Column: Candidates offer contrasting views of what city needs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2002

In the last mayoral race, it seemed like the biggest disagreement between the final two candidates, Mark Anderson and Bob Haukoos, was what to do with a bunch of money that had come from police and fire pension funds.

Anderson made the fund a cornerstone of his campaign &045; the &uot;Golden Egg,&uot; he deemed it. It could be used to improve the city’s infrastructure, develop housing and set the city up for development down the road. Haukoos, who everybody knew was a former firefighter, didn’t seem quite so sure about spending that money.

As campaign issues go, that one didn’t seem like a real hot tamale. It didn’t provide the average voter with an issue to be really passionate about.

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This time, we had a primary campaign that was popping with some real hot-button issues, and the primary result &045; Anderson vs. Jean Eaton &045; promises to continue offering two contrasting views on these ideas.

From hearing candidate forums, reading articles and digesting each of the weekly questions in the Tribune, it’s plain to see that Anderson represents what his followers would surely call a more restained approach to going forward in a city of 18,000 in outstate Minnesota. Eaton’s ideas are more ambitious; her followers would tell you she’s interested in helping Albert Lea realize its enormous potential, and that a key piece of doing so is improving the lakes and making Albert Lea a place where people want to visit.

They paint two different pictures of Albert Lea and what it needs.

In the Anderson view, the city’s resources are limited. Taxpayers are being asked to vote for a school levy and will probably be paying for a large addition to the courthouse. Sure, lake cleanup would be nice, but would we get the most for our money that way? The project would undoubtedly be expensive. Could &uot;fixing&uot; the lakes really turn Albert Lea into &uot;Brainerd South,&uot; as Anderson has put it? He doesn’t come out and say it, but it’s clear he doesn’t think so.

The Anderson view seems to be that a city in our location &045; despite the interstates people can’t stop talking about &045; faces challenges. We’re too close to Iowa and too far from the Twin Cities. Instead of trying to be the next big boom town, it would make more sense to channel those limited resources into &uot;sensible&uot; things like housing and infrastructure, the theory goes. An educated workforce is another key, he says, although he hasn’t made it clear how the city government can influence education.

In the Eaton view, Albert Lea requires a different approach. There are dozens of other cities in the same position &045; far from the Twin Cities, seemingly stuck in a growth rut &045; but few others have the kind of assets Albert Lea does: the lakes, the parks, the recreational opportunities. It’s clear from every entry on Eaton’s resume that she believes in the city’s potential to do more and be more.

Aligning herself with a position also taken up by Greater Jobs and the Chamber of Commerce, she’s betting that lake cleanup and a blockbuster development on the old Farmland site could be key ways to differentiate the community from others like it. That, in turn, gets the city noticed and the improvement to quality of life spurs more job growth. Housing, education, infrastructure &045; sure, they’re important too. But Eaton’s &uot;can-do spirit&uot; suggests she believes more can be done to encourage more development. Can she apply that spirit to the hard, sometimes frustrating work of city government?

Of these two views of the city, which one do the people believe? It’s hard to say just from the primary results. Eaton had the most votes by far, and if you look at the votes for Tony Trow and George Marin, who had similar messages, it would seem people favor that approach. But that was less than half the city voters talking, and it’s impossible to tell which of them were voting on name recognition rather than issues.

The other key question about this election is if it will matter. The mayor, after all, can be most effective if the city council is of like mind.

We know Marin will remain on the council; and it looks like challengers Randy Erdman and Jeff Fjelstad, both of whom got the most votes in their ward in the primary, have a good chance of making the council. They would replace two of the longest-tenured members if that happens. So whoever the new mayor is, they may be working with a council that’s very different than it has been in the past.

In any case, it looks like the next two months will be filled with a mayoral race that really gets into some issues and asks people to choose which view of Albert Lea they identify with.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.