Doug Finn proud of long service on Douglas County Board

by Jim Lundstrom

Retiring Douglas County Board Supervisor Doug Finn can see Superior’s old city hall, where he began his career as an elected offi cial 50 years ago, from his living room window. Photo credit Jim Lundstrom.
Retiring Douglas County Board Supervisor Doug Finn can see Superior’s old city hall, where he began his career as an elected official 50 years ago, from his living room window. Photo credit Jim Lundstrom.

Doug Finn refers to himself as “one of the strange people” who is both interested and involved in governmental affairs.  

The Superior native will step down as the 3rd District supervisor on the Douglas County of Board after the April 7 election, and after nearly a lifetime of working to make life better for residents of Douglas County and the city of Superior.  

“I just don’t have the energy I used to have. I don’t think I was as productive as I used to be. It was time to move on, I guess,” Finn told the Reader in a recent interview at his Cumming Avenue home, within sight of the farmer city hall, where he first served as an elected representative of the people when he won election to the Superior City Council.   Finn jokes that he grew up on Baxter Avenue, just a block east of his longtime home on Cumming – “So I haven’t gone far.”  

He was first elected to public office in 1969 when he ran for a seat on the city council.   “The reason why I won, probably, people in the neighborhood knew me. I delivered papers here,” he said.  

But he was also a young man with ideas for the betterment of government and the community it served.   “When I ran for city council the first time, I believed if you care you can make a difference. I still believe that,” he said.  

His major accomplishment on the council was also the end of his career as an elected official of the city.   “When I got elected one of the issues was we hadn’t redistricted for 30 years. It was time to do something,” he said. “I was appointed to that committee and made something out of it. At home, I did my own redistricting plan because nobody wanted to deal with it. We got a group together. We redistricted and reduced the size of the city council from 20 members to 10.”  

But he also eliminated his own seat on the city council in the process, so he decided to run for a seat on the county board.  

“I lost to Bud Somerville, the curler. He’d just won the world championship,” Finn said. (Somerville led his Superior curling team to two world championships, in 1965 and 1974).  

After that loss, Finn stepped away from local politics a few years before running for and being elected to the county board in 1976.   He resigned from the board in 1990 after being appointed to direct the Douglas County Development Association for six years. In 1996 he was again elected to serve on the county board and has been there ever since, for a total of almost 40 years as a supervisor, and much of that as chair of the board, a position he gave up in 2016.  

Finn believes his crowning achievement was helping to bring the Twin Ports Veterans Administration Clinic to Superior.  

“They were going to put a veterans clinic in the Twin Ports and that was all primed for Duluth. I thought that would be a good thing for Superior. We have a good location by the hospital. I thought we could handle that, but it was primed for Duluth,” Finn said. “We got a committee and went to Washington and talked to people. We went to Dave Obey [who served Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional district from 1969 to 2011] and asked if he would give us an opportunity, which he did. He had influence in Congress back then. It just fell into place for us. It was a good location. I think the veterans both in Duluth and Superior feel it is an easy place to get to. With everybody working together – our federal, state and local people – we were able to get that here. I’m still proud of that, and I’m most proud that we all worked together, pulling in the same direction, and that doesn’t always work that way.”  

And that, he said, is unfortunate. He served for years on the board of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and learned from that and other experiences the power of collaboration.  

“I believe real strongly in being involved with these groups,” he said. “The only way to be successful in northwestern Wisconsin is to collaborate. If everyone goes in their own directions, you’re not going to be successful. That’s sort of my nature, to work together. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it together. I’d like to see us continue working together.”  

As his stint with the Development Association showed, Finn was always interested in the area’s economic development.  

“We need to have more jobs here,” he said. “We did a lot of things, but maybe I’m a little disappointed we didn’t do more when it comes to economic development. At least you’ve got to try. That’s always been my position. There are a lot of projects that we looked at. We looked at a bunch of different things. We’ve created jobs here, but it’s a lot of smaller businesses. They don’t hire a huge amount of people, but they do hire people. Our challenges are still to keep as many of our young people as we can. We need to have job opportunities. Is Superior where it should be? I don’t think so. I always say, Duluth is glitz and we’re muscle.”  

Finn also likes to think he ran good meetings, which includes listening to the people who elected him and his colleagues.  

“Most people say I ran decent meetings and gave people an opportunity to speak,” he said. “You’ve got to make people feel they are part of government. That was always one of my goals, to make people feel they are involved in the decision making. You have to try to be fair. You don’t have to agree with people, but try to be fair. I like to think that because the way we handle things, we haven’t had that much controversy. I just hope that continues. I feel that’s important.”  

Current county board chair Mark Liebaert said he has modeled his own career as an elected politician on the integrity Finn has exhibited throughout his career.   “His whole career has inspired me.” Liebaert said. “I’ve been on the board 18 years probably. Doug is very fair, very precise. He listens to both sides. It’s one of the reasons I got on the county board, because I saw how it worked under him and what was going on.”  

Liebaert recalls near the turn of the century when he was involved in opposition to the proposed American Transmission Co. power line through Douglas County, he testified before all manner of municipality entities throughout the region.  

“Douglas County had the finest leadership,” he recalls. ““hat power line was terribly divisive issue and the county board under Doug’s leadership handled it better than anywhere else. I testified in lots of public hearings and in no case were we treated more fairly than we were in Douglas County. And that was Doug Finn. He allowed people to voice their opinions in a manner that they understood. We didn’t have to shout and scream and protest because we knew we would be given a voice and time and consideration for our opinions. There are government bodies around here were you’re not seeing as good rapport. If we have a contentious issue, we discuss it.

We don’t belittle each other and we usually compromise in a way that will be supported by the majority. That’s the legacy of Doug Finn. He’s given that legacy, so I would feel out of line if I didn’t keep honoring that tradition he has inspired.   “I do the best job I can,” Liebaert added, “but when Doug Finn tells me ‘You’re doing a good job,’ that really means something. That’s the kind of guy he has become in my eyes and I think the entire county board.”  

While Finn is proud of his legacy of fairness with the board, he is also credited with introducing some diversity to the board.  

“Someone once told me that I was the first county board chairman to appoint a woman to be in charge of a committee. I’m not sure, but I’ll take the credit. There just wasn’t that many women on the board before. It’s good to have diversity,” he said. “That’s one of my frustrations. People don’t want to get involved anymore. It’s hard to find people to run. There used to be a fair amount of people who used to go to meetings, and that’s changed a lot. You don’t see as many people going. That concerns me.”  

Asked if he has any advice for whomever takes over his county board seat, Finn said Rev. Joel Certa-Werner of Faith United Methodist Church, the only person to show interest in the seat, doesn’t need any advice because he served on the board until 2012 when redistricting consolidated their seats and Certa-Werner didn’t want to run against Finn.  

“But my advice to new people, take a period of time and listen. Just sit down and listen,” he said. “That’s my advice to any county board or city council member. Don’t come in with an agenda right away. Take some time to learn and listen.”