Who will be mayor?

Published 4:04 pm Saturday, October 18, 2008

With a little more than two weeks to go until Election Day, the differences between Albert Lea mayoral candidates Randy Erdman and Michael Murtaugh are becoming clearer than ever.

While Erdman is working hard to point out his prior experience and progressive ideas, Murtaugh is busy promoting change among city government.

What do the candidates think when it comes to the big issues?

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The following is a recount of both candidates’ views taken from Tribune interviews earlier this year and from interviews conducted this week.

Michael Murtaugh, 47

Q: What do you consider to be the major differences between you and your opponent?

Even though Erdman has stated he’s in favor of eliminating the Thursday night preagenda meeting, Murtaugh said he wants to take that a step further.

“I’m actually proposing to eliminate it,” Murtaugh said. “I would take away the restrictions that have been put on the public forum. I haven’t quite determined whether that’s going to take the agreement of the council or if as the presiding officer it’s something I can do.”

He said he’s talked with former elected city officials and city staff, who agree that the preagenda meeting has become a source of controversy.

When it first started being held, it was done just to present the facts, and there was little discussion. Now, it’s different, he said. People want to see how decisions are reached.

“I’m not saying things are being done behind closed doors, but people have that perception,” Murtaugh said. “Let’s get rid of that perception.”

Eliminating the preagenda meeting and watching the city’s spending are the two major issues he and his opponent disagree on, he said.

Since 2002, property taxes on businesses and residential properties have more than doubled, he said.

Citing the League of Minnesota Cities, Murtaugh said the tax on a business property valued at $500,000 has gone from $1,878 in 2002 to $3,991 in 2008. This is more than doubled.

In 2002, Albert Lea had the lowest city tax in the region, compared to Austin, Fairmont, Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna and Rochester. But by 2008, Albert Lea was the second highest, exceeded only by Owatonna.

Murtaugh said he understands the problem with the uncertainty of local government aid from the state.

“I know that can be cut — and obviously it has been cut and we aren’t as reliant on it,” he said. “But I don’t agree that having doubled our taxes in the space of six years, putting us ahead in taxes above our neighbors was a good strategy.”

He said taxes probably needed to be raised some, but he thinks the city has gone way beyond what was reasonable.

Q: What would you say to people who say, “The city’s going to slap us with another fee or tax?” Do you think the city’s being too hard on its citizens?

“I think a lot of it has been in how it’s been approached,” Murtaugh said. “I’ve been pretty consistent with my message on openness. If people feel like they are being listened to and they get a more up-front answer, I think they would better understand the need for some of these things.”

He said he thinks the city’s been refusing to acknowledge that people are tired and getting stretched by continual tax increases.

Q: You’re employed full time. How will you be able to make time for your job as mayor, while still providing for your family, if you are elected?

Working as a computer programmer at Wenger Corp. in Owatonna, Murtaugh said there is a state statute that specifically requires that employers have to work with someone elected to public office to allow them to fulfill their duties.

He said he’s within 35 minutes of being in Albert Lea if he needs to come back in a hurry. Also he’s close enough that if he needs to come back for a lunch meeting, he’d be able to do so.

“I still need to make a living,” Murtaugh said. “But I’ll make as much time as I can for things in the nights and weekends.”

That in itself is another reason he’s against the preagenda meeting, he said. Why spend two evenings on meetings when it could just be done in one? He thinks there’s a better way the time could be used.

Q: How can you reassure people that you’ll actually work to fulfill the promises you’ve made during the campaign?

“I’ve tried to make some specific proposals about things,” Murtaugh said. “I do realize I’m one person on a seven-person council. I can’t by myself reduce the rate of spending. I’m going to have to rely on people in all parts of the city talking to their council members.”

When it comes to procedural things for the council such as the public forum — moving it back to the beginning of the meeting or going from two minutes to five minutes — he will do as much as he can on his own, though he’s unsure about what the mayor is allowed to do by himself.

“I would rather have consensus from the rest of the council if that’s what it takes,” he said. “I have made it a promise because that’s what people want. And that’s what I will do if I have that power.”

With eliminating the preagenda meeting, for example, he said, “We certainly can give it a try, and if something isn’t working, I’d be the first to say let’s rework it.”

Q: Do you think there should be more cooperation between Albert Lea and Austin?

“It certainly wouldn’t hurt to talk,” Murtaugh said. “I’m not sure what opportunities would be out there.”

He said the two cities are close enough that they may be able to share some equipment.

“I’d say, ‘why not?’ if there’s an opportunity,” he said. “Why not look into it — or with the county for that matter.”

Q: Do you feel like you portray a positive image for the city?

“Absolutely,” Murtaugh said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I’m involved with a variety of causes, nonprofit organizations. I’ve done nothing but to try to make this a better place to live.”

He said the surprising thing in running for mayor is that just because he’s the one that’s questioning some of the things that have been done in the past, some people are labeling him as a negative person.

“I’m not,” he said. “What’s wrong with me saying, ‘Maybe we’ve gone too far in raising taxes? We need to make sure we’re competitive with our neighbors.’ I think that’s a positive thing.”

Q: What role does the mayor have?

Murtaugh said he looks at the mayor as a council member at large because the mayor is elected by the entire city, as opposed to the councilors, who are elected by their respective wards.

“Some people talk about the mayor as a cheerleader or a tie-breaker vote,” he said. “I don’t agree with that. I think the mayor can be a leader in having some direction on the council.”

While there are ceremonial roles the mayor must do, the mayor also has a large influence in the presiding position during council meetings, he said. The mayor also needs to be positive about the future.

As a lifelong resident of Albert Lea and Freeborn County — other than when he attended college — Murtaugh said he is invested into the community. He has watched or listened to Albert Lea City Council meetings for years.

He has been out knocking on doors trying to spread his message.

His wife, Geri, is the assistant editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. Together they have two daughters, Erin and Tierney.

He was an active member of the Cloverleaf Lions Club for 10 years, a member of the Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors, including Ambassador of the Year in 1992. He’s also worked on numerous ACT and Minnesota Festival Theatre plays from 1985 to 1988, has been a board member of the Albert Lea Campus Foundation at Riverland Community College and currently is a member of the Computer Technology Advisory Committee there.

He’s also been an active member of the Bayside Waterski Show Team, in which he and his daughter Erin both ski, and the Albert Lea Figure Skating Club, where both of his daughters skate. He has helped children learn to water ski and ice skate.

He and his wife, coordinate the SCRIP program, which provides funding to the St. Theodore School Endowment.

Randy Erdman, 55

Q: What do you consider to be the major differences between you and your opponent?

“I think the main thing is I have focused on the vision for the community and where the community is going,” Erdman said. “I have a consistency in a leadership position and stability of where the community is going.”

Elected to the position in November of 2006 and serving as the 2nd Ward Albert Lea city councilor prior to that, Erdman said he’s had the time to build relationships with other governmental bodies during his time in office. These relationships are key in getting things done.

“It’s very important to have those because you can’t do anything alone,” he said during an interview in August. “If this city is to become the regional center it should be, you need that. You need to know who to contact.”

It takes time to establish these relationships, he said.

Another area of difference between himself and Murtaugh, Erdman said, is city funding and taxes.

“I don’t think he understands the city funding — how much we’re dependent on local government aid and outside sources like property tax.” Erdman said of his opponent.

In 2003, during Erdman’s first year on the council, the city tax levy only made up 12 percent of the budget, he said. The budget was 62 percent local government aid, or state aid, which was very top-heavy.

That year, the state gave the city a mid-year cut in excess of $1 million, he said, and the city was forced to plug that hole with reserves.

“We have been faced with the fact that we have to be more self-sufficient and pay more of our fair share,” he said.

Not to mention, the city’s always facing union contracts for the police, firefighters and street workers and increased costs in energy and materials.

“It is not easy,” he said.

City property taxes now make up about 32 percent of the budget.

“It isn’t something I like to do, but if you expect the services you’re accustomed to, we have to stay in line to provide for those services,” he said. “We need to do necessary upgrades and they do cost money.”

He said when planning for the 2009 budget this year, he and the council “tried everywhere possible to look at every department from the ground floor up.”

“Anything that wasn’t essential, we basically scrapped for next year,” Erdman said. “People need to also remember that not only have your costs at home gone up, but the city’s have too.”

The city buys gas and electricity too, he pointed out.

“I’m well aware that it’s hard on some people, but still we have to go on.”

He said he hasn’t submitted any expenses as mayor for mileage and such, even though he easily could.

“I take my wages and that’s it,” he said.

