When Dale Malheim retired from the Army last year, he never planned to be on the front lines in his new hometown of Winthrop, Minnesota. But the more he learned about the $70 million proposed RS Fiber telecom network, the more he felt duty calling again. So Malheim began a petition drive to force a referendum, thus allowing Winthrop residents a chance to overturn the city council’s recent decision to support the sprawling countywide broadband network.
“It was just what went on in the meetings for this, it just floors me. So I said, ‘damn the torpedoes’, I want my neighbors to have the opportunity to vote,” Malheim said. “If we agree to go forward, I will cross my fingers and hope it works. But I want my friends and neighbors to have a choice in this.”
The proposed network would provide high speed internet, video and phone service to homes, farms, businesses and government offices in Sibley and Renville Counties. Proponents say subscriber revenue will repay the bonds necessary to build the system. If constructed, RS Fiber would be owned by the participating communities and counties in a joint powers agreement.
The referendum drive sets the stage for a standoff with city officials, who have led the charge for the proposed government-owned network by courting the participation of ten other cities and two county boards. The petition does not take a position for or against RS Fiber, but rather states that residents “vote on whether to proceed, or not proceed with the City of Winthrop’s participation” in the project. Winthrop City Administrator Mark Erickson declined to comment on the petition drive, telling FFM he’s “not interested”.
To place a referendum on the ballot, the Winthrop city charter states citizens must gather signatures from 20 percent or a minimum of 50 registered voters who voted for mayor in the last city election. It’s unclear whether anyone has previously successfully invoked the charter’s obscure provision for such a vote in this southern Minnesota city of 1,400 people. A few days into his petition drive, Malheim says he’s well on the way to collecting the 85 signatures that city hall told him he needs to put the issue before city voters in the next regular or special election.
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Something that’s this big and involves this much money, we really should have a say in that,” Malheim said.
Three local businesses are also collecting signatures in support of holding a referendum. One of the enterprises backing the effort, the Winthrop Telephone Company, would face direct competition from the taxpayer-supported network. The owner of Lance’s Tire and Repair got involved in part to support the high speed internet service provided by the local phone company.
“I do not like government to be in competition with free enterprise. That’s my priority,” said Lance Wiborg, owner of Lance’s Tire and Repair. “I don’t have any doubts we will get enough signatures. Virtually everybody I’ve asked to sign it, I haven’t had anybody turn me down and we haven’t even gone door-to-door yet.”
If successful, the referendum would give Winthrop voters the opportunity to follow the lead of Arlington, the biggest city in the proposed system, whose city council recently opted out, taking 1,000 potential subscribers out of play.
Meantime, retired Sergeant First Class Dale Malheim plans to take his new-found activism a step further, running for a seat on the Winthrop City Council this fall.
“I spent 20 years on active duty and I had to keep my political opinions to myself and now I’m not going to,” Malheim said. “If they’re not going to listen to us, we have to get someone in there with the decency to listen to their neighbors.”
Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward at 612-354-2192.