BEMIDJI - Three candidates seeking to be Bemidji's mayor outlined their plans for the city's future during a forum Tuesday evening at City Hall.
Incumbent Mayor Dave Larson, now in his first term, is seeking re-election this fall. Challenging him for the two-year mayoral position is Rita Albrecht, the current Ward 4 city councilor, and newcomer Sachel Josefson, a lifelong Bemidji resident.
The forum, sponsored by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate, was held in advance of the Aug. 14 Primary Election, through which the three mayoral candidates will be pared to two.
Larson, an architect with EAPC, said in his introductory statement that he believes the best way to connect with citizens on local issues is through face-to-face meetings. He now holds monthly open forums at Raphael's Bakery, inviting the public to converse with him on any city issue affecting their lives.
"I believe that as an elected official it is incumbent for me to be available to each and every citizen on any issue that they have and be informed on that issue," he said.
Albrecht, a former city planner who now works with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said she believes Bemidji must partner with others in the community. Her top objectives are improving the city's economy, adding jobs and revitalizing downtown.
"I don't think the city of Bemidji can do a lot of the things that our community wants alone," she said.
Josefson is currently working toward completing his Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota, where he also is an adjunct faculty member. He said he wants to provide a voice for citizens who do not now feel heard.
"I am running for mayor of Bemidji because I want to solve problems," he said.
Josefson said he wants the community to develop a new system of governance.
"I propose a participatory government where the mayor and council relinquish power and give the right to vote to citizens and businesses," he said.
Using new technologies, he proposed allowing citizens and business owners the ability to directly vote on city issues. This could happen in a number of ways, he said, suggesting twice-a-a-year town hall-like meetings at the Sanford Center or giving citizens user-specific passwords and IDs to allow them to cast online votes, similarly to how families now do online banking.
The ultimate goal, he said, would be to create a city that people want to be a part of.
All three candidates agreed that a partnership with Bemidji State University is very important to Bemidji's long-term success.
Larson said current working relations are positive, noting that the university and city often work together on local matters, including the parking situation in the neighborhood around BSU.
"Parking can and will be resolved with a joint venture with (BSU)," he said. "We have responsibilities as well as they, and I firmly believe we will be able to work those out."
Josefson said Bemidji suffers from an identity crisis a bit in that it both wants to be a small town and a large city.
"I think that Bemidji needs to accept that we are a college town," he said.
The city has a population of about 13,000 and 5,500 of them are students, he noted.
"As being a college town, we need to work very close with them to solve problems, like the parking," he said.
Albrecht, a second-generation BSU graduate who serves on the BSU alumni board, said she believes the university is an economic engine for the community.
As a former student and employee, Albrecht said she has numerous connections with BSU contacts.
"I think it's a win-win to be partnered with Bemidji State University," she said, noting that the city already has a vested interest as BSU hockey is the anchor tenant of the city's Sanford Center.
Albrecht, in answering a question about renewable energy, said she was one of only two councilors who supported a failed effort to have solar panels installed outside of the Sanford Center.
"I was disappointed we weren't able to do that project there," she said.
Albrecht said the council has before publicly stated its support of sustainable efforts, but the city must take action.
"It's not just talking the talk," she said. "You have to walk the walk. The city council really needs to step up."
Josefson said he was disappointed the solar panels were not installed outside of the Sanford Center.
"I think the Sanford Center had a great opportunity to put those solar panels on the side of the building and they blew it," he said.
Such an action would have sent a message that Bemidji is a "green" community, he said. Josefson also advocated for having curbside recycling offered in addition to city refuse services.
Larson said he did not support the solar panels outside of the Sanford Center, citing legal issues and the prediction of a negative return on investment.
"At best, it would have been a display of technical knowledge perhaps," he said.
Larson did, however, support the idea of including solar panels into a potential new design if the Headwaters Science Center relocates to a new site.
"In my opinion that would be a perfect place for both the wind and solar because then it would be a demonstration," he said. "It would not be an economic issue. I would support that."