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Mark Landa, candidate for GF County Commission

Interview with Mark Landa, one of eight people running for two seats on the Grand Forks County Commission. Q. Tell us about yourself and where you're from. A. My name is Mark Landa. I was born in Grand Forks and raised in Grand Forks County. We l...

Interview with Mark Landa, one of eight people running for two seats on the Grand Forks County Commission.

Q. Tell us about yourself and where you're from.

A. My name is Mark Landa. I was born in Grand Forks and raised in Grand Forks County. We lived in Thompson when I was a child, and then we also had a farm in Brenna Township west of Grand Forks. We built a house and moved out there shortly before I became a teenager.

But we were still in the Thompson School District. So, I went to school in Thompson and graduated from Thompson High School. I went to UND and got a double business major in marketing and management.

Q. And your career since then?

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A. Mainly in sales and marketing. I moved around a little bit; I lived out in Tacoma, Wash., for about a year and a half, then I lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul for about four years. In both of those places, I was mainly in the wholesale hardware industry in sales and merchandising. I moved back here in 1994 and worked in sales and marketing until I took my current job at the Empire Arts Center as executive director about 5 1/2 years ago. I got that job because of my background in sales and marketing.

Q. Give us a rundown on how the facility is doing.

A. It's doing well. When I started, they were doing less than 50 events a year. Now, we're doing between 160 and 180 events a year. We're kind of maxed out until we find a way where we can add some staff, and we're working on that project right now.

Financially, we're at about a break-even point every year, and for a nonprofit, that's not bad. Our goal is to do a little more fundraising so we can afford to hire some staff, so we do some more events and bring some more things downtown.

It's to your and the facility's credit that it's able to break even. So, there are no subsidies at this point?

We get grant money for different projects, and then we usually have two or three fundraising events. We have a golf tournament that Happy Harry's puts on for us; that's our major fundraiser. Then we usually either have a major performance or an event we call the Great Dinners. That's held about every year-and-a-half.

That's about it. We get a grant from the state every year, and we get a small piece of the city's arts money as a grant.

Q. How did your interest in the County Commission come about?

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A. I've always been interested in county government. Having been raised on a farm, I know that out in the county, the focus is on the county government, not the city government. I grew up as a history and political junkie; I actually looked at going into law, and probably would have done so if I hadn't gone into business.

I've always had that interest. I actually talked about running for county commissioner as early as high school I realized then that I was too young, but I knew that at some point, I'd want to do that.

I started looking at it again this year, and some of my friends out in the county knew that I was thinking about it, and they came to me and said, "We'd like you to run."

Q. Why did they ask you?

A. They don't feel they have a lot of representation. They realize that rural candidates aren't going to get as much interest from the city; after all, the city makes up about 76 percent of the county. But, because I have the rural background but also all of the connections with the city, they thought I'd be a good candidate.

I live and work in Grand Forks , and I work with the city and county government as well as all of the business leaders in town. I also know people from my other activities. I serve on a number of boards; I'm active in the community.

So, they thought that someone with a rural background but is very connected into the city might be able to give a nice, balanced approach to county government.

Q. In what ways have the rural areas been slighted, in your view?

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A. It varies depending on where they are in the county. The people who are close to Grand Forks are concerned about the four-mile extraterritorial zoning that the city took on, and they don't feel that the county gave them much support on that. As a result, a friend of mine's mother has a house that she can't sell because she has to sell 40 acres of land along with it. You see, the city has decided that in that stretch of county, you have to sell 40 acres of land with a house.

Q. Why is that? How does it work?

A. In most of the county, you can sell a house with 2 1/2 acres of land. On a certain stretch in that extraterritorial area, the city now wants to limit it to 40 acres -- unless 2 1/2 acres is all you own.

Q. The purpose being that the city is trying to avoid subdivisions?

A. Yes. Or else, trying to control what goes into that subdivision. They want to zone it just like they would a subdivision within the city limits.

The landfill issue is another one. A lot of the county didn't feel that the county was representing them while the city was looking for a landfill.

Of course, the county did vote against one of the proposals -- the one up by Gilby. What's your view on the county's role in the other proposed sites?

Because the most recent ones all have been within the four-mile area, the county really didn't do anything. I was at one meeting in Thompson, for example, and I didn't see any of the county commissioners there.

The county did not have jurisdiction, but they should have be there representing the citizens -- especially because the citizens in that area really had no say.

Q. What would you do about that if you were elected? Would you try to be at those meetings?

A. Yes. I'd try to represent the interests of all of the citizens, not just those who live in the city.

If an issue is just the city's business, then the county doesn't really have any reason to be involved. But when it extends beyond the city limits, then the county should at least be in the discussion.

What are your thoughts on a landfill? Grand Forks County uses a landfill, too.

