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Bemidji City Council: Last meeting for three councilors

Three Bemidji city councilors are poised to oversee their final meeting Monday evening.

Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Jerry Downs and Barb Meuers will vacate their positions on the Bemidji City Council following this week's regularly scheduled meeting.

An open house and reception is planned at 6 p.m. at City Hall in honor of Downs, Lehmann and Meuers. The open house will last about an hour, up until the meeting at 7 p.m.

Lehmann became a city councilor in 1995 and became mayor in 2001. Downs joins the council later that year after winning the special election to fill Lehmann's former seat. Meuers was elected in 2002.

All three said they decided to pursue a council position in hopes of giving back to their community.

"The big part of it was I love the city of Bemidji," Lehmann said.

Meuers said she, too, loves the city and wanted to "give back," noting that there was no hot issue at the time that prompted her to run.

"I was not a one-issue (candidate)," she said.

Downs said he was planning to step down as a paid on-call firefighter and some people suggested that he run for council.

Lehmann and Meuers expected to leave the council this year. Meuers announced in April that she would not seek re-election. Lehmann decided to run as a Republican for the District 4A House seat; he lost the election to DFL Rep. John Persell.

"I'm leaving on good terms, no matter what," he said. "I took a shot, and you know, that's just the way it goes. Somebody wins and somebody loses."

Downs had hoped to retain his council seat for another term, but lost his re-election bid to challenger Rita Albrecht.

In looking back on his council years, Downs said he is especially proud of the work and lobbying he did toward getting the city's half-cent sales tax for parks improvements approved.

He worked with state legislators and went around to area counties with Joe Vene and Nancy Erickson to promote the idea of improving Bemidji's parks and trails.

"We found that people on county boards all over were using our trails and our parks," he said. "Bemidji is a regional center for many things."

Downs said the revamped Diamond Point Park was a success and Bemidji City Park, which just recently completed its renovations, is going to be well used.

In fact, Downs said he believes City Park should be renamed the Bemidji Activities Park.

"It's going to have so many things for people to do," he said, noting its strengths in having a "world-class" four-field softball complex, skate park, 5K lighted cross-country ski trail, 18-hole disc golf course and outdoor hockey rinks. It also is the site the Bemidji Curling Club.

"We've just got everything in one place," he said.

Meuers, too, said she was proud of the work the City Council has done to renovate the city's parks.

"I was a big-time supporter of supporting our parks and getting the half-cent sales tax to do so," she said.

Lehmann echoed their statements, saying that the parks improvements resulted in an improved Diamond Point Park, which has since won awards, and City Park will offer more opportunities for softball competitions and tourism into the city.

"That really has added to the theme of City as a Park," Lehmann said.

Also, she is proud of the work she did on behalf of her constituents.

"The one thing I'm really proud of is my fight to keep city government transparent," Meuers said.

She said it is the top concern she hears from residents, so she has tried to make sure the public is informed about what the council is doing and what is going on in the city.

"People need to listen to their constituents and, even if they don't like what they hear, they need to move forward with what the majority wants," she said.

Lehmann said the creation of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board was the accomplishment he was most proud of.

"It was a long process, but one of those things we accomplished as a community," he said.

Lehmann served on the initial small group that worked to hammer out the ideas that were used as the foundation in creating the JPB and its orderly annexation agreement.

He also said he was pleased with the construction of the new Public Works Facility, which will protect the city's investments and also removed the salt and sand storage from the lakeside.

Lehmann noted the council has done many things that have bettered the community, even less huge projects such as participation in Bemidji in Bloom.

All three councilors will forever be linked to the Bemidji Regional Event Center, now named The Sanford Center.

Lehmann has long been a vocal support of the events center and said he believes the facility will prove itself in time.

"I've very proud of the events center," Lehmann said. "We've got the naming rights taken care of, and that just speaks volumes for the community and the progress that we made in the community."

Downs, too, voted consistently to vote for the project. He has been more vocal in questioning the progress of certain aspects, such as the lease agreement with Bemidji State University and, more recently, has been vocal in supporting the need to sell land in the south shore.

Downs said he does not believe the event center will ever break even, but thinks enough of a tax base could be created in the south shore that the operating deficit would be justifiable.

"The public doesn't see the sense of urgency that I do in selling the south shore," he said.

Meuers has been the lone voice on the council in opposing the events center lately. She, Erickson and Councilor Roger Hellquist were in the minority on a 4-3 vote in June 2008 when the events center project was finally adopted. But Erickson left the council at the end of that year and Hellquist since has accepted the project's reality and voted along with the council majority while monitoring the expenses.

Meuers acknowledged that many will recall this period as the time she was consistently in the minority of 6-1 council votes.

"There have been some tough issues," she said, noting the budget the construction of the events center. "But you're elected for those reasons to make those decisions, to try to listen to people and move forward with what they've told you they want or don't want."

Lehmann said he hopes Bemidjians appreciate the community and the amenities it offers.

"We've moved from being a fairly quiet small town in northern Minnesota to being the regional center for all of northwest Minnesota," he said. "It's a great community. I hope people do appreciate what a wonderful community they have here."