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Mayoral candidates make their pitch

Five candidates hoping to be the next mayor of Bemidji voiced their opinions on city issues Thursday night in a candidate forum at Bemidji City Hall.

The five candidates are competing in Tuesday's Primary Election for two spots of the Nov. General Election ballot.

The mayoral candidates took part in a 90-minute forum hosted by Citizens for an Informed Electorate, a group that organized in 2008.

The candidates

Bemidji is guaranteed to have a new mayor in 2011 as current Mayor Richard Lehmann is not seeking re-election. Instead, Lehmann is running as a Republic candidate for the state House 4A seat now held by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

Five men are seeking the mayoral seat. Candidates include current Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson and residents Dave Lalone, Dave Larson, Laverne "Pedie" Pederson, and Adam Steele.

They each were given three minutes for an opening statement.

- Pederson first explained, "When I was born, the umbilical cord got wrapped around my neck. When that happened, my airway was plugged so I could not breathe for 11 minutes." The part of his brain that controls motor skills was damaged. "That is why I have cerebral palsy." He is inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt, who had polio, who once said, "The only thing to fear is fear itself." Pederson said Roosevelt's quote is important because "he couldn't walk because of polio and he never gave up; he kept on going." He said he is running for mayor because he believes the city needs a change in how it is run. "One of the things that I will promise is I will speak for you on the City Council, and if you someone to talk to, I will be there for you to listen to your concerns."

- Steele said his goal is to the "do less than any recent mayor Bemidji has had." He was referencing his desire to not tear down historic buildings (such as the old Bemidji High School), not for annexation on Bemidji and Northern township residents, not regulate dog and cat ownership and not accept per diem compensation. He said he would be against "exorbitant" fees for residents and businesses. He also vowed to not allow any operation costs needed at the Bemidji Regional Event Center to become a tax burden on city residents. "That's not going to happen on my watch."

- Larson said he has been a Bemidji resident for 3.5 years and is a native Minnesotan from the Alexandria area. He said he has attended about 80 percent of all council meeting since he moved to Bemidji, and he wants to be mayor so he can "make a difference." He is an architect with EAPC, serves on the board of directors of the Downtown Development Authority and is vice president of the South Shore Design Review Committee. As a business owner, he said he has worked with budgets and personnel issues. "I do believe I can bring to the office of mayor those skills and apply them to issues the city is going to encounter in the future."

- Johnson is now serving his third term as the Ward 3 representative on the Bemidji City Council. He was born and raised in Bemidji and graduated from both Bemidji High School and Bemidji State University, where he also taught as an adjunct faculty member. He has been employed by Lake Public Television for 31 years as the design promotion manager. He represents Bemidji on many boards, including the statewide Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority, a telecommunications taskforce with the statewide League of Minnesota Cities and served for two terms on a telecommunications steering committee for the National League of Cities.

- Lalone said he has been in Bemidji for 30 years, having first come to town as a newborn to visit his grandfather in 1954. "We have gone from a small, rural community to a community that I would like to term as becoming metro-ized," he said, citing concerns with fast traffic in town and fewer pedestrian areas. As a cyclist, he said he also is concerned about bicyclist safety. Lalone is a contractor, who has maintained a teaching license as well. He said he would like to address the issues that affect the people of Bemidji, including what he described as "smog" during the winter months due to idling vehicles.

The questions

Candidates were given 10 questions, to which they each had one minute to answer.

- The first was about the candidates' vision for Bemidji.

Steele was first, who said he believes the city does need to grow, but that it needs to grow while having in place the infrastructure - such as efficient and productive sewer and water services - that would entice people to want to move here, to want to start or relocate businesses here.

Larson said he wants Bemidji to be a regional center for culture and economics - and said the BREC would be an opportunity to move in that direction. He also said he would like the city to be a friendlier place where neighbors know one another and residents go the parks to enjoy the amenities available to them.

Johnson noted that from 1990 to 2000 the city grew less than 4 percent while the townships grew more than 400 percent. The area was growing while the city wasn't, he said. "I have a vision for the city growing its tax base and being able to offer the amenities that the entire region needs."

Lalone said he would like the city to take hold of its financial situation. "We have an albatross basically staring at us on the south shore of Lake Bemidji," he said, referencing the BREC. He said the city needs to find a way to make that facility work.

Pederson said he would like the city to address the debt associated with the BREC. Because whether someone was against the project or not, the facility is here and the city has to find a way to make it work. he voiced support for economic development in the south shore through hotels and other commercial development.

- The second question was about the BREC specifically and what the candidates would support if the facility does become a tax burden.

