Incumbent Chris Holman will face challengers John Pavelski and Eric Olson in a primary race for Portage County executive on Feb. 15. The top two vote-getters will move on to the spring election on April 5. The Stevens Point Journal asked each candidate to address important issues in the county and why they believe they are the best candidate for the position.
Occupation and education: County executive for Portage County; master's degree in geography and an Arabic linguist certification
Relevant experience: I relaxed nearly every policy we have in human resources so that employees would have as many options as possible to navigate COVID. That included providing 80 hours of emergency leave (about $1.8 million) and helping employees who had to take leave without pay get insurance without working the majority of the month and they still accrued benefits.
I invested heavily in information technology to make the county's systems more secure and more flexible, and upgraded meeting spaces to enable remote participation. I helped push the investment of roughly $500,000 in heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades to improve air quality and mitigate the spread of the virus.
I directly supported our health and human services director, our public health officer and their respective teams throughout the pandemic. We followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health Services guidance, supported the science, and with limited capacity in the department, we managed to meet state priorities while also serving our community.
Occupation and education: Extension Lakes Director and Statewide Extension Educator; master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Relevant experience: I have worked for over 15 years as a university extension educator helping local governments and nonprofit organizations carry out important natural resource protection work. My research project in graduate school involved attending and analyzing over 100 town and county comprehensive planning meetings in Washburn County between 1999 and 2003. I also taught courses at UW-Stevens Point in land use planning and plan implementation. I have served on the Portage County Parks Commission and chair the Stevens Point Deer Committee.
Occupation and education: Organic hay farmer, real estate agent and corporate communications consultant; studied agronomy at UW-Madison
Relevant experience: John ran the local family farm as president of Pavelski Farms in the 1980s and 1990s. That included managing a large potato and vegetable farm in multiple nearby counties, as well as planning, developing and serving as general contractor for the largest state-of-the-art potato load-out facility in the Midwest.
After that, John served as director of operations for the highly successful local vitamin manufacturing company Ortho Molecular, the first company to break ground in the Portage County Industrial Park.
In the early 2000s, John started his own business, an organic poultry farm and processing and packaging facility. That successful small business produced organic, pastured and humanely raised chickens and eggs for farmers markets, private customers and high-end restaurants.
Why are you running for office?
Holman: I thought a lot about this question before I decided to run for re-election because there's a great deal of sacrifice involved if you are serious about doing this job well. I have a family, a farm, and I used to have hobbies before I won the election in 2018. After a lot of introspection and hearing from the people I've worked with and got to know over the last four years, I decided to run again because I know that I've made a difference. If elected again, I will build upon all of what we've accomplished during my term.
Olson: For the last 11 years I have worked statewide with hundreds of local governments and stakeholders to protect and restore Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. I’m a tireless advocate for the common good — from clean water to quality health care — who has dedicated my life and career to serving our community. I’ve volunteered to create initiatives in Portage County to advance sustainability and community resilience. I am running because I believe in the importance of having an elected leader who represents and serves all the people of Portage County, and I want to strengthen our community through government transparency and civic engagement.
Pavelski: Portage County residents have been affected by mandates coming from federal and state agencies. I share in the county's concern and need for change. Government is best governed at the local level where community members can decide what’s best for themselves and their families, rather than Washington and Madison. Currently, the county executive position has very few guidelines. The community deserves to define the county executive’s job and have input into what its money is funding. The executive ought to hold every department under its supervision accountable to the service of the community. This model is the way integrity is maintained in government.
What makes you the better candidate?
Holman: Self-promotion doesn't come easy to me, and I don't seek the spotlight because it's not about me. I don't make promises I can't keep, and I tell people like it is. I listen to more points of view than you can possibly imagine, I balance those against the facts, and I work hard to bring people together and find ways forward. I don't get a vote on policy, so working with others despite our differences and finding solutions that simultaneously serve the public while also keeping the perfect from being the enemy of the good is non-partisan progress.
Olson: I am your candidate if you want to make progress toward a vibrant, resilient Portage County. As Portage County executive, I will apply my core strengths — courageous leadership, the ability to patiently listen in order to understand, and decades of experience in community planning and development — to help us all move forward on key issues we face. I will be a visible and present leader who regularly connects with a wide range of stakeholders across the county. I will champion the use of science and evidence-based strategies to protect and build the public good.
