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Mayor prefers in-person connection with citizens

In these days of social networking -- Twitter, Facebook and the like -- Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson likes to talk to citizens the old-fashioned way -- in a restaurant over a plate of eggs and bacon.

In these days of social networking -- Twitter, Facebook and the like -- Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson likes to talk to citizens the old-fashioned way -- in a restaurant over a plate of eggs and bacon.

Usually Larson's monthly meeting with constituents yields only one or two takers, but Saturday's session at Raphael's in downtown Bemidji drew 23 people. OK, it helped that most who attended in the corner tables drawn together were from a regular church breakfast at Raphael's. The weekly social gathering didn't detract from talking about city business.

"Sometimes nobody shows up, but my responsibility is, and I promised that I would do this," to hold monthly meetings with constituents, Larson told me Saturday as the large eggfest broke up. "One thing that I've noticed, that every time someone has an issue, it's very important to them."

Larson, a relative newcomer to the community, won election in 2010 to a two-year term, succeeding then-Mayor Richard Lehmann who sought the House 4A seat which was retained by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. Larson will stand for re-election this fall.

Larson says he likes these one-on-one sessions, and a 23-on-1 session such as last Saturday, but he mostly uses them to help people with their problems with City Hall.

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"One guy years ago was told that he could not build a garage on his property because the roof of his motorhome was higher than the roof of his house," Larson said. "I said, 'I don't believe that.'" Larson consulted with city officials who then worked with the homeowner to come up with an amiable solution. "For him, that was a very important thing."

Larson promised monthly meetings to allow citizens to bring ideas, or problems, directly to him. "I think it is very valuable, but not near as valuable as my wife making brownies first meeting of the month for the council," he said.

He's held meetings in restarants across town, including such places as Simonson's Market Cafe, the Cabin Coffeehouse and Dunn Bros. Coffee. "I think people, unless they have a real incredible burning issue, don't bother."

The method of preference in contacting city officials appears to be email, Larson said, adding he's only received three phone calls from citizens in 14 months as mayor. Larson doesn't embrace new technology methods such as Twitter or Facebook, while some city councilors do.

"I think city councilors get more emails than I do, that citizens do that within their ward," Larson said. "That might be the first line of communication."

Asked then what sort of priorities is he gaining from such limited input, Larson said, "That's a good question and I don't know if I have an answer. There's always the critical concern about the Sanford Event Center. I think there is some misunderstanding."

Controversy arose last year when the City Council was asked to provide an additional $94,000 to the event center's annual allocation of $350,000 to cover operational deficits. At that time, the operating deficit stood at $338,000, and it was said the additional money was needed to prevent cash flow problems.

"Some think it should be turning a profit by now and it was never projected to do that," the mayor said. "We're on target and we've got people in there with really superb management. I think Roger Swanson is doing an excellent job and the staff out there is doing an excellent job."

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When construction of two hotels at the site is done, Bemidji can host major conventions, which will spur the local economy, he said. "We have the tools required."

A new tax surcharge onto utilities, similar to the franchise fee, will help relieve the Sanford Center operating deficit, Larson said. The 3 percent surcharge, the maximum allowed by the state Legislature, is considered a surcharge to an existing funding mechanism, not a new tax.

"We'd like to allow the 53 percent of non-taxpaying properties to participate in our economic recovery," Larson said. "A 3 percent surcharge in my opinion on all the things is great, because we do plow the snow, leave the lights on for them." The surcharge will be placed on bills such as telephone, cable television, electricity and franchise services. The funds will go to the city's general fund, although it appears headed to help Sanford center operations.

Larson says he guides his decisions with three principles in mind: "... will this decision enhance the public safety, the health and well-being of our people? ... If it isn't at least two of those three, then I really question whether that's a good deal."

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Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's award-winning Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at bswenson@paulbunyan.net .

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