Larson said he has never felt that will happen. He encouraged individuals get involved and help make the facility successful.

Johnson noted that the city did four marketing studies which all supported the BREC. He also noted that while the BREC is expected to generate $100,000 to $200,000 in operation expenditures, it would also have an $11 million to $14 million impact.

Lalone said he had mixed feelings about the BREC, but stated that "hockey will not pay for all of the things and all of the costs need to operate it." He said he hopes local arts and education groups will use the building for conferences to help make it financially stronger for the city.

Pederson said he has always said that if it was to be built, it needs to be used for more than just hockey. "I do believe it will work, but we have to go out and promote Bemidji," he said,

Steele said the BREC was never projected to make money and could generate a loss up to $500,000 a year. He suggested going to a retailer, such as Walmart, and finding out what they would pay to buy the building. He also said the city should not have relied on out-of-town consultants to tell Bemidjians what to do in their town.

- They also were asked about the qualities that would make them good mayors and the weaknesses they would need to overcome.

Johnson said serving on committees statewide gives him perspective on how the city is doing. He noted that the city's sales tax last year was up 3-4 percent while statewide they are down in double digits. "Bemidji's doing something right," he said. "We're building things at a time that is right."

Lalone said he, conversely, is not a member of such groups. "I don't have any backs to scratch," he said. "I don't have any committees I belong to. I don't have any other associations that I need to make feel good about my decision." Rather, he said, he would take input from all residents and try to use his best judgment.

Pederson said he would speak for the citizens as mayor and would make sure to gather input from the community prior to making a decision.

Steele said that he is a taxpayer and as an accountant, he knows how to manage a budget. "We need to kind of run the city on a common-sense approach, like you and I run our households."

Larson said as a business owner, he has worked with budgets and personnel issues. He said he has no agenda and wants to listen to the people. "I care about people more than I do anything else," he said. "I care about their concerns, their heartaches, their joys, and I want to represent them."

- Inevitably, the candidates were also asked about how they would respond to further loss of Local Government Aid dollars and how they would cut the city's budget.

Pederson said he would not cut public safety and that if cuts were necessary, he would work to find the ones that would have the least impact on city services.

Steele, however, applauded the recent cuts in LGA, "I don't see the loss of LGA as a problem. In fact, I was very supportive of the LGA cuts." He said such funds, which come from the state, "tend to fund pet projects that residents don't necessarily support and often oppose." He said he would look at cuts to the city's administrative staff and would like to increase revenue at the liquor stores.

Larson said if cuts were necessary, he would have to look at cutting services, staff and salaries, but that he would like to spare essential services such as public safety and streets and water. "I would still guarantee same-day service on your first fire," he joked.

Johnson responded to Steele's comments, saying it is "alarming" to have a Bemidji mayoral candidate be in favor of LGA cuts. He said 45 percent of the city's revenue comes from LGA. And 47 percent of the general fund goes to police and fire protection. Further LGA cuts "would be a major blow to the city," he said.

Lalone said cuts are never fun, but that the city needs to become self-sufficient. "By spending more are you actually getting more or are you actually getting less or are you getting dependent on those that are feeding that?"

Other questions focused on how they would work to bring living-wage jobs to the community, whether they had read the City Charter, what the city's role should be in active living initiatives and what they would do with a budget surplus and how they defined essential services.

Closing statements

Lalone said he was running for mayor in an effort to take the politics out of the position. Lalone said he is nonpolitical and bipartisan: "The mayor position is probably the least political position ... and it has become a very political position."

Johnson said he is proud of what the City Council has accomplished during his tenure as a councilor. He said he would like to continue working on the big issues facing the city, including south shore redevelopment, parks and trails, downtown development, the Quality neighborhood Initiative, economic development, the BREC, airport expansion and annexation.

Larson said Bemidji has become a great city due to its geographic location, natural beauty and enterprising spirit. "But I don't believe we can rise to the next level of greatness on those attributes. We going to have to be a cultural, professional, academic, economic center of northwest Minnesota but we won't be able to do it on the natural amenities alone." He said the city needs diverse leadership and believes he has the experience and values to help propel the city forward.

Steele said he does not agree with Johnson in that the city is destined to become an even-bigger city. "We didn't move here to be in a big city and the people who come here, the tourists, come here to get away from the big city," he said. Rather, he said, he sees Bemidji in the future as a peaceful, well-managed northern Minnesota community.

Pederson said he moved to Bemidji I 1981 and reinforced his desire to speak with and represent the citizens of Bemidji. "If I become mayor, I hope I will speak for you, be there for you."