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Candidates for Bemidji Ward 5 address issues facing city

BEMIDJI - Two of three Ward 5 candidates for the Bemidji City Council seat addressed the public Tuesday evening.

Nancy Erickson, a former Ward 5 councilor, and newcomer Phillip Nelson both answered questions in a Citizens for an Informed Electorate forum at Bemidji City Hall.

Erickson and Nelson both are challenging incumbent Councilor Greg Negard, who was unavailable to attend the forum.

The forum, moderated by Maggie Montgomery, the KAXE station manager, and John Parsons, former Lakeland Public Television news reporter, was held in advance of the Aug. 14 primary Election, through which the number of candidates will be reduced to two.

Erickson, who has lived in Bemidji since 1981, served as the Ward 5 councilor from 2001 to 2008, at which time she challenged then-Mayor Richard Lehmann in his re-election bid; Lehmann won.

"I found that I missed (the council work) terribly," Erickson said. "I loved the challenge and I love public service and I believe you have to give back to your community."

Erickson, who has a degree in accounting from Bemidji State University, said that background served her well when she was on the council.

"I feel qualified to do this job," she said.

Nelson, whose family moved here 20 years ago, is married with three daughters. He said he decided to run for office to give back to the community.

"This town has just been a home to me like nothing I've ever known," he said.

Nelson said the one thing he doesn't like about his Ward 5 neighborhood is that there are two homes in foreclosure because homeowners were unable to pay city-imposed assessments for sewer and water improvements.

He said he understands that improving city services is important, but he does not believe the council should impose them to the point where residents are losing their homes.

"I think that's a little bit too much," he said.

When asked to address the lack of development in the south shore redevelopment area, Nelson said Nymore Beach is planned to be moved and he supports that effort.

"I like green space," he said. "City parks are nice, especially big ones. We don't really have any big, open spaces."

Erickson said the city cannot afford to maintain the south shore land as green space, due to the bonds that must be paid back for the land purchase.

Erickson, who was not a supporter of the Sanford Center before its construction, said the community must now rally together to support the facility.

"We have to do absolutely everything we can to support that building and make it a success," she said.

Nelson said he thinks Bemidjians themselves should be hired to operate the facility instead of an outside management firm.

"It's our tax dollars that are being put into it," he said. "It's on our backs, literally."

Neither Erickson nor Nelson criticized Negard's performance as Ward 5 councilor.

"I'm not running against Councilor Negard, I'm running for this seat," Erickson said.

During her eight years on the council, Erickson said, she openly expressed her opinion, did her homework and came prepared to council meetings.

'There is a thrill in being a public servant and trying to help others," she said. "I like the job."

Nelson said he wants to be a politician and believed that local government would be a good stepping stone toward that career.

A good city councilor, he said, would be informed not only on the issues but also on the opinions of his or her constituents. Nelson said he would make sure to put in the time and legwork to gather that input.

"In my experience, knowledge doesn't come to me, I have to go find it," he said.