Council, mayor candidates share vision for city
Published 6:28 am Thursday, October 20, 2022
Jobs, economic development, priorities and even snow removal took center stage Wednesday evening during the last of three candidate forums sponsored by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce at City Hall.
The forum included candidates for Albert Lea mayor and Albert Lea City Council with questions read by Mike Woitas of KATE Radio. Questions were submitted to the chamber by people in the community.
First Ward Councilor Rich Murray, who has lived in Albert Lea for about 40 years and is running for mayor, said he is ready to hit the ground running and said his prior service to the community has helped prepare him to be the city’s next mayor.
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“I want to see the community grow,” Murray said. “I want to see it prosper.”
He said the only thing on his agenda is to see each person in the community be successful.
His opponent, Ryon McCamish, a 36-year-old stay-at-home-dad and part-time web developer, said he wanted to give the young generation a voice and help modernize Albert Lea. He said he wanted to bring in some new, fresh ideas to keep young kids in the community and help bring college students and young families back to the city.
When asked whether they would prefer a park or parking lot in the area where two buildings were recently taken down on the 300 block of South Broadway, McCamish said he wanted something unique there, such as art or fountains and for it to be a space where people could unwind and gather.
Murray talked about economic development — including apartment buildings with businesses on the first floors. He said the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency is putting together a real estate fund that people can invest into and use toward helping the community grow. This project could be an opportunity that these investors could help and said he didn’t want to see it done with city dollars.
McCamish said he would put a stop to anyone putting pressure on city department heads to keep business out of Albert Lea if that is occurring and said if someone wants to bring a business to the community, they should be welcoming them.
He would support grants to encourage small business in the community or things like tax abatement.
“It gets harder and harder every year it seems like, and we need to do something,” McCamish said.
Murray said of his time in government — including both in the state Legislature and on the council — he has never heard one person who has said not to bring a business to town.
“We will talk to every single person that has a business idea,” he said, noting that every new business in the community can add jobs.
He said he will listen to every idea that comes before them and if it’s a good idea do their best to make sure that person does business in Albert Lea.
Murray said he and Phillip Johnson, executive director of the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, have been going out visiting small businesses and talking to them about how the city and ALEDA can help them succeed. He talked about opportunities available for loans, loan forgiveness for creating jobs and even helping with training or giving ideas on hiring people.
When asked about the role of mayor, Murray said he thought the role was for that person to be a cheerleader for the city and to promote Albert Lea as one of the best places in southern Minnesota to live. He said the mayor should get out and speak to businesses and citizens, attend community events and essentially “beat the drum” that Albert Lea is the place to be. He said there are jobs in the community, there is a good cost of living, good fire and police departments and a good school system.
McCamish said he agreed with Murray about the role of the mayor.
“The mayor is the face of Albert Lea no matter what happens,” he said.
He said the mayor should be out talking to people in the community, whether at events or at community meetings like ones former Assistant City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos used to set up. The mayor should also be focused on overall quality of life for the city and making sure the council and staff are doing their jobs.
Regarding their ideas for the Blazing Star Landing, McCamish said he would support an events center, shopping and some type of waterfront business to rent boats, while Murray said there have been good ideas for the space but the current holdup is the contaminated soils. All the soils will need remediation, which he estimated at $10 million more. That will take help from the state and city to come up with a financial plan.
Regarding going to odd-even parking after snow events, both men said they would prefer to stay with the city’s current way of snow removal and not to fix something that isn’t broken.
Incumbent Ward 2 Councilor Larry Baker, 65, whose background is in the building industry, said he is a lifelong resident of the city and said he has gained more passion for the city and met a lot of wonderful people during his time in office.
His opponent, Brian Beasley, grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and moved to the area seven years ago. He started as a commercial electrician, worked for a city in New York for nine years, including as director of public works, and currently works as director of facilities for Austin Public Schools. He talked about his experience writing grants and saving millions for the entities he has worked for and said he has experience with collaborating. He hopes to create a new action plan and a new chapter for the city.
When asked what the top issues were for constituents outside of taxes, Beasley said he thinks communication is a concern, whether it is getting back to residents, setting up times to meet or the need to offer more community forums.
“We have to do a better job communicating with our residents about what the needs are,” he said.
He also asked about putting up a nostalgic sign downtown to tell about events happening.
Baker said residents want communication and to be able to speak with someone personally. He said he has taken text messages and phone calls at all times of the day to speak with people who reach out to him.
Baker said he thinks Albert Lea is on the right track and that culture within city staff has greatly improved in the last five or six years. He attributed that not only to the council but to leadership throughout the community. He noted, however, there were some areas within the city that needed to be worked on and said there have been talks about these among the council.
Regarding how the city could share expenses with Freeborn County, