On Monday, three candidates for Park Rapids City Council took questions from the public at a League of Women Voters (LWV) candidates’ forum.
Joe Christensen, Tim D. Little and Erika Randall are running for two available council seats in the November election. Randall is an incumbent who served 10 years on the board, while fellow board member Tom Conway stepped down at the end of his term.
It was the first in a three-night series of “meet the voter” events at the lower level of Northwoods Bank in Park Rapids.
Moderator LuAnn Hurd-Lof explained that the LWV sponsors the forums to give the public an opportunity to hear candidates discuss issues that are important to members of the public.
Hurd-Lof gave each contestant time for brief opening and closing remarks before reading the shortlisted questions submitted by the crowd. Thirty people participated in the forum.
“On vacation all year round”
In his opening and closing statements, Christensen called Park Rapids a beautiful place where he was blessed to grow up. “I want to serve my community,” he said.
Christensen said he has a good working relationship with city employees and surrounding townships. “I have a pretty good understanding of what they want to do,” he said, “and it would be nice if I could help serve in any way I could.”
Noting that he was lucky enough to leave town around 25 years ago, he said: “I stayed because I like it. I am on vacation all year round. I would love to help our community stay so everyone can be on vacation all year round.
Little also described himself as a Park Rapids native who has worked here his entire career. Now retired after 31 years as a municipal employee, he was also a firefighter for 24 years.
“I know just about everyone who works for the city,” he said. “I know the city quite a bit – not all of it, but quite a bit – and I thought it would just be a good way to give back to the city.”
If elected, he said, “I would love to be there to help the city of Park Rapids.”
Randall said when asked to fill out the remainder of an unexpired term, she never expected to enjoy serving on the board as much as she did.
“I lived in Park Rapids for 20 years,” she said, “I came here right out of law school. My parents were both born and raised in Park Rapids, so I grew up coming here, and so I was lucky enough to get a job (here), and that’s where I’ve now raised my family.
She remembers serving on finance and personnel committees, the airport commission, and the Armory board, and being involved in all aspects of the city.
“We had some difficulties, but I think we got through it well,” she said.
There was general agreement between the candidates in their responses to questions from the audience.
- Asked about the issues that motivated them to run, Christensen said public safety, infrastructure for economic growth and support for the arts. Few noted that in some parts of the city, utilities are pushing 75, increasing the risk of sewer backups and water main breaks. Randall pointed to the city’s economic stability, saying the city is working hard to budget for future needs.
- All three candidates agreed that a local sales tax would help fund road and infrastructure projects, although Christensen added that he was “not necessarily a fan of it”. Randall argued that a sales-tax-funded street project would benefit visitors shopping in town, and she and Little said it would mean local ratepayers wouldn’t foot the full bill.
- Regarding the city’s role in regulating the sale of cannabis products, Randall said it would be important for council to “set some parameters so that it can be allowed in a way that reflects which is important to our community.” Christensen emphasized regulating venues and limiting marketing to children. Few compared the regulation of CBD to that of tobacco and alcohol.
- Regarding the need for additional housing, Christensen cited “a huge need” to develop more building land. Little said the apartments added in recent years have helped, but more is needed. Randall said the city is working closely with the Heartland Lakes Development Commission to find ways to offset developer costs without burdening ratepayers.
- When asked how the city should use liquor store revenue, Randall joked, “What aren’t they for?” and remembers using it to buy squad cars, fund construction and street projects, and support the airport. Christensen said the funds should be spent on public safety needs.
- As for how they would find out about a problem and look for possible solutions, Randall said she would follow the chain of command, speaking to the city administrator or relevant department head. Christensen emphasized teamwork with city staff.
- On how to create a welcoming and inclusive community, Little and Christensen highlighted the city’s parks, arts programs and downtown. Randall added that the city council is holding its meetings at a time when workers can be involved.
- On whether the city will recreate a public swimming beach on the Fish Hook River, Christensen joked, “If you want swimmer’s itch, let’s do it.” Few says there is not enough room. Randall called him an asset City lacks, but admitted that for the above reasons and the issues involving the DNR, that’s not realistic.
- Asked about dead trees and brush along State Hwy. 34-year-old Randall said she had discussed potential safety issues with public works staff and suggested the city’s Parks and Beautification Board could budget for landscaping improvements. Little added that it is a state right of way and due to traffic it is impossible to grow anything there.
- As for plowing sidewalks, Christensen agreed the city should do it because a lot of people don’t shovel their sidewalks. Little said it was difficult because of the time and expense, and Randall agreed, noting that city staff had areas they had to plow first and other areas might have to wait. a day or two.
- Asked about extending public services to Discovery Circle, Little and Randall agreed that since the area has been annexed, the city will eventually have to. Christensen said this needs to be done before the neighborhood’s aging septic systems fail and residents spend a lot of money replacing them.
- All three candidates agreed that the tax increase funding has been beneficial, helping businesses get started in Park Rapids.
Hurd-Lof reminded attendees that Mayor Ryan Leckner is also running for another term, unopposed.