Candidates debate issues at League of Women Voters forum

Three races combined into one debate Tuesday night at Bemidji City Hall as the League of Women Voters focused on the races for Bemidji mayor, Beltrami County sheriff and Beltrami County commissioner District 1.

Bemidji mayoral candidates Ron Johnson, left, and Dave Larson answer questions Tuesday in a League of Women Voters debate. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Three races combined into one debate Tuesday night at Bemidji City Hall as the League of Women Voters focused on the races for Bemidji mayor, Beltrami County sheriff and Beltrami County commissioner District 1.

Taking part in the debate were mayoral candidates Ron Johnson and Dave Larson, sheriff candidates Bill Cross and incumbent Phil Hodapp and commissioner candidates incumbent Jack Frost and Sally Fineday.

There was a full house for the debate as about 75 people filled the council chambers to listen and observe.

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

The debate was moderated by Roy Blackwood.


Johnson, a lifelong Bemidji resident, currently is the Ward 3 councilor but is seeking the mayoral seat. He has been the council representative for Ward 3 for 10 years.

"I personally think council experience is important for any mayoral candidate," he said.

Larson said his goals are to create jobs and better the amenities available in town, including the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"From the beginning of this campaign, my message was and is, 'Keep our First City first,'" he said.

Cross, a former Beltrami County deputy, said he wants to work with Red Lake Police officers and bring better technology to the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office that would allow deputies to do reports and work out of their squad cars.

"This is a great opportunity for Beltrami County," he said.

Hodapp and his family moved to the community in 1985 when he joined the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in Bemidji. He was elected as sheriff in 2006.

"We've addressed gangs, drugs, violence and dangerous driving behaviors since I've become sheriff," he said.


Frost, who has been the District 1 commissioner for nine years, said he is proud of the work the county board has done, including holding the line spending and taxes.

"We've done great things, but we're not done yet," he said.

Fineday said she is proud that her children have been able to make a living in a tough economy. She further stated that the county board should be taking the current economy into consideration when developing budgets.

"Our economy has never been so low," she said.

The first of the three questions was typical of debates: What are the most important issues facing their city or Beltrami County.

Larson said he believes the most important issue is jobs. And while he said the city cannot directly create jobs, it could foster an environmental where industries and businesses want to locate here.

Cross said law enforcement needs to work toward having a safe community in which businesses would want to be located. When crime goes down, economies improve, he said.

Hodapp said partnerships with all are law enforcement - city, county, state, federal, tribal - are working to create safe communities. His office has been focusing on drugs, gangs, violence and dangerous driving activities.


Frost said the economy is down and people, obviously, are hurting.

"We, as a governance body, need to stay out of the way of economic growth and I believe we do that by keeping the lid on taxes," he said.

Fineday said the county is in rural Minnesota, which means everyone already is paying more for gas, mileage, food, electricity, etc.

"In order for us to plan for that, we have to be really careful, very careful about the way we spend money," she said.

Johnson said the top issue is the budget and the uncertain future of Local Government Aid. He said the best way to wean the city from relying so heavily on LGA is to pursue annexation.

The second question was more city-centric: 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.

Cross said he believes it was a great thing that neighborhoods were getting together and talking about the issues they are facing. He said those ideas must be passed on to law enforcement, which can address many of them.


Hodapp said the QNI study mirrors the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative that the county has been working toward.

"The idea is to work together to get us all pulling in the right direction," he said.

Frost echoed that, saying the county board is proud of the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, which also utilizes the strong police relations with the Leech Lake Reservation.

Fineday said she is pleased that the Bemidji community was taking an active role in discussing neighborhood concerns. She said it would be nice, for her area, if the county's Safe Neighborhood Initiative was extended to her neighborhood.

Johnson said the QNI planning stemmed from concerns in wards 1, 2 and 3 about the proliferation of rental properties, and, specifically, the number of homes being turned into rentals.

"I have fielded more calls about that than anything else," he said, noting that he is pleased with the community involvement and the willingness of Bemidji State University to partner with the city on the issue.

Larson was unable to attend the meeting due to a conflict, but said his neighborhood in south Lake Irving has a neighborhood group, which helps watch out for one another and issues in the area.

"That type of feeling is something that needs to be encouraged throughout the whole community," he said.


The final question focused on the budget and what the candidates would do to meet the needs of their budget if cuts were necessary.

Hodapp said the county has been wrestling with this for several years, but his office came in under budget by 4 percent in 2007, on budget in 2008, and under budget by 7 percent in 2009. This year, the department is on pace to again end the year 7 percent under budget.

Frost said the public should be proud of the county, which has demonstrated strong financial management (it is one of five of 87 counties that is allowed to have an outside auditor) and has been upgraded to a AAA bond rating.

Fineday said the county, since 2002, has had a 28 percent overall increase to its levy, which is difficult for taxpayers in the current economy. She said she wants government to be more efficient.

Johnson said, again, that the city needs to begin annexing more township lands into the city boundaries to increase the tax base. He noted that new businesses coming into town, such as the two planned south shore hotels and Menards, will bring with them added taxes.

Larson said he would strive to find more efficiencies in government, continue to evaluate the way the city operates and focus on the basic services a city must provide.

Cross, now a Wadena County deputy, said that county has not had pay raises and extended the use of its vehicles to save cash. It also initiated a Pay to Stay program in the Wadena County Jail. Further, he said, having deputies able to do reports and work form their squad cars has saved money.

"These all are items that greatly kept us under budget," he said.


Frost said he has appreciated the faith and trust his constituents had in electing him previously. He said the county has become a model for success through its focus on outcome-based governance.

"We have made some great strides in our county," he said.

Fineday said she would like to implement a method in which she communicates regularly with her constituents, similar to the newsletters that Commissioner Jim Heltzer sends to his residents.

"My main message to everybody here tonight is I have taken this opportunity because of the fact I believe we need a transparent government," she said.

Johnson said the city has many opportunities in its future, including the south shore development, parks and trails improvements, downtown development, the QNI study, economic development, the airport expansion and growth management plans.

"These are important issues, and I've been involved in every one of them," he said.

Larson said Bemidji already is a great city and residents have a good quality of life. He has been involved with the Design Review Committee for the BREC and now is vice president of the south shore Design Review Committee.

"I can bring to the office as mayor my experiences as a business owner, as an architect, as a developer, as a project manager, as a father, as a grandfather," he said.

Frost said the recent drive-by shooting in town are scary and law enforcement needs to be involved to stop such incidents from occurring.

His said his motto is "work for you, work with you."

Hodapp said law enforcement already has been working to address the concerns of the community through partnerships with other law enforcement agencies. He noted that a task force has indicted 50 people federally for trafficking narcotics and 300-some others for felony-class offenses.

"The Beltrami County Sheriff's office is working diligently to protect you and your neighborhoods." he said.

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