Cit council, county and state candidates debate issues

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 15, 2006

By Sarah Light, staff writer

Candidates squared off Friday night discussing everything from education and health care to business growth and transportation in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Freeborn County.

The forum, which was held in the Riverland Community College auditorium, gave a full house of Albert Leans the chance to submit questions to local and state level candidates.

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In attendance were City Council Ward 2 candidates Larry Baker and Dick Hench; City Council Ward 4 candidates Reid Olson and Lanier Pratt; Minnesota Senate candidates Sen. Dan Sparks, a Democrat, and George Marin, a Republican; Minnesota House candidates Robin Brown, a Democrat, and Matthew Benda, a Republican; and Freeborn County Sheriff Mark Harig and challenger Bill Villarreal.

Albert Lea City Council – Ward 2

In their opening statements to the crowd, Baker and Hench discussed why they had decided to run for the position.

Baker, who noted that he has lived in Albert Lea for all of his life, said though he thinks city leaders are on the right track, he still thinks there are a few things that need to be tweaked.

&8220;I&8217;m passionate about the city,&8221; he said. &8220;I think there&8217;s a lot of things that can be done to the city. I&8217;m drawn to this position. I&8217;ve always been interested in the way government works.&8221;

Hench said it is his goal to work to help encourage growth in the city.

&8220;The councilman&8217;s first job is to work for the good of Albert Lea while representing the citizens of his ward,&8221; Hench said. &8220;You make a vote based on what&8217;s good for all the members of your city and the ward.&8221;

When asked what they thought the most pressing issue for their ward was, the candidates agreed that communication between the City Council and the community needed to be increased.

&8220;Without communication, you&8217;re not going to get anything done,&8221; Baker said.

Hench agreed but said he thinks the most important issue is the sewer conditions.

Baker and Hench said they both thought the relationship between the city and county government is moving in the right direction.

&8220;I think it&8217;s vital that if we&8217;re going to grow in our area that that relationship continues to grow,&8221; Hench said.

Baker said the more communication there is between the city and county entities, the more can happen to better the area.

Both men closed their portion of the forum by saying they thought the biggest asset of Albert Lea is its people.

&8220;Albert Lea has tremendous potential,&8221; Hench said. People need to get involved to a greater extent in the city and talk to their councilman, he said.

Baker said he thinks Albert Lea has a very good quality of life, but that, like everything else, it can be improved.

Albert Lea City Council – Ward 4

The moderator first asked Olson and Pratt what their vision was for Albert Lea in the next four years.

Olson said it would be tough for him to see what can be done until he&8217;s actually in the position but said he wanted to work to improve recreation. Cleaning up the lakes will improve recreation and draw more people to the city to shop downtown and in the malls, he said.

Pratt said he would like to see more openness within the community and more jobs for people 18 to 34.

&8220;I really would like to see a continuation of the life that we know in Albert Lea,&8221; he said. &8220;I have come to relish and enjoy the small-town atmosphere.&8221;

When asked about their plans for the downtown area, Olson said he would continue with the way the current city councilors are approaching the situation.

Pratt said he, too, wants to continue redeveloping the downtown buildings.

&8220;We have some very amazing buildings in our town that should be salvaged,&8221; he said.&8221;

Both also agreed that the largest issue for their ward would be the expansion plans for the Bridge Avenue Corridor project.

Olson said the issue is something that the city and county needs to work closely together on and that the plans should definitely happen if a safety issue is involved.

Pratt said though it is not an easy decision to make, he thinks the expansion does need to take place. When it comes to the removal of homes, however, he said he believes in a person&8217;s right to their homes.

Minnesota Senate – District 27

After Marin and Sparks gave their opening statements, the moderator first asked the candidates what they would do to further education.

Marin brought up the need for finding a better education funding formula, recognizing that all students, not just those in the metropolitan areas, have need for support. Currently, students in the metro areas receive a significantly higher amount of funding per student, he said.

Marin said he also hopes to fight for the schools that are facing declining enrollment and to fight for all-day kindergarten.

Sparks said his answer to the question is simple.

&8220;The real key or the simple answer is the state needs to live up to its potential and fully fund education on the state level,&8221; he said.

