Community building, literally and figuratively, themes in Falcon Heights council race

In 2017, seven candidates vied for two open seats on the Falcon Heights City Council in an emotional election that was framed by the police killing of Philando Castile.

For 2019, the city council race is shaping up to be less fraught, with the city and residents working the three years since Castile’s death to identify and address racial and cultural rifts in the community uncovered by his shooting.

While city officials and candidates have said they’re still committed to community building, questions of development, park improvements, infrastructure and the city’s long-term financial outlook are coming back to the fore.

This November’s election will reshape a council that’s been in flux since that 2017 election, guaranteeing at least two new members on the body. The mayor’s seat and two council seats are up for election, though there’s only one incumbent involved in the race.

Mayor Randy Gustafson is seeking to hold his seat against challenger Dave Thomas. On the council side there are two seats up and the race is wide open with newcomers Kay Andrews, Adam Sychla and Yakasah Wehyee running.

 

Mayoral race

Gustafson, 65, was elevated from council member to mayor this spring following the resignation of Peter Lindstrom, who was appointed to the Metropolitan Council. Gustafson offered himself up for the position and was approved by his council colleagues for the remainder of Lindstrom’s term through the end of the year.

The body opted not to fill Gustafson’s vacated council seat and instead to wait until the election to see who voters would choose.

The 36-year resident of the city said he wasn’t leaping at the opportunity to become mayor in the first place, though after a couple of months on the job he came to appreciate the position, and following discussions with his family, opted to seek election.

“You just get more involved in the city things,” he said. “There’s more responsibility and with that responsibility comes reward. You feel like you can contribute a little bit more.”

First elected to the council in 2015, should Gustafson be elected mayor, he’d be the only remaining person on the council who was a part of it at the time Castile was killed. The 32-year-old African-American man was shot to death in July 2016 during a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue by a former St. Anthony police officer.

Gustafson, crime prevention coordinator with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, said the city has built a sense of “how to get through a tragedy and learn and grow from it,” and now it’s turning back to some of the core functions of city government: streets, sewers services, parks and recreation.

Switching police service in 2018 from the St. Anthony Police Department to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, along with the recently passed Roseville Area Schools bond referendum, have put a strain on city property taxpayers, Gustafson said.

“We’re trying now to refocus where our dollars are coming from and where they’re leading us so it’s more realistic to the long-term financial situation of the city,” he said.

A looming challenge for the city is financing a new building at Community Park, for which the city is seeking state bonding.

“It could be a difficult conversation for the city,” said Gustafson, pointing out he’s willing to lead such a discussion. “Which could be why we didn’t have 20 people run for mayor.”

 

Thomas, 38, said he’s running for mayor in part because of the city’s handling of Castile’s death and how the city council has operated this past year. He also has specific ideas about needed infrastructure upgrades and city elections.

An eight-year Falcon Heights resident and a social studies teacher and department head at the Nawayee Center School, an indigenous school in Minneapolis, Thomas previously ran for the Minnesota House on a platform of tuition-free universities and police reform. He’s an Iraq War veteran and previously taught in Roseville schools. He was also on the city Planning Commission and was briefly a member of the fire department.

Thomas said he thinks the city council should have chosen to have a special election for the mayor’s seat and that by choosing to keep an open council seat, it “effectively removed 20% of the city’s representation” from the council.

If elected, Thomas said he’d push to move the city’s elections from odd to even years in order to piggyback them onto national elections in order to improve voter turnout for local races. He said he’d be willing to cut short his term as mayor to do so.

Thomas also has an eye on improving traffic and walkablity in the city. He said he’d work to build a pedestrian bridge over Snelling Avenue at Garden Avenue and would work with the necessary local and state entities to construct a traffic circle at Snelling and Roselawn Avenue as a traffic-calming measure.

Thomas said he’d also push within the city and its departments for mandated mental health and minority training.

 

Council race

Andrews, 77, said she’s running for the city council because, “I want to ensure that we continue to have a safe and inclusive community. I think we have made good progress but that doesn’t mean everything’s done.”

A 27-year city resident, Andrews retired in 2009 as president and CEO of Northeast Youth & Family Services, a position she’d held since 1987. 

She said she’s been totally blind since age 10.

“I don’t see that as an issue and it hasn’t been an issue in all of the work and volunteer things that I’ve done,” she said. “The one thing that it has done is help me to understand, to some degree, discrimination and people’s discomfort with people who are different.”

Andrews volunteered for the city’s Inclusion and Policing Task Force, which was formed following Castile’s death to identify the community’s values when it comes to policing and how to address them to make for a more inclusive community.

She said she has a multi-ethnic family — her children and grandchildren are African-American — and that she was moved by the 2016 shooting.

“When that police shooting happened it just made me realize it could have been one of them,” she said. “I was very motivated to make it better for them.”

A former member of both the city’s planning and human rights commissions, Andrews was a finalist for the council vacancy in 2018 that was filled by Pamela Harris.

She said she would also focus on the city’s fiscal solvency and fostering citizen involvement when possible.

 

Sychla, 23, said he’s running for the city council because there are no renters currently on the body and because “I really loved being around Falcon Heights and I loved the city.”

A resident of the suburb for just more than a year, he’s a grad student pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota.

The Ohio native, who moved to the Twin Cities for his post-grad studies, said if elected he’d prioritize improving the city’s parks, supporting its green initiatives and ensuring that the community is “a good place to live in, move into and stay in.”

He said representing renters on the council is important because they can face a host of issues — including those with landlords — that homeowners never see.

Acknowledging that he’s young, Sychla said he has leadership experience as vice president of the board of the Genome Writers Guild, an international scientific society. He’s also currently serving as CTO for the Journal of Young Investigators, which publishes undergrad scientific research and does training.

He said he also has experience teaching and working with students.

“I’m always looking to learn new skills and work with the ones I’ve already built, just to improve the world I’m living in,” said Sychla.

“Falcon Heights has been an amazing place to live and I’ve really loved it, and that’s the reason I’m running for city council,” he said. “[To keep that] going for the next generation of students, so the next generation coming in can really enjoy all those things.”

 

Wehyee, 28, said he’s running because it’s a part of his nature to get involved.

“I think it’s really clear that I’ve always been a really community-oriented person,” he said. “Every community I’ve been in I’ve always tried to participate. I don’t like to just let things happen.”

Working on a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Minnesota, Wehyee and his wife moved to Falcon Heights two years ago. He came to the U.S. at the age of 6 as a refugee from Liberia.

Also a renter, Wehyee said he and others who lease their homes make up more than a third of the city and that it’s important for that part of the population to have representation on the council.

He said he appreciates and is passionate about the city’s commitment to inclusivity following the killing of Castile, and said his experience in education and community organizing “would actually help the city advance its goals of cultivating a more caring community.”

A high school student body president who organized National Night Out events, Wehyee said he also managed a political campaign in Brooklyn Park and worked at the YMCA with seniors and youth.

Wehyee said he’d advocate for affordable housing and work to find funding for improvements at Community Park. “Parks are important to the larger work of cultivating a caring community.”

He said he’d make sure that the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office is meeting the expectations of the community and would want to make sure residents know he’d be their representative on the council.

“I really want to make sure I’m meeting the residents halfway,” Wehyee said.

 

Election Day is Nov. 5. For more information about voting go to www.ramseycounty.us/residents/elections-voting.

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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