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News from the week of August 25, 2004

First day school gets jump on Labor Day weekend

School bells ring for District 417 students and teachers next week.

The first day of classes at St. Mary's, Tracy Area Elementary, Tracy Area High schools is Wednesday, Sept. 1. Teacher workshops at the public schools are planned Monday and Tuesday. Workshops at St. Mary's begin this week and continue through Monday.

School hours are unchanged from last year. Classes begin at 8:20 a.m. at both Tracy Elementary and the high school. St. Mary's School begins at 8:15 a.m.. Dismissal times are 3:05 p.m. at Tracy Elementary, 3:04 at the high school, and 2:55 at St. Mary's.

Preparations for the first day of class are in motion at all three schools.

New student orientation at the high school was held Tuesday morning. High school students were to pick up their schedules on Tuesday and Wednesday. Parents of secondary students are encouraged to pay necessary school fees and put money into a school lunch account prior to the first day of school.

Registration for Tracy Area Elementary students was held Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Any families with students who have not been registered are urged to contact the school office. Elementary parents are also encouraged to put money into school lunch accounts. An open house at Tracy Elementary School is planned Tuesday, August 31, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. (A parent or guardian must accompany children).

Parents who wish to enroll students at St. Mary's can stop by the school office from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. prior to the first day of school. St. Mary's School plans an open house/parent information night on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m.

Hillger, Kerr spar in memo exchange

The Tracy Police Commission is scheduled to meet Thursday, August 26, at 3 p.m., to review procedures for considering charges against Tracy Police Chief Bryan Hillger.

In a reversal of a previous decision, council members agreed Monday night that the commission meeting would be open to the public, as requested by Hillger.

“I don't see any harm in having it open, and I can see a lot of harm in having it closed,” said Mayor Steve Ferrazzano, before the council unanimously voted to open the meeting.

On August 9, the council had accepted a recommendation from legal counsel Jim Kerr, to close the initial commission meeting to the public. At the meeting, Kerr suggested, the commission could receive background information and review the procedures that the commission should take in considering the charges. Only commission members, city legal counsel, and City Administrator Audrey Koopman were to be present.

The council decision Monday was the culmination of a two-week memo battle between Kerr and Hillger over the issue of whether the first police commission meeting could be closed to the public.

After the council's August 9 decision to close the commission meeting, Hillger sent an August 10 memo to commission members, Koopman and Kerr, with copies to council members, and the Headlight-Herald. Hillger again asked that the commission meeting be open to the public, stating that he could find no statutory authority that would allow a closed meeting of a police civil service meeting. The chief wrote that if a closed meeting was held, he would seek an opinion from the state commissioner of administration. Hillger also advised that anyone found guilty of participating in a violation of the open meeting law could be liable for a civil penalty of up to $300.

Kerr responded with an August 13 memo to Koopman that defended the right to close the proposed informational commission meeting. He wrote that the charges against Hillger remain confidential and not public information, and that Minnesota's open meeting statute “clearly permits closed meetings to permit communications between attorney and client.”

Since he was advising the police commission on the behalf of the city, Kerr wrote, “attorney-client privilege should be invoked with a closed meeting being permitted as a necessary step in the orderly process.”

Kerr's August 13 memo also criticized Hillger and the chief's August 9 memo.

“That communication speaks volumes of a predominate character trait in Mr. Hillger. This first response of Mr. Hillger to charges that he attempted to coerce a juvenile and her parents by threats of prosecution for fraud against the Tholen family to surrender a restricted farm work license results in a threat to the Police Commission, the City Administrator, and the Assistant City Attorney with `dire consequences' unless these individuals follow his interpretation of the open meeting law. This latest tactic should not be surprising given the set of circumstances which led to these charges.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Hillger, his subjective application of the open meeting law to these particular facts to achieve a self-serving interpretation is erroneous. Reliance on a publication stating general principles rather than a necessary reading of the actual statutory law will lead to fallacious and premature conclusions.”

