New Brighton council candidates talk it out at forum

For a race that nearly wasn’t, New Brighton’s city elections are fairly stacked. Six candidates are running for two city council seats and one candidate is challenging incumbent Mayor Val Johnson.

Nearly two years ago, the New Brighton City Council attempted to switch the city’s municipal elections from odd to even years, meaning this year’s municipal elections would have been ixnayed, and — if done successfully — they would have instead taken place alongside 2016’s county, state and federal elections.

That decision meant shortening the terms of two council members and lengthening the term of then-mayor-elect Val Johnson. However, it was ultimately deemed unlawful by a judge after residents, headed by council member Gina Bauman, petitioned the city to rescind the action. 

The main issue with the council’s decision was the timing of it. The vote to switch from odd- to even-year municipal elections — and change term lengths to do it — came just weeks after the 2015 elections took place, meaning voters weren’t getting what they voted for, namely, their candidates’ expected term lengths. 

Bauman, the only council member against the change, was one of two members that would have had a shortened term. The other was Brian Strub, who supported even-year elections.

After years on the council, Strub decided to not seek reelection this fall. Bauman, however, is, and she’s the only incumbent in the mix of council candidates.

The other candidates for two council seats are Graeme Allen, Peter Berthelsen, Emily Dunsworth, Susan Erickson and Dave Jacobsen, a former mayor. 

Johnson is being challenged for the mayor’s seat by Sharon Doffing, a former council member. 

In anticipation of the Nov. 7 election, the candidates were invited to a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of New Brighton at New Brighton City Hall on Oct. 9. All but one turned out.

 

Mayoral takeaways

Doffing is a 20-year resident of New Brighton. During her opening statements, she characterized her past role on the council as a “property protector,” “public safety advocate” and “Heart Safe Communities champion.”

Asked how she would describe New Brighton to someone who doesn’t know anything about the suburb, Doffing mentioned the “stellar” school district, the colleges in the area, the malls nearby and the “wonderful park system.” 

“It’s a beautiful place to live,” she said.   

If elected, she said she would understand her role as mayor as being “an advocate for the citizens of New Brighton.”

In regards to making changes to how the city operates, Doffing said she would specifically look into “attrition, and why some key staff people have been leaving.”

Johnson has lived in New brighton for 55 years and started her term as mayor in 2016. 

“Being the mayor of New Brighton has been a great honor,” she said during her opening statements. “It’s something that not everybody can do. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of listening.”

“We are a diverse community and we are a very accepting community,” Johnson added. “There really aren’t issues in this city that we need to necessarily be over-concerned about, because we are so well run.” 

While both candidates said they are supportive of looking into and possibly implementing a police body camera program for the New Brighton Department of Public Safety, their views did not align as well on whether or not term limits should be set for council members. 

Doffing said her preference would be that members spend no more than six years on the council, with Johnson pointing out that would require a change to the current term length, as members now serve four-year terms.

Johnson said she believes it should continue to be up to the voters to decide how long someone should or should not serve on the council.

The two candidates were asked if anything can be done to make council meetings “more civil.”

Johnson said “they are civil,” while also admitting that sometimes people can get “fired up” in the chambers. 

Doffing expressed a different view. 

“Quite honestly, that’s the reason I’m here,” she said, explaining she was drawn out of her “retirement as an elected official” because multiple people — including former mayor Dave Jacobsen, she said — have asked her to “come back and bring some civility to the council chambers.”

 

‘Disagree without being disagreeable?’

Five of the six city council candidates showed up for the LWV forum — Dave Jacobsen was not present. They took the stand after the mayoral candidates spent 45 minutes answering questions submitted by residents, read by LWV moderator Kristen Kjome.  

The first question, in part, was, “Can you disagree without being disagreeable?”

Erickson said she would aim to “listen to everyone’s opinions” and “include everyone in the decisions that are made.” 

Allen said his experiences living in Egypt and working at the Capitol to advocate for university students have helped him learn how to effectively communicate and be respectful of “many different voices.”

As a “certified neutral,” Dunsworth said, “I’m actually trained in being a listener and working with people to find common ground.” She cited her work to help facilitate the merger between Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law as a success story. 

Bauman said she is “certified in mediation” and has “dealt with a lot of people.” She said it’s important to her to “have an open heart.” 

Berthelsen said his work for US Bank, his former experience of being a church pastor, and his education in philosophy have helped him understand “not only various different viewpoints but how people come to those viewpoints.”

The candidates each expressed concern about a lack of affordable housing in New Brighton, especially for seniors in the community. 

Erickson said she hopes the Korean Church property at 701 Eighth Avenue NW, which was recently purchased by the city, will be redeveloped into affordable senior housing.

When asked whether the proposed increased tax levy is “warranted,” candidates offered differing views. 

Bauman, Berthelsen and Erickson said it is not warranted. 

“We are constantly making votes that are costing this community a lot of money,” Bauman said. “Have you seen any difference from all those services?”

Berthelsen said this is why he is running. 

“I don’t want to see a tax levy year after year so wantonly thrown out against the citizens of New Brighton,” he said. “I would like to see us work against that.”

Allen and Dunsworth said they are supportive of the increased levy, calling it “necessary.” 

“It’s essential that we look at the future,” Allen said. “We need to look at what the city’s going to look like in 20 years ... and how are we going to provide the services we need as things change.”

To hear more from the candidates, find the full recording of the LWV forum online at www.ctv15.org.

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.



 

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