GAYS MILLS - Elections! Elections! There’s plenty of news about the upcoming election scheduled for Tuesday, April 7.
However, what may be getting lost in the shuffle are the local elections. In the Village of Gays Mills that means three open seats on the village board and four candidates on the ballot.
All three current village trustees, whose terms are up, filed the necessary papers for re-election–that includes Albert Zegiel, Lee Ruegg and Aaron Fortney. Additionally, village resident Seamus Murray also filed papers to be on the ballot.
So, we interviewed the four candidates and found out a little about them for you.
Albert Zegiel has served on the village board for 13 years. He started by replacing village trustee Mike Heisz, who resigned from the board due to health reasons.
Zegiel, 63, resides at 223 Main Street in Gays Mills. The storefront below the residence is home to his bakery business. Albert was married to Brenda Zegiel until very recently, when she passed away. The Zegiels have four adult children.
Zegiel grew up in Missoula, Montana, where he graduated from Sentinel High School. He attended Dunwoody Technical Institute, where he received an associate’s degree in baking.
Growing up, Albert worked baking with his father in Montana and later in Illinois, which is where he met Brenda.
Zegiel served in the United States Army as cook from 1973 to 1975.
Albert and Brenda bought the building where he now resides and operated a diner or bakery at the location since 1989. In its current form, the Farm Pride Bakery is concentrated on selling at farmers markets.
When it comes to the Village of Gays Mills, Albert believes one of the biggest issues is struggling to keep the budget balanced with the changes in state and federal funding and requirements.
The challenge presented now by the corona virus occurs among the ongoing state and federal challenges.
Zegiel is concerned with how the village will handle the challenges. And believes it must be more prepared physically and mentally for what lies ahead.
“We should have been talking about this earlier and we haven’t,” Zegiel said. “Now is the time. We can’t turn our heads away anymore. We have to develop a preparedness mindset. We need to be prepared financially, physically and as a community.”
Decidedly younger than the rest of the candidates in this race, Seamus Murray has decided to run for the Gays Mills Village Board.
Seamus, 24, lives at 707 Mulberry Street in Gays Mills with his wife Christine and two children.
Murray graduated from Aquinas High School in LaCrosse in 2014. He also attended UW-Platteville where he received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business in 2018.
Murray is currently in sales at Scot Industries in Muscoda. From 2014 to 2018, he served as the equipment, maintenance and operations manager for Star Valley Flowers.
Murray has served on the Gays Mills Volunteer Fire Department as firefighter for the past five years. He has also volunteered to help during several floods in the village.
Seamus Murray decided this spring it was time to run for the board. His father Kevin Murray currently serves on the board.
“I have spent my entire life in the small village of Gays Mills and I have a vested interest in what happens here,” Murray said. “I want best for what’s to come for my little village.”
Murray sees the sewer plant as one the biggest issues facing the village. He notes that whatever is done, it will be incredibly expensive. He explained that whether Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove combined to build a plant or not, the way forward will have lasting effects on the village.
"I want to help the village remain viable without going bankrupt,” Murray said.
Aaron Fortney has served on the Gays Mils Village Board and North Crawford School Board since 2008.
Fortney, 50, lives at 16703 State Highway 131 with his wife Nicole. The couple have two adult children.
Aaron is a member of the Gays Mills Volunteer Fire Department, where he serves as secretary.
Aaron attended one year of college in Minnesota. He returned to farm with his father Ron Fortney. Aaron has also worked as carpenter and along the way worked for several local contractors, including Hansen Building, Swiggum Construction and Scott Puckett.
Most recently he was employed as laborer at Sunrise Orchard and was also a United States Postal Rural Delivery Carrier. Both careers were put on hold, when he was involved a bad vehicle accident on February 12, 2019.
When asked why he was running, Fortney chuckled and noted that four years ago he had decided not to run, but was still voted onto the board. He pointed out that he even got more votes than some of the people who had their names on the ballot.
“Well, I had a question of whether to do it or not,” Fortney said of the current election. “There’s still a lot of the stuff that needs to be handled. I want to make sure the town survives. I want to keep it fully functioning for the residents.”
The long-serving village trustee said a big issue for the village is the deteriorating condition of the streets. He believes there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Fortney also sees solving the sewer plant situation as a priority and believes combining with Soldiers Grove could be a good option.
While Aaron would like to see the streets fixed a little more and the village working like a well-oiled machine, he realizes the floods have taxed every aspect of the village making things very difficult.
Lee Ruegg has served on the board for two years–filling out a vacancy for someone who resigned.
Ruegg, 65, lives at 228 S. Gays Street. Her life partner David George passed away in 2017.
Ruegg graduated from Logan High School and attended Western Wisconsin Technical College, where she received two associate degrees. One degree is in computer information-microcomputers and the other degree is for computer analysis-programming.
Ruegg also received a business management degree in 2005 from the University of Phoenix.
Lee has worked as a store clerk at the Marketplace in Gays Mills for almost five years. Prior to her current job, she worked at S&S Cycles in Viola for about three years and before that she worked for NCR in Viroqua for three years. Ruegg also worked for Rayovac in Fennimore for 14 years.
Lee Ruegg was an original Region 8 Representative in ABATE, a motorcycle rights advocacy group.
As for her work on the Gays Mills Village Board, she seems to clearly know what motivates her.
“I became committed to my community,” Lee explained. “Gays Mills is a struggling community that needs lots of help. It needs good people to represent the community.”
As for the bigger issues facing the village, she’s also pretty clear.
“We have a lot of challenges facing us,” Ruegg noted. “Keeping the village solvent is the first thing and keeping it going forward and moving ahead.”
Like others, Ruegg realizes the sewer issue is a huge for the village.
”It’s very challenging proposition," Ruegg said of replacing the sewer plant. “We're going to try to organize with Soldiers Grove, but that will be a challenge in itself.”
Trying to get the mosquito problem under control is another priority for Ruegg.
“We need to keep growing instead of stagnating because of the flooding,” Ruegg said in a stark assessment of the village’s situation. “Look Gays Mills on the whole has faced a whole lot and come through. We’re headed n the right direction.”
The community has some bright spots, according to Ruegg. She cited the work with the village trees of forester Cindy Kohles and others.
“Look the community as whole comes together at times of trouble,” Ruegg said. “We need to be thankful for that. We’re a strong community and moving forward we have a bright future.”One of those four candidates will not be elected, but it seems Ruegg may be right–the village might well have a bright future if the people running for village trustee this election are any indication.