In an August 17 memo to the police commission, and council members, Hillger responded to Kerr's August 13 memo. Besides defending his earlier position on the open meeting law, Hillger asked that Kerr “be removed from any further involvement with the Tholen-Hillger issue, and be instructed to have no further contact with the Police Commission on this or any other issue.”

Hillger charged that, “Given his (Kerr's) obvious bias against me, to allow him to continue to have contact with the commission in any way threatens the tenets and reasons for having a Police Civil Service Commission. A Civil Service Commission is supposed to take cronyism, favoritism, and local politics out of the hiring, discipline, and dismissal procedures of a police department. Mr. Kerr simply cannot be objective.”

Hillger charged in his August 17 memo, that Kerr, in his August 13 memo, had chosen “to launch a personal attack against me, an attack that clearly exposes his bias and prejudice against me. Is it any wonder that I have some reluctance to allow Mr. Kerr to `suggest' procedure and `supply substantial materials' to the police commission at a closed meeting?”

Prior to the council's Monday vote to open all police commission meetings, Ferrazzano asked Kerr if he had any further comments to make on the police commission issue. Kerr indicated that he did not.

• • •

The as yet unspecified charges against Hillger are connected to a complaint made by Tracy resident Gary Tholen. Tholen asked the city council to investigate how Hillger handled an investigation as to whether Tholen's then 15-year-old daughter was entitled to a farm work driver's permit last summer and fall. After a series of closed meetings the council voted 4-3 on July 26 to file charges against Hillger. The commission is to conduct a public trial to determine the validity of the charges.

The initial commission meeting Thursday is expected to consider only the procedure that the commission will use in weighing the charges, not consider evidence or testimony.

Police commission members are Thad Lessman (chairman), Bernie Holm, and Todd Radke.

Combine crackups loom in Milroy

By Brady Averill

The Milroy Fire Department hosts an annual fundraiser every year. And each year, it's the same thing: tractor and truck pulls. But this year's fundraiser is smashingly different. More than a dozen combines are expected to chug onto the field in a demolition derby this Saturday, and retire their harvesting days.

“This is throwing a whole new aspect into our fundraiser,” said event coordinator and volunteer firefighter Tim Zwach.

The pulls attracted good crowds, he said, but the combine demolition derby is something new and unique.

As of Tuesday, 14 combines were slotted for the event. Three are traveling from New Auburn and one from Lakefield. The rest are from the Milroy area.

“They're machines that have performed beyond their useful life as a harvesting outfit,” Zwach said. They are no longer economical machines to use, he said. Farmers have outgrown many of the combines, he said. Combines, now, tend to be larger and more technological.

“However, we do have some rather large entries,” he said.

Zwach expects there will be four or five heats, and either one or two combines will move onto a feature from each heat.

“It started small at first,” he said. “It turned into an all-out war.” Combines won't be tickling each other, they'll be smashing into each other, he said.

There is still room for six more combines.

Zwach came up with the idea for the derby after reading a Star Tribune article about a combine demolition in another small Minnesota town. Around 3,000 spectators showed up for the event, he said.

He's hoping for a similar turnout. However, he's realistic. He'll be satisfied with 1,000, but the more the better.

Combine demolition derbies are unusual. Only a small percentage of people in the area have seen one, Zwach said.

“We don't want them going away feeling like it was a donation. We want them to go away feeling like it was really good entertainment,” he said.

Changing the fundraiser's lineup this year will hopefully do that.

Proceeds from the fundraiser will help pay for the department's garage addition, which will store equipment, a First Responders truck, and hopefully, a new rescue rig.

The additions, new equipment and trucks will improve response time, Zwach said. “The end result will be better fire and rescue for the community.”

Any money they can raise Saturday will be welcomed. But Zwach doesn't have an exact number in mind.

“We didn't really set a goal; we just want to get as much as we can,” he said.

The department only began planning the derby a month ago, which has forced some last minute organizing. However, both Zwach and Labat have done their research.

To make rules for the event, they searched the Internet and learned about other combine demolition derbies. They adopted a number of rules, and threw in “a couple Milroy twists,” Zwach said.

“It's been hectic, but all around, I think it's going to be worth it,” he said. “We anticipate we'll do it again next year.”