Pavelski: I believe I have the most practical experience. Portage County government needs to operate as efficiently as possible. I have done this for larger and more successful private businesses than any other candidate.
I was born in Portage County and have lived here my whole life. I live, breathe and will probably die in Portage County. I’m not going to implement something I can’t live with myself. I know many people in Portage County with diverse backgrounds and lifestyles. I will seek input diligently to make the best decisions for everyone involved and not create problems from the decisions I make.
What are residents telling you are their most important issues, and how would you address them?
Holman: There are the obvious issues: COVID, groundwater, economic recovery, health care center, roads, taxes and so on. "Most important" varies, though, and it's most important to recognize that. Even something "less" important to some can be "most" important to others. So, I address any issue with the truth, with the available options if options exist, and compassion. I don't debate because that implies that I want to win. I seek dialogue because that builds trust and relationships. It also leads to results.
Olson: The COVID pandemic: I will advance science-based, legally-valid strategies to control the spread of coronavirus and protect our vulnerable populations.
Groundwater pollution: I will be a visible leader on groundwater moving us all forward on meaningful initiatives and science-based regulations to ensure clean, safe drinking water for everyone.
Government transparency and inclusion: The internet makes it easier than ever for government to be accessible and accountable, but it’s not happening now because we have a poorly designed website. We’ll use 21st century technology to ensure that we are an innovative leader in open government and public participation.
Pavelski: Government overreach. Mask mandates. Mandatory vaccinations. Education.
Even though it’s not the executive's job to set policy, I would use the authority of the executive to govern constitutionally for the freedoms of the people.
I will work with the county’s department heads to trim as much red tape and regulation as possible. It is getting more complicated and expensive to own and operate a business in today’s market. Portage County officials and employees need to be working for the people to help them with their goals, dreams and ideas for the betterment of all.
How would you approach deciding the future of the Portage County Health Care Center?
Holman: The future of the center is in the public's hands. Over the last nine months I've led the effort, with committee and public support, to get us to where we are today. The core idea that the referendum is seeking support for is mine. Marcia McDonald, her team at the center, the committee, and others helped refine it, and the County Board supported it unanimously. We finally have a path. If the public votes yes on the referendum, we have a workable model for the next 20 years. If the public votes no, then the county will need to close the center.
Olson: A measure of society is how well it cares for those who cannot care for themselves. We need a county-owned and operated health care center and as executive I will work to ensure our investment will last for decades. The county health care center is a critical part of our social safety net, and I am working to build public support for the referendum. We should lobby for more support from the state, and we must ensure that the facility is designed to meet future needs. The ventilation system, for example, should be designed with future airborne pandemics in mind.
Pavelski: I will be subject to whatever the people decide in the referendum. If it passes, Portage County would need a new facility as soon as possible. I believe the longer we wait, the more money we waste. How that can be cost effective for the taxpayers is the question. My initial inclination would be to privatize the facility, unless an entity wants a public-private partnership. If it fails, unfortunately, I believe the only viable option will be to close the facility unless there is a community effort to support it financially.
What do you see as the Portage County executive’s most important responsibility?
Holman: Unfortunately, there's still a lot of confusion in our community about this position. Wisconsin Statute 59.17 explains what's most important from a legal perspective. In practice, though? The day-to-day administration of the county, facilitating the policymaking process, formulating and managing the annual budget, listening, learning, providing guidance, support and leadership to department heads and employees. Also, supporting initiatives in Portage County along with all of the incredible businesses, people, events and places that make our county what it is today. It's also important to avoid needless drama and ignore personal attacks because they both just waste time, energy and resources.
Olson: The most important responsibility is listening to and empathizing with people from everywhere in the county and then using their input to create a vision and overall direction for our community. The executive must keep in mind every part of the county when making budget decisions, appointments and shaping county policy. One has to employ the perspectives of both the urban areas and the countryside. If elected, I will work with the entire County Board, the board chair and voters countywide to move us all forward in the interest of the public good.
Pavelski: Service to the people: It would be my constitutional duty to govern by the consent of the people to establish their unalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It would be my responsibility to know the heart of the community so I can lead their government to serve their needs with excellence.
I would strive to judiciously use the resources Portage County entrusts to me for the best of all.
I would work to make sure the county government establishes a fair and level playing field for all so no entity has a special advantage.
Finally, as the county executive I would always speak and act with integrity as an example for others to follow.
This article originally appeared on Stevens Point Journal: Portage County executive candidates share views ahead of primaries