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Harris reflects on his years on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners

Dakota County commissioner Joe Harris has seen plenty of changes in the communities he's served over the 30-plus years he's held the District 1 seat.

But that all comes to an end next week, as Harris has officially retired from the Dakota County Board of Commissioners. He'll be replaced in 2013 by incoming commissioner Mike Slavik.

For now, though, Harris is glad to talk about his years on the county board, and some of the changes he's seen along the way. He was first elected to the District 1 seat in 1980, and took office in 1981. At the time, Farmington was not part of his district, but Rosemount was. The 1980 census changed that, though, as lines were redrawn thanks to redistricting.

In those days, Farmington's population was somewhere around 4,300. But that's when the community started to grow, too, with new housing developments coming in on the west side.

"Pilot Knob as we know it wasn't there," Harris said. "Akin Road was Pilot Knob Road."

But over time, that changed. In the mid- to late-1990s, one of the biggest county/city projects on the books was the realignment and construction of Pilot Knob Road, which is also County Road 31.

Over the years, Harris played an instrumental role in helping the city of Farmington construct, or in some cases reconstruct, many of the county roads that go through the community. The reconstruction of Ash Street is one of the projects that sticks in his mind.

"We spent 20 years negotiating with residents on that one," Harris said. "It was a big project. How to pay for it, all the infrastructure.... We had to make it financially feasible for them to do it. That was a major project. I was happy to be a part of the solution over there."

There were issues outside of Farmington that took up much of his time over the years, as well. Remember the days when the Metropolitan Airports Commission thought a certain site in Dakota County would be perfect for a new airport? Harris remembers that all too well.

The proposed site was right smack in the middle of District 1. It would have meant all but razing Vermillion, and it would have affected residents in Empire Township, Castle Rock, and even Farmington, with the increased traffic that would have been generated in the area. Harris worked long and hard to make sure that didn't happen.

"That took six years out of my life," he said. "From 1989 to 1996, that definitely kept me hopping. Late nights at the capital, trying to stop it legislatively. Eventually we got it done."

Also during the mid-1990s, Harris helped to get Farmington accepted as part of the Dakota County Library system, particularly when the city's library plan had fallen short of funds. At the time, the community's size did not warrant a library in Farmington, but Harris helped local officials bring the community's library into the county system.

There were other challenges along the way. During the 1980s, waste disposal was a hot topic in the area. The Metropolitan Council wanted a site for sludge ash disposal. Twenty or 30 sites were identified, several of which were in Farmington and the neighboring townships. There, too, Harris was called on to look out for the best interests of the residents in his district.

"Waste energy, recycling fights. We had a lot of things like that going on. Waste was a big issue because all of these sites would have been located in my district," he said.

If there were any good to come from all of those early challenges, it was that Harris was out, meeting the people in District 1. Hastings and Farmington are the two larger communities in his district, but it also covers many townships. It remains the most agricultural area of Dakota County, which makes the challenges of District 1 quite different from any his colleagues on the county board face.

"It's a very big district. It's very diverse. It will keep your running all the time," Harris said.

Harris says he has enjoyed serving Farmington and the surrounding townships. He'll still be around town once in a while. He's got three grandchildren in school over here, and he's finding his way to many of their activities these days.

Mike Slavik will be sworn in at the Dakota County Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 8. As Harris and Slavik are both from Hastings, the two have had several opportunities to talk about the issues and dynamics of District 1. Harris is quite sure his successor will do just fine.

"Mike has visited each and every small city and township. I think he's going to carry out my long tradition of making sure rural areas are well represented. I'm sure he will," Harris said.

Though he is retiring from his Dakota County commissioner post, Harris is not retiring from his job in the insurance industry.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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