We need a landfill. There is no choice in the matter, really. I think that the site they're narrowing it down to probably strikes about the best balance they could find. There might be some better spots elsewhere in the county, but between time issues, soil issues and so on, there really isn't time to get it done.

So, I think they found the right spot. I'm just not sure that they got there in the right way.

Q. How could things have been different?

A. I think they could have worked more together. That's one of the things I most want to work on is getting the different governmental entities to work together more. City, county, school districts and the surrounding counties: If some of those groups work together, I think we can find some efficiencies.

Q. What would that look like in practice?

A. For instance, we've got panning and zoning in the city and county. They should be working together. We have city streets and county highway department. Maybe there's some equipment they could share. I think there are a lot of places where there is that overlap, and I'm certain that there's a lot of room for working together.

Also, in other parts of the state, counties are working together, too: sharing offices, sharing state's attorneys. One example could be Traill County with its jail situation. The county just defeated a bond issue for a new jail. We've got a new jail in town here that has a lot of room. Why can't we house their prisoners, save them money on building a jail and get a little more revenue for our jail up here?

I know they're worried about transportation costs. But we're already doing video conferencing for appearances in court. Why couldn't we do that with the Traill County prisoners, too?

Q. Speaking of the jail, what should the county do about it and the operations shortfall it faces?

A. I'm against any sales tax to pay for the jail. It's just like a mortgage: It's a long-term commitment, a long-term investment. I think we should pay for it long term.

The debt service for the building itself isn't really the problem. The problem has been the overruns. Mr. Burkholder, the new administrator there, has been making some good progress. I think there's more room to do that by bringing in more prisoners. Recently, we got the news that there are a lot more federal prisoners than before; my thinking is, if we can get those, we can get more. If we contract with counties such as Traill County and others, we can increase the population of our own facility and solve some of those counties' jail needs, too.

Q. What should the commission have done differently in order to avoid the shortfalls that the jail now faces?

A. They rushed the issue. I felt at the time that they put it in the wrong place, too. I think they needed to do more due diligence by getting the federal agreements in writing rather than just verbal assurances.

What would have been a better location for the jail?

I think there was a possibility of using some land near the courthouse, such as the site of the old County Office Building. I think it was a misuse of the county fairgrounds to put the facility out there.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Home Rule Charter?

A. The concept is an interesting one, but I think this is a bad time to try to pass it. First, it's too tied to the idea of a sales tax. Also, the commission has kind of rushed the issue, and as a result, I don't think many people will get the chance to explore the options of a home rule charter.

Also, a lot of rural people are worried about the tax power that the county would gain under Home Rule Charter.

For example, down in Stutsman County, they're looking at increasing the property taxes on farmland but not on residential property. It'll go to a vote of the people; but in Stutsman County, Jamestown kind of overwhelms the county the same way that Grand Forks does Grand Forks County.

So, it could very easily pass, and the rural residents wouldn't have a chance. The residents of rural Grand Forks County have the same concerns about home-rule charter here.

Q. Where do you stand on home-rule charter?

A. This time, I think I'm voting against it. I would like to have more time to review the issue and look at what it would mean in detail -- and I don't think the citizens are going to have that time before the June election.

I would not mind looking at home-rule charter again in the future, but this time, I think it's a mistake.

Q. How much time would you expect to devote to commission work?

A. I don't have a lot of details on that yet. The commission only meets twice a month; however, there are a lot of committee meetings and other outside obligations. So, my guess is 10 to 20 hours a week, but that's just a guess at this point.

Q. Given your appeal to voters in the rural areas, why should voters in the city support you?

A. I think my background in working within the community stands on its own. Again, I serve on about five or six different boards, ranging from arts organizations to social-service organizations like retired and senior volunteer programs.

Plus, I'm a resident of Grand Forks. I live in the north end. I've lived in my house for 10½ years since the flood, and have lived in Grand Forks for longer than that. So I understand what the concerns of city residents are, also.

I think I can balance those with the concerns of the county residents because I can see both sides.

Q. Anything else you'd like to add?

A. One of the issues I'd really like to work on is communications. I think that's a problem with most local governments, although the city has done a better job than anyone else.

I want to get more communication between the county and the citizens: much better meeting notes, both printed in the Herald and on the county's Web site. Also, we should move some meetings around so that more people can attend them; and find a way to set up broadcasts or podcasts so that people can see what county government is doing.

I see a lot of uneasiness about government right now, and I think a lot of that is due to lack of information.

Q. What do you think about televising commission meetings?

A. The issue is how you can reach people in both the city and the rural areas. Midcontinent cable serves Grand Forks and most of the surrounding communities; it serves most of the people in that area but not all. And it doesn't serve any of the rural areas. People there get their TV via satellite or over the air.

So, we need a way that makes it available to them also. We need to find a way to overcome that without spending a ton of money.

Q. Would the Web site be an option?

A. That's one of the things I'd like to look at, is podcasting off the county Web site.

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