County commissioner from Forest Lake has served seven terms
Fran Miron will have a transition to make when he takes office as the Washington County commissioner for District 1 in January. The Hugo farmer has served as that city’s mayor for 16 years and will now prepare to serve a larger base of constituents.
His opponent in last Tuesday’s election also faces a significant change. Dennis Hegberg will be vacating a seat he has held for over 22 years.
Making His Mark
After a brief stint working in town, Hegberg came to Forest Lake for good in 1975 to work at Lincoln Federal Bank, but eventually grew weary of the ups and downs of the full-time banking industry. As a politically active father of four school-age children, he threw his hat in the ring for a special election upon the death of District 1 Commissioner John Jergens in 1989. That would turn out to be the closest race of his career – Hegberg topped May Township farmer Lester Rydeen by less than 10 votes.
At first, he felt he had bitten off more than he could chew.
“Being a county commissioner was eye-opening,” he said. “I had blinders on. I had always been a Republican, but I realized that life was more complicated than my 30-second, four-word solution to problems.”
Still, Hegberg won election to his first full term in 1992, beating Richard Becker in a fairly close race with very high turnout.
“I supported [building the county] jail and got re-elected and people that didn’t support it, or hoed and hummed and finally voted for it were defeated,” Hegberg recalls. “It was sort of like now; people were looking for a change but they didn’t know what it was.”
That election brought significant turnover to the county board, and Hegberg became board chair in 1993.
From there, he found stability and won re-election without a major scare in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2008. Along the way, he has served on a plethora of regional, state and federal boards.
In addition to the jail, Hegberg looks back with pride on the construction of the county service centers, including in District 1 the center in southern Forest Lake. He also facilitated the transfer of Forest Lake’s library to the county and the construction of that new facility near the service center.
He developed a particular interest in transit, even traveling to Hong Kong in 2000 to study its system. Accordingly, Hegberg touts the recently completed improvements to Broadway Avenue.
“Transportation is the county’s responsibility for economic development,” he said. “If you can have good systems, whether it be the metro or Forest Lake, it helps development and I think the Broadway project, over time, will cause that corridor to improve and change.”
On a related note, he helped bring about the Hardwood Creek Regional Trail, a pedestrian favorite in Forest Lake and throughout the northern part of the county.
Then there is the transit tax issue. Hegberg drew heat from his own party for his support in 2008 of a quarter-cent county sales tax to support transit needs. And even though he figures that still hurt his chances four years later in this election, he stands by his position.
“We got the busses in Forest Lake and now they are going to Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said. “It gives transportation options to residents and I’m very proud of that even though it probably was one of the things that [hurt my cause].”
Hegberg sees the ebb and flow of time when looking back on his storied tenure. He recalls flooding being a chief concern in his early terms. One area involved was Hugo’s School Section Lake, which, years later, is now down by about 12 feet from its normal level.
“I used to have to deal with flooding all the time,” Hegberg said. “That took care of that and now we have droughts.”
The county has also seen phenomenal growth in population, and that will continue to be a challenge but also an opportunity, Hegberg said.
End of the Road
Hegberg expected a tight race this year from the moment he heard of Miron’s filing. What he could not have foreseen, however, is that Miron would carry two precincts – 4 and 5 – in Forest Lake. Early reports showed Hegberg leading, but that was before any precincts in Hugo were counted. Miron won his home territory in a landslide and pulled away for a 13,038-10,458 win, claiming 55 percent of the total vote.
“I thought Forest Lake would come out stronger for me than it did,” Hegberg said. Besides the transit tax, he figured he lost votes for supporting road projects and his stance against putting county funds towards 4-H.
Hegberg has no set plans for life after the county board, but vows to stay busy.
“I’m too healthy not to do something,” he said, noting that whatever venture he finds will have to fit around his desire to spend time with his six grandchildren.
A calculated gamble of leaving the mayor’s office paid off for Miron, who said his choice to run for county office was eased by his confidence in the council he leaves behind.
“I feel real comfortable with where the City of Hugo is at right now, with both the leadership on council and the staff present, and with Tom Weidt stepping in as mayor,” he said. “…Regardless of how the outcome would’ve been, I felt really comfortable about that.”
As Miron prepares to promote his platform of keeping the county tax rate low while supporting economic development and building unity on the board, he knows he has big shoes to fill.
“Dennis has had a long history of service and I believe we owe him a debt of gratitude,” Miron said. “I do believe his heart was always in the right place, and that was what was best for Washington County in his eyes.”