When it comes to the preagenda meeting — the meeting held every Thursday before the Monday Albert Lea City Council meetings — Erdman said would rather refer to those as a council workshop where information is shared and questions are answered by staff professionals. No decisions are ever made at those meetings, he said.

They could be done away with, he said, but if people want a healthy community, they need an informed council.

Q: What would you say to people who say, “The city’s going to slap us with another fee or tax?”

“A lot of the infrastructure for the city is over 100 years old,” he said. “There’s been a delay in necessary upgrades, so these improvements need to be made. If they’re not, we’re going to have major troubles later on.”

Also, if the people expect to attract other businesses, the city needs to be attractive and needs to be able to provide streets and sewer water drainage, he said.

Q: You’re employed full time. How have you been able to make time for your job as mayor, and how will you continue to do that, while still providing for your family, if you are elected again?

Self-employed through a company called Austin Office Products, Erdman said he’s fortunate to be able to have a job where he can take off anytime he needs to, to attend events or meetings.

“If I was not self-employed or an independent contractor, I couldn’t do the job,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work. You’re expected to be at a lot of places. And until you’ve done it, it’s hard to understand how much it really is.”

He said he doesn’t think people realize the number of things he has to sign as mayor, and he always makes sure to do so promptly.

There’s probably at least something once a day he has to attend as mayor. And sometimes, he attends three or four events in one day.

“It’s a sacrifice for the family,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how it affects your family too.”

Erdman said he thought being on the council for four years prior to being elected as mayor would help him know what to expect in the position of mayor.

“I had no idea,” he said. “It was a tremendous step up — in work, expectations, appearances, meetings.”

Q: You have some strong opponents. What would you say to those people?

“You can criticize me about my faults or you may not like me, but I have done the job,” Erdman said. “I haven’t skirted any responsibility.”

He said once change starts, sometimes it’s difficult for people to happen. But change is the only thing in life that’s certain.

“I’m progressive and forward-thinking and I have a vision for the community,” he said. “I think that makes some people feel a little uncomfortable — because change is uncomfortable.”

Q: How can you reassure people that you’ll actually work to fulfill the promises you’ve made during the campaign?

Erdman said he thinks people can judge his future by his past.

Since he’s been in office as mayor, the city’s gotten the funding for the North Edgewater Park Landfill project, has rebuilt Katherine Island, done many things for the downtown and tried to clean up the city.

“I really believe the future here is bright,” he said. “If you’re going to sell the product, you need to improve the product. We have a lot of improvements going on that need to continue.”

Q: Do you think there should be more cooperation between Albert Lea and Austin?

“Yes I do,” Erdman said.

He noted that he knows Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm personally. Albert Lea offered flood assistance to Austin during the flood event, and of course there could be more, he said.

“I think we could promote the two cities more together better,” Erdman said. “The two cities depend on each other so much. There’s a lot of back and forth … It’s like a salt and pepper shaker. They add to each other.

Q: Do you feel like you portray a positive image for the city?

“I do,” he said. “I look the part. I believe you need to dress accordingly. You need to be professional. And I look at the positive. I try to look at a vision of what we can be … not where we were.”

Q: What role does the mayor have?

“I think the mayor has to be the leading salesperson for the city, has to market the city, portray a good image and talk about the positive points of our city,” he said.

The mayor has to bring people together and keep the peace on the council, he added. The person in that position also has to keep the best interest of the city in mind and work hard to stay informed.

In an interview during the 2006 election, Erdman said he was determined to show that being a mayor is more than just cutting ribbons and shaking hands with members of the community. Being the mayor is also about showing leadership, building relationships and making tough decisions.

In November of 2007, he said he thinks it’s his responsibility to bring the best he can to the table, “not just half and half.”

“People showed the confidence to put me in; now I have to do the part,” he said.

This week, Erdman said: “Whoever is elected mayor, I want the community to get behind the mayor and the council. If we’re ever going to get anywhere together, we have to be together. Get behind whoever it is.”

Erdman has served as the co-founder and first president of Destination Albert Lea, a member of Fountain Lake Sportsman’s Club, a social member of American Legion Club Post 56 and a member of the Albert Lea Eagles. He’s also served on the Albert Lea Planning Commission and the Albert Lea Human Rights Commission.

He and his wife, Stephanie, have one child, Miles.