BEMIDJI -- Incumbent Beltrami County Commissioners and their opponents in the 2020 election were questioned about their plans for helping farmers over the next few years on Wednesday.
The inquiries were made over the course of a two-hour candidate form, organized by the Beltrami County Farm Bureau. The forum had a mix of questions, with the first six being about agriculture from the Farm Bureau and the rest being various inquiries from the audience.
Candidates from all three races were present for Wednesday's forum, and each of them had time to answer each question given by the moderator. Those candidates were:
- Reed Olson, who's the incumbent for District 2 as well as the owner of the Wild Hare Bistro in downtown Bemidji and the executive director for the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless. Olson is seeking a second term.
- Joe Vene, who's challenging Olson for District 2. Vene was a commissioner from 2004-2016 before losing the seat to Olson. In 2018, he was a candidate for Mayor of Bemidji.
- Tim Sumner, the incumbent for District 4 and a case manager for the Red Lake Homeless Shelter. He's seeking a third term.
- Danny Anderson, Sumner's opponent who owns and operates an automotive services business.
- Jim Lucachick, the incumbent for District 5 who owns and operates an architecture business. He is seeking a fourth term.
- Mike Bredon, Lucachick's opponent who works in the field of videography.
The first question for the six politicians Wednesday was what their main agriculture-related priorities would be if they served in 2021 and beyond.
In his response, Vene said he'd "promote the vitality of agriculture through infrastructure needs," and that he'd "understand, appreciate and promote the economic impact that Beltrami County's agriculture contributes."
Maintaining good water quality was a key point for Bredon, who said, "That is very important to me, groundwater, watersheds and impaired waters. That's something I'd put a lot at the forefront. Also, I'd work to expand direct farm to market procedures while maintaining sustainability."
In his answer, Lucachick said it will be important to keep existing programs in place.
"We need to continue support for the Beltrami County Fairgrounds," Lucachick said. "Another great program is the Boys and Girls Club of Bemidji Area. They've developed a greenhouse and do a great job with the kids. We also need to open up funding streams for promotion of agriculture."
"Maintaining clean water and soil with functioning ditches is really important," said Olson in his answer. "Working to make sure farmers have adequate mental health services and access to professionals is also a must. Farmers are over-represented in cases of stress, anxiety and depression."
In his response, Anderson said his focus would be on reducing taxes on farmers and directing the taxes that are collected from agriculture to be appropriated responsibly.
With his answer, Sumner said he'd continue supporting the county's development fund, which provides dollars to several programs including agriculture efforts.
A heavy farm focus
Bredon was able to expand on his thoughts related to water quality and the rest of the candidates spoke on the issue with a question about water maintenance in the county. In his response to the subject, Bredon said he disagreed with Lucachick on how to handle regulations.
"It's very important that the county do due diligence so we can maintain balance," Bredon said. "My opponent would most likely like to remove a lot of the teeth from ordinances and rules that are in place for a very good reason."
"I'm not in favor of lessening requirements in our shoreland ordinance," Lucachick said in response. "We've been in a two-year process of rewriting and adding to continue the protection. I haven't been on record saying we want to change it backwards."
In take on the matter, Olson said. "We're working right now to redo our solid waste ordinance and our shoreland management ordinance, and those are two very important tools in maintaining water quality."
"I believe farmers, ranchers and landowners know the land best, and want clean water," said Vene. "I believe the government's role is assisting landowners in addressing problems."
For the District 4 candidates, Anderson was the first to answer and said, "government shouldn't be overstepping and over-regulating so much of what a person can do with their land."
In his reply, Sumner cited his work with the One Watershed One Plan project and said "living on the largest water body in the state of Minnesota (Red Lake), I know the importance of water quality."
Candidates were also asked about how to directly assist family farms in the county, especially with many of them struggling with health insurance coverage.
In his answer, Olson said the biggest issue is the consolidation of power by larger agriculture corporations, and that the only solution is the federal government enforcing antitrust laws. Additionally, on the subject of insurance, Olson said he supports a single payer, universal health care option as a solution.
"I think the best thing we can do in this situation is act as advocates for small farmers," Olson said. "In 2018, farmers received about 15 cents of every dollar that was spent on food in America."
"We need to develop a better alliance with the Sanford Health care system," Vene said in his answer. "Beltrami County is a health care center for this entire part of the state. Surely there's a better way for those who have lesser means. Let's partner with the biggest health care system in the area."
With his response, Lucachick noted the difficulty in taking action on the problem as a county official.
"Sometimes, as a county commissioner, you don't have access to making direct impacts on solving problems," Lucachick said. "What we can do is small things, like more support for the University of Minnesota Extension service. What we can do is promote agriculture and 4-H at the county level as much as we can.
"COVID-19 has pushed both food chain concerns and health care concerns to the forefront, and farmers find themselves in the middle," Bredon said. "We need to focus locally, and help ensure we as a community overcome the issues of food supply interruptions that may happen, and make sure farmers are supported financially until there's universal health care."
Another supporter of a universal health care plan was Sumner, who also said, "I think we should do what we can to advocate policies at the state and federal level that can help small farmers."
"As a small business owner, I understand this," Anderson said. "Health insurance is a big expense for everybody. Personally, I believe in the private sector, and maybe some type of union should be formed for farmers for this."
Reviewing law enforcement
One of the questions from the audience cited the city of Bemidji considering the creation of a police advisory committee, and inquired on whether the county should do something similar. The question also noted the high incarceration rate when it comes to people of color.
"I think we need to do what the city is doing," Anderson said. "Put research in, see why that's the case with the rate and find out how to move forward in the best way possible."
"Looking at the incarceration rate in our jail is horrible," said Sumner. "The county is currently trying to find a way on improving the jail by either rebuilding it or remodeling. In the past, I had been against any rebuilding, but it's my hope now that if we do build a new one, that we do offer programming and services to the inmates."
With his response, Lucachick lamented the end of the county's Sentence to Serve program.
"We were getting folks out of jail, doing construction projects, clean-up projects, and we were getting them out of there while they still did their sentence," Lucachick said. "Sadly, today, we have no Sentence to Serve programming because all of the offenders, by (Minnesota Department of Correction) standards, are two severe to have on release. We've gone backwards, so we have to think about how to push that back forward."
In his answer, Bredon said he agrees with the course the city of Bemidji is on. "I'm glad to see the city responding with looking into a committee," Bredon said. "I'd like to look into an oversight committee, and perhaps do it in conjunction with the city."
With his answer, Vene cited his experience as a now retired superintendent at the Northwest Juvenile Center, and said, "somehow, we have to work together and help stem the tide of people who are being incarcerated and divert them to programs to get the help they need."
Upcoming discussions on the future of the Beltrami County Jail were also noted in Olson's answer.
"This is a very important time, because a very important decision will be made in the next 18 months, which will cost us millions of dollars and affect the community for generations to come," Olson said. "Looking at our jail, when it comes to the redesigning, I'm excited for this opportunity to get rid of this jail we have that we know is not doing what we need it to do. We need to have a jail that can help people find the resources they need to never come back."