“I think it's going to be a good time for everyone who comes to watch,” Labat said.

The fundraiser is located east of the baseball field in Milroy. Admission is $10 for ages 16 and older, $5 for six to 15, and free for children under six. The antique tractor pull starts at 9 a.m., the kids pedal pull at noon, the truck pull at 1:30 p.m. and the combine demolition derby at 5 p.m. Registration ends one hour prior to each event. A concession stand will be on site. Spectators are encouraged to bring lawn chairs.

Prizes for derby winners include $400 for first, $200 for second, $100 for third and $50 for best in show. For more information, call Zwach at (507) 336-2170 or Labat at (507) 532-0420.

Cool temps chill crop prospects

Unseasonably cool August weather has been bad news for area farmers. As of Aug. 23, corn and soybean crops are 335 normal growing degree-days behind, said Bruce Potter, assistant professor for the University of Minnesota's Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton.

“There's no way we're going to make that up,” he said. “The question is how long it is going to stay relatively warm and how soon it is going to freeze.”

Excess moisture in late May and early June, followed by lower-than-normal temperatures in August, have corn and soybean crops lagging.

“I think the bigger concern on corn, other than frost in this part of the world, is the cool weather and development is behind,” he said.

This past weekend, light frost struck scattered parts of Southwest Minnesota, especially in low-lying areas because of humidity and soil moisture. While the region avoided the severe frost damage that hit the northern half of the state, scattered crop damage also occurred, Potter said.

The extent of crop damage is still unknown.

“I'm still trying to get a good handle on where the hardest hit areas are,” Potter said.

In some corn crops, there has been a 10 to 15 percent loss around the outreach center. But in some areas, it's less.

“I don't think the loss is complete devastation (in Redwood County),” he said tongue-in-cheek.

“I just hesitate at this point to give a loss prediction,” he said. He has yet to survey fields in the area. What he needs are satellite photos to give a better assessment, he said.

Agronomist Brian Meier for Cenex Harvest States Co-op said, “It's kind of a field by field situation.”

However, he estimates between 10 and 30 percent damage in soybean fields around the Tracy area. Most of the damage in soybeans has been found in upper leaves, he said.

“Corn is more spotty,” he said. The damage is in low-lying areas of fields.

Fields that have suffered the most are south of Tracy, he said. “Right now, it's kind of a wait-and-see situation,” he said.

Farmers can't afford an early killing frost, Potter said. The only good news he offered is a warm weather forecast for early September. However, he said, late September looks cooler than normal.

So far in August, the mean temperature for eight days during the last two weeks fell below 60 degrees. The coolest day was Aug. 21, when the low was 41 degrees. Only five days have hit 80 degrees or higher.

Hospital planning on target

A key three-hospital financial analysis is targeted for a late September completion, Tracy Area Medical Services board members were told last week.

Rick Nordahl, TAMS chief operating officer, said that the financial “pro-forma” would be completed prior to a Sept. 28 meeting involving TAMS, the Westbrook Healthcare Center, and Murray County Memorial Hospital representatives.

The three sister hospitals—which share staff and are all affiliated with the Sioux Valley Rural Health system—are exploring ways to expand specialty outreach services. The tri-hospital report will examine the market potential for the services. The study is expected to recommend an operating model that allows each of the three sites to have their own specialty areas. For example, one site might have cardiology, another orthopedics and another oncology. Each site would work with its affiliates in referring patients to other sites for services not offered in an individual town.

Nordahl said that the goal is to develop a rock-solid plan.

“We are reviewing some of the original assumptions,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have data that's good and clean.” Nordahl said that some assumptions made in earlier market studies were not correct.

The tri-hospital meeting is scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Shetek Lutheran Ministries. The regular September TAMS board meeting will be held Wednesday, Sept. 29, 7 a.m., at O'Brien Court.

• • •

Last week's TAMS meeting was the first for interim Chief Executive Officer David Hove. Hove, the CEO at the Jackson Medical Center, is assuming responsibilities left by the July resignation of former CEO Dan Reiner.