When asked what they thought about the separation between church and state, Sparks said he thinks the two need to remain separate.

Marin pointed out that the founders of the country were godly men and that if people go to the nation&8217;s capital, they will see references to God on many of the buildings.

After saying that, though, he said he does not believe it is right for a political figure to bring their own convictions upon people.

The moderator also asked the candidates how they would protect the state&8217;s vulnerable, such as the elderly and mentally handicapped.

Marin said that by fighting to end taxpayer-paid abortions, more money could be saved to use to help those who are more vulnerable.

Sparks said it is the government&8217;s role to take care of these people that need help.

Before exiting the stage, both candidates gave closing remarks indicating why people should vote for them in the upcoming election.

&8220;I know what it is to work hard,&8221; Marin said. &8220;I know what it is to balance a local budget.”

Sparks encouraged the crowd to continue to ask the tough questions and noted that it has been a &8220;humbling and honoring experience&8221; for him to be in his position as senator.

&8220;I&8217;m a homegrown leader,&8221; Sparks said. &8220;The decisions I make don&8217;t just affect voters; they affect my friends, family and neighbors.&8221;

Minnesota House – District 27A

Brown and Benda&8217;s first question asked how they would continue the success of Rep. Dan Dorman if elected into office.

The candidates said Dorman was able to have such success because he was able to work across party lines. If elected, they would continue to make this a priority, Brown and Benda said.

When asked what they would do about school funding, Brown said she would work to make education a top priority.

&8220;There is a discrepancy between the cities and us,&8221; Brown said. &8220;I think there is a simpler way to formulate and make sure that schools are funded a little more equitably.&8221;

Benda said he agreed that the gap in the funding needed to be closed and added that he is a supporter of all-day kindergarten. He said he is going to be a strong supporter of education.

&8220;I believe it&8217;s not only a community-growth issue, but also a business issue,&8221; he said.

The candidates were also asked what they would do to make sure funding is available the large upcoming group of baby boomers.

Benda said he thinks it is important for people to buy long-term care insurance and that in the future other changes might need to be made to accommodate for this issue.

Brown said she would support programs that allow the elderly to stay in their homes as long as possible, giving family members who care for them assistance.

&8220;I think long-term health care comes under the term of taking care of our citizens,&8221; she said.

Brown said if elected, she could bring some &8220;really interesting attributes&8221; to the position as legislator.

Benda said people should vote for him because of common sense. He&8217;s been involved in numerous activities and committees throughout the community and done a lot to help people just through his position as an attorney, he said.

Freeborn County Sheriff

The moderator first asked Villarreal and Harig how their past experience would help them fulfill the job as sheriff.

Villarreal said his he has very diverse experience, which includes 20-plus years with the Albert Lea Police Department, along with his time in the Sheriff&8217;s Office, military and other organizations in the community.

Harig said he has spent many years doing investigations, with narcotics experience as his forte. He said he has also learned a lot from his four years of experience already in the office.

Candidates also discussed how they would crack down on drug users in Albert Lea.

&8220;What we need is better protection out in the county,&8221; Villarreal said. &8220;As long as the demand is there, there&8217;s always going to be supply.&8221;

He said he thinks there is going to be an increase in crime in the rural areas and that Freeborn County should collaborate more with Mower County and work as a team to address these concerns.

Harig agreed, adding that many of the changes that have been introduced in recent years have helped diminish a lot of the problems. It will still be one of his main goals, however, to concentrate on the meth epidemic, he said.

Villarreal and Harig also addressed the issue of how they would stay within their budget for the sheriff&8217;s department.

Villarreal said if elected into the position, he would work more to monitor the overtime budget and make people accountable for their time on the clock.

Harig said while this is an issue, it would cost more to hire an another person. He added that many of the expenses that have come up during the last year have been unpredictable, like with some of the costs involved with the Robert Michael Hughes trial.

Harig said he is proud of the accomplishments he&8217;s made in his position the past four years and thinks a person&8217;s performance, and not their proclamations,

should be measured to determine who&8217;s best for the job.

Villarreal said he can&8217;t think of a better gift to give to the members of the community than to give them a safer place to live.