By: News Director Larissa Donovan
BEMIDJI– Six local candidates running for political offices in Bemidji’s City Council met for a forum Tuesday, Oct. 30, at Bemidji City Hall.
Don Heinonen and Dr. James Thompson are both running for the councilor at large seat that Dave Larson is vacating. Larson opted to not run for re-election.
In Ward 2, Jaime Thibodeaux and Michael Beard are running for the seat incumbent Roger Hellquist is vacating. Hellquist, too, has opted not to run again.
Incumbent Richard Lehmann is vying to keep his Ward 4 seat, with Emilie Rivera challenging him.
The forum held Tuesday was put on by the group, Citizens for an Informed Electorate, and sponsored by Northern Community Radio. Moderators for the forum were Michael Naylor and Maggie Montgomery.
The forum began with opening statements from each candidate.
Thompson, in his opening statement, said, “I have always loved this community, and have been involved with the city for many years.” He continued, “I want to continue to serve the city I love.”
Thompson served as the at-large councilor from 2010 to 2014, and is a retired eye doctor. Prior to serving on the Bemidji City Council, he was a member of the Northern Township Board. He has lived in the area since 1937, with the exception of the 13 years he spent pursuing his medical degree.
Thibodeaux, in her statement, said she has been living in Ward 2 since 2010, and has owned a home there with her husband since 2012.
“I think I can provide a fresh outlook for the city council,” said Thibodeaux. “I have 15 years of experience working in water and natural resource protection, and have experience advising businesses and agencies on environmental projects and how to make smart decisions.”
Thibodeaux has a master’s degree in ecology from Bemidji State University, and has been a volunteer at the Headwaters Science Center, in addition to serving Bemidji’s and Minnesota’s Audubon Society.
Rivera, in her statement, emphasized the diversity of Ward 4 and how her background in social work could be valuable to the city council.
“My goal is to help Bemidji grow in the right way, while we stay connected to the small town amenities that make our town so unique,” said Rivera.
Lehmann has been here for 29 years, he said in his statement, and emphasized that his experience, as former mayor as well as former and current Ward 4 councilor and president of the South Lake Irving Neighborhood Association, will help guide the city in the right direction.
“As Bemidji’s sphere of influence grows throughout the region, it’s important to have experienced officials,” Lehmann said. “There’s going to be some growing pains.”
The city is currently reviewing drilling a new well, as several of the city’s wells in the airport wellfield have been deemed contaminated, as well as reviewing a need for a new wastewater treatment facility as the city’s growth adds pressure on the current water infrastructure.
Heinonen in his statement said he moved here to attend Northwest Technical College and has worked here as a mechanic for 30 years. Heinonen has years of civic leadership experience, having been a member of the Bemidji Jaycees, and has served on many commissions with the city of Bemidji.
“There are many aspects of this community that still needs work,” said Heinonen. “I am the father of five and the grandfather to ten. I want them to have the same amenities this community has given to me over the years.”
Heinonen stressed the need to address the well, wastewater treatment and stormwater sewer issues.
“We need to protect the natural resources here because that’s the driver of this community,” he said. “As we become community leaders, we need to sit at the table and work together for the common goals.”
Beard has worked, lived and rented in Ward 2 for the last 13 years, he said in his statement. He was the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce President in 2008, and has been involved with the United Way of the Bemidji Area for a number of years, including co-chairing a City Campaign.
“There are some guiding principles I live by, one of them being work smarter, not harder,” Beard said. “I have 39 years of experience in the private sector, in retail management.”
Beard was the manager of the Paul Bunyan Mall until he retired last year, and spent the earlier portion of his career with the J.C. Penney corporation, after graduating from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in marketing.
The first question the candidates answered was on the revolving loan fund, and if the city made a mistake in loaning money from that fund to the hotel connecting to the Sanford Center.
That hotel, the Country Inn and Suites, defaulted on all of its loans and after a lengthy battle in civil court, the city was not deemed a large enough lender to be able to recapture funds through the legal system. The city forgave the loan, and now has a hotel connected to the Sanford Center via an enclosed walkway.
