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Four vie for 2 at-large seats on DL city council

Though incumbent city aldermen Leonard Heltemes (first ward, David Aune (second ward) and GL Tucker (third ward) are running unopposed for re-election this year, the race is on for the two at-large positions at the Nov. 7 general election.

Incumbents Walt Tollefson and Matt Brenk are each facing challenges this year, from Bob Renney and Beatrice Tessman. Though their backgrounds are varied, all four have grown up in the community and chosen to make it their home for the majority of their lives.

Matt Brenk

Matt Brenk, who currently serves as the city's vice mayor, was first elected to the council in 1989, and is completing his fourth term. A DL native, he has owned Detroit Lakes Paint & Glass since 1987, and lives in the community with his wife, Mary. They have five children, though all are grown and no longer living at home. An avid high school, college and professional hockey fan (son Jake is currently playing in the minor leagues in Albuquerque, N.M.), Brenk currently serves as assistant hockey coach for the Detroit Lakes school district.

Brenk currently serves as chair of the city's finance committee as well as its housing and redevelopment authority, and is a member of the community development committee. Seeking his fifth term on the council was a fairly easy decision, as he says he still enjoys his work with the city.

"Anybody who gets elected to the council knows it takes some time to get the experience where you feel like you're being effective," he says, adding that he feels as though the community has experienced "tremendous growth" in the last 20 years, and would like to continue playing a role in guiding that growth in a positive direction.

"I think the city's going to have to keep an eye on the amount of residential development going on," Brenk says.

He says assessments for city services such as water, sewer and electricity as well as other infrastructure improvements are often deferred while these residential lots are being developed, and there is a possibility of building up the infrastructure too much.

"We want to encourage housing development, which is the key to a lot of economic development... but it's a fine line you walk," he says. "The city currently has a lot of money invested in infrastructure, and a fair amount of lots available."

Also, with so much growth in the community's business community as well as residential development, Brenk says he feels the council needs to start focusing more on social issues such as increased law enforcement and safety needs, available recreational opportunities, maintenance of city buildings, facilities and equipment.

"I think we need to at least have these issues on our radar screen," he says. "We (the city) need to be doing our part."

Walt Tollefson

Walt Tollefson, who is just completing his first four-year term on the council, may not have been born in Detroit Lakes (his family moved to the community from Pelican Rapids when he was two years old), but "I've lived here for the majority of my life," he says.

Much of that life was spent protecting the lives and safety of the people of Detroit Lakes, after joining the local police department in 1965.

But before that, he held a variety of jobs. Tollefson attended Moorhead State University for a couple of years after graduating from Detroit Lakes High School, but didn't complete his degree before moving to Chicago to seek employment.

"I was there about 2-3 years, and worked in a steel mill," he says. "I decided I didn't like Chicago that much, so I came back and got a job at Snappy."

He continued to work at Snappy until joining the Detroit Lakes Police Department in 1965. Sixteen years later, he went back to school and completed his four-year degree in criminal justice.

"I wanted to finish (the degree)," he said simply. " It turned out to be the right decision, because it enhanced my career."

When Tollefson applied for the job of police chief in 1988, all of the potential candidates were college graduates, he explained. Tollefson spent eight years as Detroit Lakes Police Chief before his retirement in 1996.

"It just felt like the right time for me (to retire)," he says. "You kind of have to go with what your heart is telling you."

But even after retirement, Tollefson's bent for public service remained intact, and he went to work for the city's parks department on a part-time basis. He continued to serve the city in that capacity until his election to the council in 2001.

"I enjoy public service work -- the opportunity to serve the community, to make sure people are safe, have good services and live the best quality of life that their government leaders can give them," he says.

His work with the city includes serving on its street and finance committees, and he was recently appointed to serve as council representative on the Detroit Lakes Public Utilities Commission.

Tollefson's priorities over the next four years, if elected, will include "continuing to work to make Detroit Lakes grow, prosper and stay a good, vibrant community."

He feels the Highway 10 realignment project will be a key element of that growth.