Hove will spend about two days a week working in Slayton, Westbrook, and Tracy, while continuing his present job in Jackson.

Introduced to board members, Hove said that he had found that Tracy, Westbrook, and Murray County staff members to be good people to work with.

Other highlights of the August 18 TAMS board meeting included:

• Stacy Barstad, TAMS chief financial officer, said that July had been a “very tough month” financially. An $8,000 July loss would have been worse if not for a shift from Medicare reserves and booking some money from a Medicare settlement.

Patient days, outpatient days, and physician visits were all down significantly for the month, she said.

Through the first three months of its 2004-05 fiscal year, Barstad said, combined hospital and clinic operations are showing a $30,783 loss.

Nordahl noted that, based on July expenses, it takes about $560,000 of revenues each month to break even, with some months historically better than others. Combined July revenues were $530,404, while expenses were $562,459.

He said that he expects revenues to increase when a surgeon comes on board in October.

Gerry Gilbertson, regional vice president for Sioux Valley Rural Health, said that health-care demand was “soft” across the region in July, not just in Tracy.

• Angela Anderson, human resources specialist, reviewed a recent employee satisfaction survey. Most indicators improved from the year previous, she indicated. Nordahl called the survey “absolutely wonderful. Very positive.”

• A new radiation center is being developed by Sioux Valley in Worthington, Gilbertson reported. The new center will allow cancer patients to receive radiology treatments in Worthington, rather than Sioux Falls. Chemotherapy treatments will still be offered in Tracy, he noted.

“This is very exciting for the whole region,” Gilbertson said.

The new Worthington center, he said, should make it easier for the Shetek hospital group to recruit an oncologist.

• Progress is being made in a search for a new CEO for the three-hospital group, Gilbertson said.

“We are getting a lot of applications. We are getting people from all over,” he said. Excellent collaborative and communication skills are two of the qualities that are being sought in candidates, Gilbertson said.

• A general discussion of was held of physician recruitment, once a tri-hospital model is decided upon for specialty services. It was agreed that, as much as possible, arrangements should be made to that specialists can practice in their own areas of expertise, and that keeping specialists busy was crucial to their retention.

Claire Hannasch, TAMS board chairman, said that he felt “it is very important to keep our three communities working together” in their long-term planning.

Rare champagne-colored horse has Tracy owners celebrating

By Brady Averill

Asti. An Italian sparkling wine, fruity and light. It's like champagne, but not quite the real thing.

Rosemary Krueger-Martin and Michael Martin used the champagne-like drink's name for one of their 2003 foals. The horse showed true champagne color traits, but the Martins weren't sure.

Break out the bubbly. It was. Asti, their one-year-old stallion, was recently added to the International Champagne Horse Registry, strictly a color registry.

Asti is the first documented champagne roan with the ICHR.

“I think it's an exciting thing,” Rosemary said.

Champagne-colored horses are fairly new, and so far, have only been found in American breeds. The champagne color gene was officially recognized in 1996.

The Martins are among a short list of owners who have a champagne-colored horse. The ICHR documents 248 horses. Most are from the United States, with a handful from other countries. Eight are from Minnesota.

The Martins own four. Two are documented with the ICHR: Asti and his sire, Skipper Deedoc Ivory.

“The big story is here in Tracy, Minn., we have two firsts,” she said.

Producing champagne-colored horses was an accident for the Martins. But a perk nonetheless.

“People are trying to produce this color all over the country, and we produced it by accident,” Rosemary said.

Color has never been their first priority.

“I don't breed for color. I breed for confirmation, usability and character,” she said.

The rare color has yet to catch on in Minnesota, let alone Southwest Minnesota.

“People around here don't know what this is. It's just another horse,” she said.

ICHR President Carolyn Shepard, in an e-mail interview, agrees.

“Most people with champagnes don't know they have them.”

But the Martins do. They purchased Skipper Deedoc Ivory in 2003 after leasing him for breeding their mares. He's the champagne-colored horse producer for the Martins' business, Prairie Pond Acres.

