Endorsement: At a crucial crossroads, Eaton’s vision is best for Albert Lea

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 26, 2002

Only two years after electing a new mayor in Bob Haukoos, Albert Lea is back to square one, with an open seat at the head of the city council. But this time, the situation is different. The Farmland fire and its aftermath have transformed the community and a new set of priorities appears to be on the table. It’s a period of uncertainty, but more importantly, it’s one of great opportunity.

With positive developments like the city’s possession of the old Farmland site and the marketability of the Habben Industrial Park &045; whether it’s to Ford or someone else &045; Albert Lea is poised to move into a better economic future. In addition, momentum toward downtown revitalization and lake cleanup offer promise for quality-of-life improvements that could separate Albert Lea from the pack among southern Minnesota cities.

At this crucial time, it’s essential that city leadership approach the coming challenges with an open mind, a willingness to involve all of the community, and most importantly, a strong vision for a better Albert Lea &045; and the fortitude to see it through.

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In Mark Anderson and Jean Eaton, Albert Lea has two candidates who certainly pass the first test for a mayor: They are smart, articulate and experienced leaders with the kind of backgrounds that qualify them for the job. Both have clear strengths, in our view, as well as weaknesses.

Anderson is a strong, principled leader who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right, and that’s an attitude Albert Lea, and any city, needs. He has a no-nonsense personality and his ideas on education and housing, in particular, ring true. Unfortunately, we don’t agree with his position on other key issues, including the proposed city sales tax and the old Farmland site, and he tends to place too many limits on what he thinks Albert Lea can do.

We agree more with Eaton’s opinions on the future of the Farmland site, with its enviable location near both lakes, and her qualified support for lake projects and the proposed sales tax. She has a strong vision for how an exciting new development, possibly a tourist attraction, on the ex-packinghouse site can inject new life into the area. However, despite her claim to proven leadership, she has the tendency to be too careful, too susceptible to the trap of committee thinking, and has at times dodged questions rather than taking a firm stand.

Even if a strong vision for the future proves too bold, or if plans need to be scaled back or altered along the way, aiming high is a key to progress. Leaders who are willing to set and follow lofty goals would be an asset at a time when the city is at such a crossroads. Considering everything, we think Eaton is the candidate with the stronger, more complete vision for Albert Lea and the best plan for getting the city there, and because of that, we consider her the best choice for the job of mayor.

Eaton’s experience and &uot;can-do spirit,&uot; themes she has continually sounded in her campaign, have value. As former Convention and Visitors Bureau director, she has a deep understanding of how to market a city. As a former Riverland Community College dean, she understands the importance of education in a community. And in all her jobs, including her current one as United Way Director, she’s worked with a broad range of people of all ages, races and political persuasions. Her well-documented &uot;can-do spirit&uot; is also an important asset for an office that will require all the determination its holder can muster. If she gets the mayor’s office, it’s our hope that it’s more than a slogan.

One of the new mayor’s most important challenges, we believe, will be finding more effective ways to communicate with the public. Waiting for people to come to the meetings and appearing on a couple of weekly radio and TV shows won’t be enough. The city needs to consider restructuring the way it crafts policy and discusses issues, in order to better involve the public in the early stages; as it is, the first time the public hears about something might be the night it’s supposed to be voted upon, and there is often little discussion at the council meetings. The city, led by the new mayor, must actively work to quell misconceptions and answer the questions of residents before rumors and coffee-shop talk fill in the blanks. City leaders must also drop the defensive stance that seems to overcome some of them whenever questioned.

Eaton, as a public-relations savvy person, is in a way both well-suited and ill-suited to the task. She understands the importance of effective communication and has good plans to bring a new approach to city hall. At the same time, she is sometimes too reluctant to be frank, and seems to have the impulse to micromanage the flow of information. It’s our hope that she will embrace a totally open communication policy; the people deserve no less, and will not trust anything else.

Anderson was a good candidate two years ago, and although his platform has undergone a metamorphosis, he is still a good candidate. He demonstrates a more-than-capable understanding of how city infrastructure, housing and educational excellence can combine to present conditions ripe for development.

It’s our opinion, however, that he limits himself and the city too much by returning to the mantra of &uot;limited resources.&uot; Of course, it’s true that taxpayers can only be asked to do so much, but at the same time, you have to spend money to make money. Projects like lake improvement and development of the Farmland site could conceivably be accomplished largely through private dollars and grant funding. By dismissing lake projects as too expensive and suggesting nothing more than light industrial development for the Farmland site, he is already ruling out greater possibilities, before they’re even fully explored.