumbents were not put on the new commission.

In March Lynn Longnecker is named River Steward and Grand Marshal for Wannigan Days in Taylors Falls. The award is presented at the March city council meeting.  Wannigan Days sadly, gets cancelled a few months later.

Township elections are ho-hum, with almost all races involving unchallenged incumbents. Sonny Sparby is a newcomer to Franconia Township Board.

As covid-19 starts to revel itself as the deadly, contagious ailment it is— cancellations arise left and right....the area school districts start offering grab and go meals at various drop-off locations and hot meals are coming out of lunchroom kitchens.

The annual spring Pottery Tour goes virtual.

In April the North Branch School Board votes for Sara Paul to become the new superintendent.  Paul is coming from White Bear Lake where she’s been assistant superintendent.

New Tenth Judicial District Judge Catherine Trevino is appointed. She is filling Robert Rancourt’s bench vacancy as he retires.

The non-profit shelter for victims of the sex trafficking industry, Amborella House opens in Lent Township and work begins to furnish and equip the site.

Fairview Cemetery in Lindstrom has a columbarium, above ground structure for cremated remains, installed.

Chisago Lakes shop teacher Mike Sandell utilizes surplus high school inventory for the three-D printer and makes PPE. In the wake of a big shortage of facemasks/shields the gesture is really appreciated by recipients of the products.

In May the plans are being laid for virtual graduation ceremonies for area senior students.

Unemployment is about as high as it’s been in a long time, at 9.4 percent in Chisago County.

A fatal stabbing is reported at an address in Sunrise Township. Two people are charged in connection with the death of Joshua Kaczrowski, 28.  The judicial process continues through 2020 for Courtney Pilz Carr, 27 and Justin Gerald Valian, 23.

In June the North Branch Legion cancels Midsummer Days because of covid-19 restrictions and many other town celebrations follow suit.

North Branch School Board loses Daryl Goebel, who steps down. Tanya Giese is appointed to fill the seat until November elections and she wins election at that time.

The County Board faces alot of public feedback when discussions ensure over a decision to go to Community Corrections probation services or to remain with the state services. On a 2-3 vote the transition to county-overseen community corrections fails, with Commissioners DuBose and Robinson in favor of giving it a go.

July is normally the time when the County Farm Family of the Year is the big news, but in 2020 there is no selection.  The Farm Fest is not being held, which is where all the counties get to present awards.

Chisago Lakes Karl Oskar Days is held but at a fraction of its normal activity level. Ambassadors are named and they are Chloe Zupko, Maggie Wille, Lauren Schnaus.

The East Central Electric co-op has a new CEO and President, Justin Jahnz.

Postmaster in Lindstrom Lee Turner retires.

SnoBarons announce the Hay Days motorsports multi-day event, held outside of Almelund,  is called-off due to virus issues.  Hay Days has not missed a year in 54 years.

The annual Relay for Life fundraiser for the Cancer Society and its services and research support,  is held on-line.  Pledges are made electronically for the most part.  The purchased lighted luminaries are set up encircling the historic church in Center City and folks are encouraged to drive-by.

In August the Chisago Lakes Joint sewer treatment commissioners vote to contract out the operations to Veolia.  The loss of many longtime staff who are retiring and the shortage of skilled operators to fill vacancies leads to the decision to privatize.

There will be no Harvest Fest in North Branch, the Chamber announces.

Heartland Express transit service receives covid-19 relief funds, and makes all rides free of charge.

September 2020 is the North Branch Fire Department’s official anniversary for 125 years of service.

Franconia Sculpture Park holds a ribbon cutting and opens its fabulous Franconia Commons Art Space.

Local resident Jack Thibodeau and his college friend Devin Brown are featured in a story about their singular adventure canoeing the entire length of the Mississippi River, in the time of covid-19.

Frontier Communications, even though it has filed bankruptcy, comes to a settlement with the State of MN.  The attorney general reports the investigation into the company’s service reliability and record keeping problems is resolved and there are conditions Frontier must meet for its side of the agreements. Frontier needs Internet speeds to be at least 90 percent what is advertised on a customer’s plan and operational issues must be addressed under a certain timeframe and systemic quality of service problems addressed. The attorney general gets $750,000 from the company to be distributed to customers who filed complaints.

In October there is a really early snowfall that drops several inches on the county. Snowmen and snowplows are out before Halloween decorations.

North Branch City Council member Brian Voss steps down, saying he can’t continue to serve on a city council that is “incapable of faithfully discharging its most basic duties.”  

Too late to get a name for a successor on the upcoming ballot—the council appoints Patrick Meacham to take Voss’s seat.

Mallery Jerseys outside of Taylors Falls is chosen to be the county Conservationist of the Year, through the Soil & Water Conservation District state program.  The farm is “aggressive” in implementing practices like erosion controls, no till, fixing gullies and more.  It is a certified farm under the MWAQCP.

The sheriff uses covid-19 relief funding to acquire two uv robotic cleaning units, in order to sanitize the jail and control virus spread.

The sheriff and Wyoming chief of police both announce the start of the policy development public input needed to have bodyworn cameras and by the end of 2020 both agencies have the devices operational and on-the-streets.

The Taylors Falls segment of the Swedish Immigrant Regional Trail is officially opened.

November brings a new Lent Township Supervisor on-board, when Jess Eischens is appointed to fill the empty seat left when Lisa Sinna resigns.
The Press runs an “open letter to the community” submitted by a dozen area school district officials who are pleading with citizens to social distance, wear their masks and take the virus restrictions seriously, so their students can be in-school.

Eleanore Collins is the Royal Lady for Taylors Falls’ Lighting Festival. The parade takes place but it’s an upside down affair— with visitors driving past parade units parked on mainstreet.

Kevin Grote was named Minnesota Firefighter of the Year. He is chief for North Branch and began in that post in 2010.

Community holiday meals are all pick-up or delivery.

In December Chisago Lakes School Board member Jerry Vitalis is feted with a plaque and accolades as he serves in his last Board meeting. He started in 1977.

Chisago County Attorney Janet reiter is chosen President of the MN County Attorneys’ Association.

Lindstrom’s Doug Kraft is named the volunteer of the year through the NAMI organization.

Towns do drive-through Santa visits and festivities and lots of people appear to participate and enjoy the holiday vibe.

Former Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan is sentenced in Anoka County Court Dec.22 for  offenses against a past sheriff’s department employee.  Duncan retired when his criminal activities were made public in 2018.  He gets Community Work Service but in a plea agreement, no jailtime,  for misconduct of a public official and stalking/harassment. 

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