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City Council candidates state their case

The six candidates seeking three seats on the Bemidji City Council outlined their campaigns Tuesday night in a League of Women's Voters debate at Bemidji City Hall.

Included were those running for the at-large council seat, Linda Lemmer and Jim Thompson; the two seeking the Ward 2 seat, incumbent Roger Hellquist and challenger Richard "Dick" Sathers; and the two seeking the Ward 4 seat, Rita Albrecht and incumbent Jerry Downs.

The races were separated at the council table, but all the candidates answered the same two questions. They also gave opening and closing remarks.

The debate was moderated by Roy Blackwood.

Lemmer, a lifelong Bemidji resident, said she wants to join the council so residents have a councilor who will listen to them.

"I want to represent the whole city," she said. "I want to have fairness and equity."

Thompson, a retired doctor, said he loves the city and the whole area. He has been an area resident since 1937, except for 13 years when he left for medical training.

"This gave me an opportunity to come back here and work be able to (make a living)," he said.

Hellquist now is finishing his second term as the Ward 2 councilor. Prior to that, he had 10 years of experience on the city's planning commission. He said he tries to be pragmatic about governmental decisions.

"I always try to balance before I cast my vote," he said.

Sathers retired as Bemidji fire chief 10 months ago. As a former department head, he said he understand the city's budget and financial restraints.

"I certainly am a supporter of public safety," he said.

Albrecht also is a former staffer having been both the assistant city planner and community development director. She also is a former business owner and substitute teacher.

"That background, I think, gives me a little bit of a leg up," she said.

Downs, also a lifelong resident, is an insurance agent and business owner. He has been on the council for nine years and was a volunteer fireman for 20 years. He said he has seen Bemidji grow from having about three stoplights to about 30.

The first question was: How did the recent meeting on the Quality neighborhood Initiative study go?

The QNI study, approved by the Bemidji City Council, is examining the city's neighborhoods and identifying ways to preserve and improve neighborhoods.

Thompson said he had to leave early from last week's meeting, but acknowledged there was a problem. In his neighborhood, he said, there are more rentals than owner-occupied residences.

Hellquist, who helped initiate the project, said he was very pleased to see the 80-some people attend the meeting, since it proved people were interested. Also, attendees represented a great cross-section of the community. He said Bonestroo, the firm leading the study, did an excellent job.

Sathers said he, too, was pleased with the community interest and involvement. He said one idea was to inspect rental properties more often than once every three years.

Albrecht said the meeting went well, but she is interested in seeing what the problem or solution will be. She said she supported more opportunities for people to voice their opinions in such forums.

Downs said public safety is a concern for many, as the city already is down two police officers. With the drive-by shooting in Nymore, he said, people want laws and ordinances enforced.

"Crime is an issue that we have," he said. "Citywide."

Lemmer said she was impressed with the meeting, especially since the range of people there all came up with, generally, the same top issues. One of the problems, she said, is the lack of communication and education with landlords and renters.

The second question was: If you could accomplish two things as a councilor, what would they be?

Hellquist said he would like the city to continue with a solid budget process. He also said the city needs to pursue annexation. While admitting it will cost more in the short run, he said the city will benefit in the long run.

Sathers said jobs and economic growth are important. With the added hotels and businesses coming into town, he said, they will provide jobs - maybe not high-paying jobs all of the time, but jobs nonetheless.

Albrecht said the city needs to sell the land in the south shore and develop a marketing plan with other partners, such as Beltrami County and the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, to set a plan for economic development.

Downs said that with the uncertainty surrounding the Joint Economic Development Commission, the city needs to work with others to figure out how to create living-wage jobs. The other issue, he said, is selling the land in the south shore.

Lemmer said the city needs to pay off its debt. Also, she said she believes everyone needs to be treated the same, with dignity and respect.

Thompson said the city needs to develop the south shore and increase its tax base through that development. Also, he said, he supports a clean Lake Bemidji that would have sewer extended all the way around the lake.

Sathers said he wants to support the Bemidji Regional Event Center as much as he can and wants to avoid cuts to public safety.

Albrecht said she does not feel like an underdog and believes she could improve the operations of the city.

Downs said the council has many good things going, including parkland dedication, green space, and joint annexation plans. He said he wants to continue working for his constituents.

Lemmer said Bemidji is unique with cultural diversity and being a regional center. She said she wants to represent the whole city and wants to emphasize the positives about the community.

Thompson said he would like to make it possible for business owners who live outside of town to be able to vote in city elections and to see a band shell for outside summertime entertainment.

Hellquist said he believes his experience make his a good candidate to continue representing Ward 3. He said he does not spend money he does not have and tries to be pragmatic in his decision-making.