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Spicy, vigorous Pierce County leader dies

RIVER FALLS — Paul Barkla, former Pierce County Board chairman for six years, died Saturday at his River Falls home following a bout with cancer. He was 83.

Barkla resigned his board seat in January 2012, three months before his term would have expired. He cited exhaustion and deteriorating health for his inability to continue.

Barkla was first elected in April 2004, according to Pierce County Clerk Jamie Feuerhelm.

Barkla served on and led numerous committees including the powerful Finance & Personnel. He was Pierce County’s representative to the Twin Cities area Metropolitan Council.

“Paul wasn’t afraid to tackle tough issues,” Feuerhelm recalled. “He addressed them with vigor regardless what the situation called for, be it conventional or unconventional methods. I believe he led to the best of his abilities.”

Barkla also served as Pierce County interim administrative coordinator for 3 1/2 years, following the departure of then-administrator Curt Kephart. Barkla gave up that role when current Administrator Jo Ann Miller was hired.

On the County Board, Barkla also represented District 5 for 12 years, which included Wards 8 and 11 in the city of River Falls.

Sometimes controversial, Barkla was unafraid to speak his mind.

Facing budget shortfalls in 2006 just months after he was elected leader, Barkla found himself in the minority — opposing a 15 percent cut to county budgets.

“You ask these departments to cut in haste, then we can repent at leisure,” he warned his peers before being outvoted.

In February 2010, in urging the County Board to support a 2.5 percent wage increase for most county employees, Barkla sparred with conservative member John Kucinski, who opposed the raises on the basis of economic uncertainty.

Barkla chastised Kucinski from the podium, reminding him that his six-figure salary as a state-employed public defense attorney made him a less-than-credible advocate for taxpayer frugality.

Barkla, however, was an unabashed supporter of Pierce County.

Before the start of 2010 Farm Technology Days held at the Roger and Bev Peterson farm in the town of River Falls, Barkla, as Pierce County Board chairman, issued a public invitation to President Obama.

Trying to promote Farm Technology Days, Barkla also called and wrote letters to Congressman Ron Kind, then-U.S. Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, Gov. Jim Doyle and others in high places.

He said he hoped to gain support from others he met while working on Obama’s election campaign in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Oregon.

If Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack couldn’t attend, at least the invitations would make many aware of the Farm Technology Days event, he said.

A native of Oregon, Barkla met his eventual wife, Nancy — an attorney — while the two were working in Washington, D.C., back in 1958.

She was personal secretary to then-U.S. Sen. William Proxmire. The couple married in 1959.

Barkla, a lifelong Democrat, had his photo taken with President Barack Obama and Congressman Ron Kind on July 2 when Obama delivered a speech on the economy at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Barkla also attended Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

Judy Wiff, regional reporter whose work is published in several Rivertown Multimedia newspapers, covered Barkla on the County Board many of his 12 years.

“Paul was gruff and I don’t think I ever saw him smile, but he was very protective of the people he chose as friends,” she said. “A few weeks ago, either he called me or I called him after the Journal received a photo of him with President Obama. Paul said he was in hospice care and was ready for the end. He praised the hospice workers, and after years of poor health, he seemed content.”

Arrangements are pending with the Cremation Society of Minnesota.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Nancy, in 1997. Survivors include the couple’s three children — daughters Ann (Steve) Fedders and Sidney Scott, and son Paul (Heather) — all of western Wisconsin.

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.