Simmering tensions over how to respond to the expansion-minded Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community are boiling over into races for the Scott County Board.
All four candidates for the two seats are being asked publicly where they stand on the issue. And the only incumbent in the race is accusing her challenger, a member of the Prior Lake City Council, of a conflict of interest because of his family connection to the tribe.
Barbara Marschall of Prior Lake, who chaired the board during its most-recent major decision on how to respond to the tribe's desire to pull hundreds of acres of land off the tax rolls, told the audience during a debate last week that challenger Chad LeMair had no business voting on tribal issues, considering that his wife is the adopted daughter of the tribe's former chairman.
"He showed poor judgment when he didn't remove himself from the discussions in Prior Lake," she said.
LeMair responded that neither he nor his extended family benefit financially from anything he did with regard to the tribe.
"We don't get per-capita payments," he said, referring to the large amounts of money distributed each year to full-fledged tribal members. "My father-in-law has no interest in that land."
The tribe and its surrounding governments have differed for many years on the tribe's desire to pull several hundred acres it has acquired into federal trust, which makes it tax exempt. In the past couple of years, however, Prior Lake and Scott County have split with Shakopee in deciding to stop fighting the trust status in the courts.
The tribe has since made a point of emphasizing its largesse to Prior Lake and the county, including a recent resumption of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual payments to the latter.
The County Board's decision to seek a new and cooperative relationship with the tribe came only after a 3-2 vote, so the November election could result in a change of tone. Thus the issue is coming up in public forums involving all four candidates -- not just Marschall and LeMair but also the two candidates seeking to represent the more-rural southeast quadrant of the county in place of board chairman Bob Vogel. Unlike Marschall, Vogel sided with the tribe.
In a debate last week in Shakopee, Chris Olson, a Prior Lake police investigator, tread carefully. He said he has faith that the federal government won't "capriciously" allow trust status in the future, but he would judge each instance on a case-by-case basis. His opponent, Tom Wolf, responded squarely that he would oppose further trust applications.
In the race for the seat representing Prior Lake, where most of the tribe's land is located, Marschall is making a big point of tribal issues.
"Removing acres from the county tax rolls increases taxes for all," she declared. She has seen estimates, she said, that taxes in Prior Lake are 15 percent higher than they would be if the tribe did not already have a lot of tax-free land.
City officials respond that Prior Lake's tax rate is the lowest in the county and that the tribe contributes in a host of ways, some of them financial.
LeMair said that Marschall "doesn't believe they deserve to have parks, I guess. I have witnessed them taking parks and putting homes on them. They are still growing."
In any event, he said, it's a moot point because these matters move so slowly that any current member is highly unlikely to deal with any future trust application. The one that is inching its way through the process today, he said, was launched 12 years ago.
The two candidates also differed on these issues:
Term limits: LeMair offered to confine himself to two terms in office, while Marschall believes that's up to the voters.
Parks spending: LeMair at first spoke favorably of the county's efforts to set aside parkland, but later said he would not have bought land intended for a future Cedar Lake Park, since the county still can't afford to develop and open land it has had for years.
Marschall said the problem with waiting is that the land may be developed and unaffordable by the time the county decides to buy it. The county has benefitted from grants that would otherwise have been lost, she added.
In their separate debate, hosted by the Scott County Historical Society, Olson and Wolf also differed from time to time. Wolf took a harder line, for instance, on spending and taxes. And the two also differed on growth planning.
Olson praised the county's new 2030 long-range plan, which has been criticized by some as erasing farming from almost all of the county in the coming decades. Wolf was more reluctant.
"Some people think it calls for too much growth," he said. "We're getting to look like Bloomington years from now. The townships like open space and don't want the growth." He added, though: "If you don't own the land, you can't tell someone not to develop it."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023