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County Commissioner candidates listen to Craig Fontiane, left, during Thursday night's COLA candidate forum at M State in Detroit Lakes. The other candidates include, from left, Ben Grimsley, John Okeson, Gerry Schram and Barry Nelson. Photo by - Brian Basham

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Editor's Note: Look for a second story on the Becker County COLA forum for state legislative candidates in Wednesday's Detroit Lakes Tribune.

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Five candidates for Becker County commissioner and eight candidates for four open seats in the Minnesota Legislature were on hand for the county and state election forums hosted by the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) Thursday night in Detroit Lakes.

The 45-minute county candidate forum preceded a 90-minute forum for the state legislative candidates, prompting a humorous comment from County Commissioner Barry Nelson likening the county candidates to "the opening act at a rock concert."

Nelson, who is running unopposed for re-election, ceded his time for answering questions to the other four candidates, who are seeking two open seats in county districts 2 and 3.

District 1 Commissioner Larry Knutson and District 4 Commissioner Don Skarie, who are also running unopposed, both declined the invitation to attend Thursday's forum.

All five seats on the county board are up for grabs this fall due to redistricting, which has also pitted incumbent commissioners John Okeson and Gerry Schram against each other in the District 3 race.

This also means there is no incumbent running in District 2, where Ben Grimsley and Craig Fontaine will both be attempting to earn their first term in office at the Nov. 6 general election.

Okeson, Schram, Grimsley and Fontaine were all in attendance at Thursday's forum, held in the conference center at Minnesota State Community & Technical College-Detroit Lakes.

When asked a question about "strict and consistent enforcement" of the county's zoning ordinances, Grimsley noted that "the rules are there for everybody" and that noncompliance by even one person "has a lasting impact on our lakes and streams."

He said that infractions need to be remedied as quickly as possible, and any non-compliant actions have to be reversed.

Fontaine, his opponent, noted that a thorough and fair investigation was needed for each violation before any penalties should be assessed.

"Some of it (i.e., reported infractions) is misinformation," he said, but added that if a violation is found, penalties do need to be assessed.

Okeson said that he tries to stay informed on any violations that have been reported, and to ensure that they are corrected, noting that if one person "gets away with it," someone else might find the same loophole.

"Being treated fairly is the main thing," he said.

Schram, meanwhile, noted that in order for fair and consistent enforcement to occur, known incidents of noncompliance need to be reported and dealt with in a timely fashion.

"How can it (a zoning violation) be corrected if it's not reported?" he asked.

All of the candidates noted that the county's water resources -- i.e., its lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands -- were of vital importance to the local economy.

Okeson noted that "well over 50 percent" of the county's tax base comes from lakeshore property owners, and that if the quality of the county's lakes goes down, and property values dip, "everyone ends up paying."

"We've been handed down a legacy of clean water by our forefathers, and we should keep it that way," said Schram, adding that there was no reason why future generations shouldn't continue to enjoy the same water quality that we do now.

"Some things are more important than dollars," he added.

Grimsley said that more state funding needs to be allocated to the fight against AIS, because Minnesota's lakes and streams "are a unique resource for our county, and this state."

Fontaine agreed, and added that if the quality of the county's lakes and streams goes down, "it's going to cost all of us," not just in the form of decreased tax base, but also lost revenue from tourism.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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