BEMIDJI -- More than a dozen candidates for city and county offices took questions from an audience in Bemidj's Cameron Park on Saturday, with a variety of topics on hand.
Going first during the forum, organized by the local League of Women Voters, were candidates for Beltrami County. An immediate topic for those in the race was a vote on refugee resettlements taken early this year.
In January, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to opt out of the nation's refugee resettlement program. The option became available to counties based on an executive order signed by President Donald Trump. Voting in favor of opting out were Commissioners Richard Anderson, Craig Gaasvig and Jim Lucachick. Against the measure were Commissioners Tim Sumner and Reed Olson.
Because of the vote, Beltrami County became the first in the state and second in the nation to officially not participate in the resettlement program. Since the vote, the executive order has been blocked in federal court.
Mike Bredon, a candidate for the County District 5, said he disagreed with the vote that took place.
"I think what took place with the refugee resettlement vote was a very damaging public relations ordeal, but it was also damaging to my own views," Bredon said. "When refugees come to this country, they're vetted by a dozen federal agencies. Read the Statue of Liberty. Not allowing refugees goes against my American values."
As part of his response to the subject, Lucachick, the District 5 incumbent seeking another term, clarified his statement in an email from January where he used the phrase 'invasive' when discussing the refugee matter. Lucachick said Saturday that he was using the term 'invasive' in regard to the federal resettlement program, rather than in relation to the refugees themselves.
"My dad was an immigrant, and his dad was an immigrant. They worked hard and taught me about a work ethic," Lucachick said. "I've contributed to Bemidji in many ways. I've designed more than 20 Habitat for Humanity houses, I've sat on the board of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. I've contributed to the Boys and Girls Club and was a board member and president. I love this community, and I don't think we gave this community a black eye. Refugees are still welcome in our country and they can still come to Beltrami County."
During his time to speak, fellow District 5 candidate Christian Taylor-Johnson was asked about his financial experience. A senior student at BSU, Taylor-Johnson referenced his finance-related work at a cultural resources management firm and at the American Indian Resource Center.
Another new candidate running for the board in the County District 4 was Danny Anderson. During his time, when asked about a priority if elected, Anderson said he'd like to focus on roads.
"It's a pretty rural part of the county and we deal with a lot of gravel roads," Anderson said. "I hear a lot of discussion on that and I'd like to improve on that infrastructure if it's fiscally feasible to do so. There's budgets and only so much to go around, but that'd be one thing I'd work on if I could."
The incumbent for County District 2, Reed Olson, was also present for Saturday's event. During his period to speak, Olson responded to inquiries about racial equity and substance abuse. A key part of his response referenced the discussion over the Beltrami County Jail's future.
Built in 1989, the jail has had numerous technical and maintenance issues over the years and has been running out of space in the past decade. As a result, the county has launched an initiative to determine whether to remodel or rebuild the jail. Since the decision, the county has created committees to help move the discussion forward and is working with the National Institute of Corrections.
"In the remodeling or rebuilding of the jail, I think we have a really good opportunity," Olson said. "Look at the roster of our jail. Native Americans make up nearly 20 to 25% of our population, and nearly 90% of the people in our jail. Most of them are in for pre-trial on minor drug charges. All races in America use drugs at the same rate, so why do we have more people that are minorities in jail for drug crimes?
"Jail is clearly not the answer to the drug problem," Olson said. "We've been trying that since Reagan and it hasn't worked. It looks like things are starting to stabilize with opioids, but meth is still king in this community. We can continue to incarcerate people, but the problem is not going away. We need to take a more fundamental response."
One initiative the county was involved in during Olson's term to do just that was work with Sanford Health on the PrimeWest Residential Support Center. The facility, opening last year on Hannah Avenue, offers detox treatment, as well as mental health services.
City candidates make their pitch
Along with those running for county board seats, several Bemidji City Council candidates were also on hand Saturday. During the meeting, a common question revolved around creating unity in the city after a period of friction in the community. For example, a proposed wellness center put forward by Sanford Health and Greater Bemidji Economic Development was shelved, with proponents saying they found a lack of collaboration with the city, while city officials argued that they only disagreed with the potential funding mechanism.