They've been breeding horses since 1995, and now they have something rare to celebrate.

They live on the north end of town on Craig Ave. While they have a barn and a small pen behind their house, many of their horses graze in a 23-acre pasture north of Tracy. Right now, they own 24 horses. That number will drop to half this fall when they sell the 2004 foals.

“Then we'll raise some more gorgeous babies,” Rosemary said.

Asti is on their sale list. However, they won't sell him in a public sale.

“It needs to go somewhere else and do his thing,” Rosemary said.

They'll keep Taina, a one-year-old filly from the same sire as Asti. She'll be used as a breeding mare. The Martins hope she'll produce more champagne offspring.

The Martins said that they aren't in the horse business for the money. They love horses, and it shows. As they try to catch Asti on his playground, Prairie Pond Acres, they can't help but stop to pet and talk with the other horses.

Every horse is special. Whether it's making history with the ICHR, or months away from being sold, the Martins treasure their horses.

But Asti, the champagne roan, is something to brag about.

“I think he's the prettiest one out here,” Jeremiah said.

Some bubbly

The color is toast worthy.

“Champagne only shows up in a few breeds, and then, only in specific pedigree lines,” Shepard said.

She estimates several thousand champagne-colored horses exist in the United States, but that number may be generous, she said.

Internationally, most champagne-colored horses of known pedigree are imported from the United States, she said.

Champagne-colored horses are becoming hot commodities in the horse business like every new trend. However, the color has been around for 150 years. Breeders try to meet the demand.

“There is demand for good champagne Quarter Horses, especially mares, as many people collect them,” she said.

Why are champagne-colored horses only now being recognized?

Shepard blames ignorance. There wasn't enough genetic knowledge, she said.

The champagne color gene appears to be a recent mutation, she said. It's found only in breeds developed in the United States. So far, she and others have only traced the gene back to the American Saddlebred horse in the mid- to late-1800s.

According to the ICHR website, qualifying factors include hair, skin and eye color, and pedigree. The body, mane and tail hair are diluted in color. Skin around the eyes, on the muzzle and under the tail must be pink, with freckles on mature horses. Foals are born with clear skin, and freckles appear later. Eyes are blue at birth, and change to amber later. Pedigree is critical. Determining whether a horse's color is champagne depends on the champagne gene and whether its parents have it.

The champagne gene is dominant, and so follows the rules of heredity, Shepard said.

A DNA test is being worked on to determine whether a horse has the champagne color gene, according to the ICHR website.

'Weaker' gender? No way! Teen girl wins demo dirby

By Brady Averill

Brianna Schroeder is a queen in a man's sport.

Schroeder, 17, was one of three female competitors who participated in the Murray County Fair demolition derby Saturday. She finished first in the intermediate and second in the compact classes.

Demolition derbies have traditionally been a masculine domain, but she is not intimidated,

“I just look at it as if a guy can to it, I can do it,” she said.

Schroeder's car was the last one still running Saturday, making it her first win. She was excited about the victory. So was her dad.

“I don't think I've ever seen my dad so happy in his entire life,” she said.

On Monday afternoon, she was still nursing bruises, scratches and a stiff neck. Her derby collisions landed her in the chiropractor's office. But, she felt that the competition was still worth the temporary pain.

The Slayton event was her second demolition derby. She only competes at the Murray County Fair.

“Slayton plays fair, and that's what I like,” she said.

The Tracy Area High School junior has been interested demolition derbies since she was a young girl. She fondly remembers going to demolition derbies with her dad, who used to drive in the competitions. Last year, she found herself sitting behind the wheel in a demolition car for the first time, slamming into cars herself, instead of watching her dad.

She and her dad build the cars she drives together. They start by stripping the vehicle of most interior parts.

“I owe it all to my dad, otherwise the day would never have gotten done,” she said.

His car expertise helps her derby performances. It takes both driving skill and a well-built car to win demolition derbies, she said.

“It's a mixture of both,” she said.

Schroeder hopes to drive in a demolition derby again, although nothing is planned in the immediate future.

She is the daughter of Dennis and Dawn Schroeder.