The candidates were generally in consensus that the city did right by forgiving the loan, and that sometimes loans do not get paid back.
“[The walkway] is a resource for the community,” said Thibodeaux. “I believe that was an appropriate use of the fund.”
Lehmann added that in the process of developing the Sanford Center, the end goal was to have a hotel connected to it. Rivera said the loss was unfortunate, but in the end the walkway is a benefit. Heinonen added that “you can’t always see the future” but at least the city now retains ownership of the corridor.
Beard said there is a process that goes into selecting who receives loans from the revolving loan fund.
“The board is made up of bankers, financial people, government people, and it’s a decent process,” said Beard.
The second question the candidates discussed the working relationship between the city and staff. The candidates once again had general consensus, that the city has an indispensible and knowledgeable staff.
The third question concerned annexation. One audience member stated in their question card that they are due to be annexed into the city but will receive no benefit from it, as they already receive fire and police protection.
The candidates agreed that annexation was an important tool for the city. In 2020, many properties will be annexed into the city from Northern Township, in an annexation agreement made many years ago.
The next question the candidates addressed was an open-ended one, requesting a comment on the city of Bemidji’s relationship with American Indians.
Heinonen tackled the question first, stating that it is important to work well with our indigenous neighbors.
“We need to make sure everyone has a voice,” he said. “We have similar problems in our communities. The crime rate is high in Leech Lake, Red Lake and here, and we need to figure out a way to deter those kinds of things for all of us.”
Beard said the Native American culture is a huge part of the economic driver of this community.
“Bemidji would not be the city it is today without the culture around us,” said Beard. “It’s part of the fabric of our community, and we need to continue to embrace it, absorb it, and keep the lines of communication going.”
Thompson stated that Native Americans add to the uniqueness of this town, and that “there isn’t another town in the U.S. that has three reservations within 100 miles.”
Thibodeaux said the American Indian influence in the community is “what puts us on the map” and she would advocate for an advisory council that puts Native American voices at the table.
“Twenty percent of our population is indigenous, but the city council does not represent that,” she said. “I would want to increase that voice [with an advisory council] to advise on how the city can improve relations.”
Rivera stated that the current nature of the relationship with the American Indian community “depends on who you talk to.”
“A lot of people feel as though they don’t belong here, and they’re treated differently when they go about their business in town.”
Rivera believes more outreach and collaboration would improve relationships and not doing so is “doing injustice to our community members.”
“We need to work hard to bridge that gap, a gap that we have created, because without Native Americans, our community would not exist,” said Rivera.
Lehmann said that city attempts to engage the Native American community any time there’s “any significant activity.”
“We have a blended community, with people from all walks of life here,” said Lehmann.
The final question asked of the candidates was concerning the “Bemidji First” campaign signs and slogans.
Mayoral candidate Joe Vene, as well as Heinonen and Beard, have gotten behind the slogan, with many of them receiving contributions from the same people, according to campaign finance reports.
Beard said the “Bemidji First” slogan is largely based on the well-known local slogan, First City on the Mississippi. Heinonen said the slogan is to put the community before anything else, as “Bemidji has a lot of firsts,” such as the first Best Minnesota Town, as well as being the first city on the Mississippi.
Rivera and Thibodeaux both stated they were not involved with the “Bemidji First” slogan.
Rivera added, “When you find that you label someone who is first, you’ll have someone who is last,” further explaining that many citizens here have jobs in Cass Lake and Bagley, for example, and “our communities are interconnected.”
Thibodeaux said, “We should view our city as a regional center, and to provide it with the resources the surrounding communities need, as well.”
Thompson and Lehmann are not associated with the “Bemidji First” slogan, either.
Thompson alluded to the various organizations, such as the Sanford Health network, here that work to build Bemidji’s economy, and said there is a lot of opportunity for those seeking work within the city.
Lehmann said, “The hierarchy is God, Family and Country. As elected officials, we have an obligation to put our community first, we are here, are elected, to put the best interests of our community first.”