Then, in 2019, a new entity called the Bemidji Alliance was being formed by Greater Bemidji, the Bemidji Downtown Alliance, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce and Visit Bemidji. However, bringing Visit Bemidji in was a more lengthy process as it receives funds from a lodging tax and contracts with the city.
Later in 2019, the Bemidji Alliance submitted a complaint regarding City Manager Nate Mathews. The complaint was later disposed of by the City Council, which voted to affirm its support for Mathews.
"I saw a lot of feuding between the two sides, which disheartened me," said Josh Peterson, candidate for Ward 2 and Executive Director of Visit Bemidji who previously worked as a reporter. "When I took on the role for Visit Bemidji, I made it known during my first week on the job that I wasn't going to get involved in old matters, dug up arguments or political differences between the two. That my job was to grow Bemidji tourism, and that I would not be part of any move to argue with city politics, a city manager or whoever. I think now, there's an interest in the business community to work together with the city council to see what's best for everyone and to move us forward."
"We can heal those old wounds and moving forward we will have a big task ahead of us in recovering from COVID-19 with our business community," said Ward 2 candidate Jaime Thibodeaux. "We have to make sure that we prioritize the essential services of our community."
In his response, Ward 1 candidate Joe Gould said, "Sometimes it's better to do more listening than talking as an official. So, I'd support bringing all the key stakeholders together and try to look forward as best as possible."
Another topic for city candidates was the city-owned Sanford Center, an event facility managed by the Ames, Iowa-based company VenuWorks. The building, now a decade old, includes a 4,373-seat arena with attached conference space, which serves as the home to BSU's hockey programs. Last year, the city budgeted $450,000 as an operating investment for the facility.
"The Sanford Center has a reputational problem in the community," said Ward 1 candidate Adam Hellquist. "Once we as a community get over that and see it in a different light, it's going to start to feel a little bit more like something we're proud of. Obviously, VenuWorks has had a couple of problems, and the solution that comes to the table is that maybe the city should run it. But, I don't think that's going to work the way we want it to."
Audrey Thayer, another candidate for Ward 1, said the Sanford Center is just one part of the city's financial matters that a councilor must be prepared for.
"We have to think about our budget here," Thayer said. "The Bemidji City Council is responsible for fiscal responsibility, making sure our tax dollars are well, making sure our community is healthy and addressing the needs of the people."
While he took the 'stage' Saturday, Ward 5 candidate Don Heinonen was asked about a campaign finance violation he was penalized for in the 2018 election. That year, a political action committee titled Bemidji First supported three candidates, including Heinonen for the city's at large seat, Michael Beard for Ward 2 and Joe Vene for mayor. Fines were later levied against all three candidates, and a donor for violating state statutes on campaign financing. In the election, Vene and Heinonen were both defeated, while Beard won. Beard later resigned from the position, though, citing health reasons.
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who defeated Vene, was also fined for a campaign finance violation later in 2019.
"That particular year, there were four candidates brought up on campaign finance problems," Heinonen said. "I have answered to the state of Minnesota. I paid my penalty and moved on. In my campaign this year, I went back to doing what I did in my first two campaigns, personally paying for my own so there are no problems in how my campaign is run. That (2018) was the first time I'd taken a dime."
In his segment, fellow Ward 5 candidate Ernest "Joey" Oppegaard-Peltier III talked about his thoughts on working with law enforcement if elected. As part of his comments, Oppegaard-Peltier III cited the potential creation of a Bemidji Police Advisory Committee, which will be discussed at an upcoming city meeting on Aug. 10.
"I think we're not going far enough with such a committee," Oppegaard-Peltier III said. "I think that type of committee needs teeth and some type of power to do something in the community."
For Ward 3, incumbent Ron Johnson was present for Saturday's event, and talked about the importance of having a seasoned councilor.
"We're going to have some new faces, and I think it's good to have a little bit of experience left on the council, and I can mentor people," Johnson said. As part of his comments, Johnson referenced his nearly 20 years on the council, along with his work with the League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.