"It's going to be a big change," he says, adding that while transportation is going to be "a pain" for city residents until the project is completed in 2010, "sometimes with growth, there's pain -- and I think when it's all completed, the community is going to really enjoy the benefits."

Tollefson has been married to wife Doreen for 23 years (it's the second marriage for both of them), and they have seven daughters between them as well as nine grandchildren. His community involvement includes active membership in St. Luke's Episcopal Church and the Becker County Historical Society.

Beatrice Tessman

Beatrice Tessman, who was born in Erie, N.D., in 1920, has been a resident of Detroit Lakes since she moved to the community with her parents and three brothers in 1923. A 1939 graduate of Detroit Lakes High School, she lived at home with her parents until her marriage to Russell Tessman in 1943 (though she did spend six months in California, "making floors and doors").

Russell, a paratrooper with the U.S. Army, was disabled during his tenure in the service, and came back to Detroit Lakes to recuperate.

"My mother nursed him back to health, and he worked on our farm for a while," Beatrice says.

Eventually, he purchased a farm of his own, and in 1943, the couple got married. Beatrice's career was a bit more varied, as she worked at the Detroit Lakes Business College for many years, raised two children -- Rosella and Russell, Jr. -- and helped Russell in his various endeavors, including the farm and an apartment house on Highway 59.

When Russell became ill from suffering a stroke and later, an aneurysm, Beatrice supported the family, getting her broker's license, and became branch manager of the Detroit Lakes offices of Strout Realty.

Russell later suffered another stroke, and spent six months recuperating in a Minneapolis hospital, where doctors said he would never fully recover. Refusing to accept that, Beatrice brought Russell back home, and took care of him as well as her grandchildren while daughter Rosella was attending college, studying interior design and architectural design.

Though the Tessmans continued to operate their 166-acre farm west of Detroit Lakes, with endeavors that included logging and making maple syrup, the city eventually purchased all but 43 acres, which Beatrice continues to operate it as a tree farm.

Though Russell passed away 10 years ago, Beatrice continues to make her home in Detroit Lakes. Her daughter Rosella lives in Minneapolis, and Russell, Jr., is an ordained minister and currently works for Midwest Recruiters in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tessman said she decided to run for city council because, as she put it, "none of the other women stepped forward." Her priorities, if elected, would include establishing a veterans' home for Becker County-area veterans.

Describing herself as "a retired Ding-A-Ling," (she recently left the local music group), Tessman says her ultimate goal is to be "the last comedian standing."

"I just want to have fun," she says, adding that she has enjoyed the campaigning process.

Bob Renney

Bob Renney is also challenging the incumbents for an at-large seat on the council this year. A native of Detroit Lakes, he graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and enrolled in the auto mechanics program at the Detroit Lakes Vocational-Technical School. In 1969, he joined the U.S. Navy, and was initially stationed in Rhode Island. His background in mechanics caused him to be designated as an aviation machinist's mate.

Renney spent much of his 26-year career in the Navy working as a jet engine mechanic in "lots of different places," but three years prior to his retirement in 1995, he was stationed in Fargo.

After retiring in 1995, having earned the rank of senior chief petty officer, Renney sold auto parts at Hedahl's and Riverside Auto, and eventually went back to the local technical school -- then known as Northwest Technical College -- to take some courses in business management.

For a while, he and his wife, Kathleen, operated their own lunch wagon business, and also did some local auctioneering. Currently, he works part-time at Beug's Ace Hardware.

Renney decided to run for city office because, he says, "I think we need some change on the council. I believe there should be term limits for all those (city and county) offices -- if you stay in it too long, I feel it becomes stagnant."

Renney's priorities that he would like to focus on, if elected, include the municipal airport, which he feels should stay where it is.

"I don't believe we need a new one," he says. "I think it should stay where it is."

Renney feels his strong leadership skills, gained during his years in the service, would be an asset to the council, and if elected, would look forward to building a good working relationship with his fellow aldermen.

Bob and Kathleen, married since 1971, have three children, all married -- son Robert, Jr., and daughters Stephanie Schmidt and Kristina Cole -- as well as seven grandchildren.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454