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Intentions on the bench
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After presiding over his first session of Borderland’s Substance Abuse Court in Lake of the Woods earlier this year, the first call Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District Judge Jerrod Shermoen made was to his predecessor.

While heading east back to International Falls, Shermoen called former Judge Charles LeDuc to assure him the program LeDuc helped pioneer, is in good hands.

“It’s absolutely the best part of this job,” the newly-appointed judge said of the drug court program. “It’s the best experience of my life in or out of the practice of law.”

Shermoen, an International Falls native, in December was sworn in as judge of Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District, after the October appointment by Gov. Tim Walz. Shermoen fills the vacancy left with the retirement in August of Leduc. The seat is chambered in International Falls.

Discussion of Borderland’s Substance Abuse Court, which includes Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties, came up when Shermoen sat down with The Journal in February to talk about the new role and goals he has as he navigates through the position.

“This program is just very powerful and very meaningful,” Shermoen said. “The way I describe it to people... We’re building people up instead of tearing them down... It’s very rewarding.”

Helping to create better communities and the lives of those who live in them, fall in line with Shermoen’s intentions on the bench. He said he views good communication as an important piece for everyone working in the legal system.

“At the end of the day... we all are aiming for the same thing, we want to make people’s lives better,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how people end up in front of us in the system, that’s the goal. I feel sometimes we’re butting heads against each other — which there are times and places that absolutely needs to happen — but there are also times I think we can all put our heads together and try to work together to find solutions instead of creating barriers.”

Becoming a judge

Prior to the appointment as judge, Shermoen served as an attorney and president at ShermoenJaksa Law, PLLC. Previously, he was a managing partner at Shermoen & Jaksa PLLP, and a partner at Shermoen, LeDuc & Jaksa, PLLP.

When asked if becoming a judge was the ultimate career goal, Shermoen admitted it wasn’t at first.

“I would say really over the last 10 years in my practice I started thinking more about (being a judge),” he said.

After spending a significant amount of time in front of different judges all over the state, Shermoen realized the opportunities the role carries.

“I started feeling like I could do more good work if I became a judge,” he said. “I started moving in that direction.”

In 2018, a position for a judge in Grand Rapids narrowed the field to a short list of finalists, including Shermoen. Ultimately, he wasn’t selected for the position, but it solidified his decision to steer his career in that direction.

“I knew at that point I was most likely going to apply when Judge LeDuc retired,” he said. “It was a very worthwhile process and I’m glad I went through it. It helped me this time around.”

Pandemic adjustments

Any new job carries a learning curve, but working around a worldwide pandemic is a completely different obstacle.

Shermoen said the pandemic has brought challenges, as well as new opportunities, all while creating quite a bit of work on the horizon.

When it comes to technology, the judge said it has drawbacks in certain areas, but still offers advantages.

“Technology has opened up more access for more people in the courts,” he said. “Video hearings are certainly going to be part of the court system going forward.”

And while it allows more access to the court room, video hearings still eliminate the face-to-face connection. Listening to testimonies on a screen has a different feel than if the person was in the same room, looking others in the eye, Shermoen said.

Still, those working in the system do what they can with the situation.

“Does it work? Are we making it work in the system? Yes, we are. Do I like it? Not necessarily. That’s a challenge with the pandemic,” he said.

Another point on the list of challenges? Delays. Trials are expected to restart next week, but have been on hold for several months, creating an expected back log.

“That’s the big question mark: how are we going to work that through the system once we get the green light to start having (trials) again?,” Shermoen said. “There could be many months at a time that trials go back-to-back-to-back. I’m certainly cognizant of that and staff is trying to plan the best they can.”

Ready to work

As Shermoen discussed his new job, he couldn’t help but glance out the second floor window of the Koochiching County courthouse, overlooking the Sixth Avenue building his practice was once in.

“My old firm is shut down, which I have mixed feelings about,” he said of the firm his father, Jerry Shermoen, started in the late 1960s. Jerry Shermoen died in 2019.

Thinking of his father, Shermoen said he is confident Jerry would be proud.

“In 2018, he was very proud I was a finalist for the judge position in Grand Rapids,” Shermoen said. “I know he’d be proud and I know he’d say not to feel bad about the firm.”

Knowing he will continue to serve his hometown and surrounding area is important to Shermoen and he vows to do the job justice.

“I take this serious and I will work hard,” he said. “Nobody is going to out-work me. I take the role and the responsibility very seriously. We all make mistakes, but I’m going to do the best job I can and make as few of them as possible.”

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Airport awarded more than $1 million: Money to help operate, sanitize
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The Falls International Airport will receive more than $1 million for costs related to operations, personnel, cleaning and sanitizing.

The money, announced Monday by 8th District Congressman Pete Stauber, has been made available through the Coronavirus Relief and Response Supplemental Act, which Stauber supported in December.

Falls International Airport will receive $1,006,028, and is among four northern Minnesota airports to receive more than $1 million: Bemidji Regional will receive $1.01 million, Duluth International will receive $1.6 million, and Range Regional will receive $1,006,214.

Stauber said the lack of passenger traffic and flights has drastically affected local airports.

“Since the COVID crisis first began, airports across the nation have seen a steep drop in travel and subsequently, a massive loss in revenue” Stauber said in a statement. “This funding will help maintain a clean and safe environment for airport employees and travelers, helping to spur continued economic recovery. It is a pleasure to help return federal funds to airports in my district, and I look forward to delivering more relief in the months to come.”

Kyra Hasbargen, administrative secretary of the International Falls-Koochiching County Airport Commission, said the money can be used for costs related to operations, personnel, cleaning, sanitizing, janitorial services, combating the spread of pathogens at the airport, and debt service payments.

“The unknown and potentially unfortunate part will be with the timeline of when funds have to be used by,” she said. “Our operation costs are nowhere near that amount and if we are only given a couple years to spend it, we may not be able to do so.”

The commission heard that enplanements, the number of passengers going out, in January 2021 was 322 compared to 1,146 in January 2020.

Meanwhile, members of the commission were pleased with the award. The airport is jointly owned by Koochiching County and the city of International Falls, and managed by Thor Einarson, who told commission members Friday.

Walt Buller, who represents the city, called the award awesome. The response to Einarson’s email by county Commissioner Terry Murray was “Grrrrrrrrrrreat news.”

Also pandemic related: The airport will soon have few souvenirs to offer when flying from INL, the unique three-letter code used to identify Falls International Airport.

The airport received roughly 5,000 white masks at the beginning of the pandemic, most of which have been sitting in storage as there were not many people flying, said Hasbargen.

The commission agreed to use them as a marketing piece, and a souvenir when flying from INL, and the masks are currently being printed and will be available by month end for passengers, she said.

Stauber is serving his second term as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. The money was awarded by the the Federal Aviation Administration.


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Council marks Anderson's last meeting
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Prior to his last meeting, International Falls city councilors and others gathered Monday afternoon for a reception recognizing the seven years Ken Anderson served has served as city administrator.

Monday's meeting marked his last and was among his last work days, as he officially retires from the position April 3.

Later, during the meeting Mayor Harley Droba presented Anderson with a certificate of appreciation, recognizing his outstanding public service to the citizens and the city.

Anderson thanked the council and staff for making his seven years in the job and in the community enjoyable.

"I hope we made difference in the community," he said. "I am excited for the community and the process moving forward. I wish everybody the best."

City Attorney Steve Shermoen said Anderson had been a phenomenal help to him in handling blight and other issues in the city.

"The city is a much better place because of his help and assistance," Shermoen said. "I will miss you greatly and wish you the best in your future endeavors."

In related business, the council agreed to seek proposals from firms for assistance in the search for an administrator candidate.

Councilors said they would discuss in committee any changes to the position and what they feel is important in the successful candidate.

Councilor Leon Ditsch urged the council to keep moving forward promptly with the candidate search, warning them not to drag their feet.

Meanwhile, the council agreed to pay Deputy City Administrator Betty Bergstrom the salary of the administrator while she serves in that capacity until a new city administrator is hired.

Blight help

Audience member Casey Maruk offered his help in the city's fight on blight, noting he has resources and connections.

"Anyone in the community who has something in their yard - wood, bricks, tires, computers - I will haul away for free," he said, later noting an issue with a license.

The council encouraged city property owners to connect directly with him for help.

Maruk said he's lived here for 21 years and blight issues have been ongoing.

Councilors said they appreciated Maruk's help to correct blight issues, with Droba suggesting the city's Fire Marshal Jared Baldwin could serve as a connection between Maruk and residents.

Maruk said he would kick-off his assistance with a free car wash March 28 at Koerter's Fuel, 1601 Second Ave. 

In related business, the council approved an order for corrective action at what's been deemed a hazardous house at 1717 First Ave. West. Carrying out the order is at the discretion of staff.

During reports, Shermoen told the council the fire marshal position is "making my life easier moving forward and helping us clean up the city more quickly."

He congratulated the city on the decision to create the job, and said that Baldwin is handling details that other positions cannot.

Ditsch cautioned the council on managing too closely the fire marshal position, adding that the position reports to a supervisor for direction.

The council also Monday approved a 1-year labor agreement with Local 49, representing Public Works Department employees and two clerical staff in the Administration Office.

The agreement calls for a 2.5-percent increase in 2021, with adjustments to two staff for pay equity compliance. Councilor Mike Holden said once details are known on the amount of local government aid the city expects from the state and the pandemic has begun to quiet, negotiators will return to 3-year labor agreements as in the past.

In other business Monday, the council:

  • Approved agreements with Northland Securities Inc. for financial planning on the tax abatement request for a proposed Cobblestone Hotel, Highway 53.
  • Approved a license application from Espresso Lane, LLC doing business as The Library. Droba, who owns the businesses, abstained.
  • Heard from Councilor Joe Krause that the local housing collaborative is compiling a list of buildable, shovel-ready vacant lots with utilities that can be sold for housing. Baldwin said he is working to list vacant houses and storage containers in the city. Krause noted that the region had a 69.8 percent self response rate in the U.S. Census, leading the nation.
  • Reappoint to the cemetery board Krause and Councilor Walt Buller for one-year terms.

Ken Anderson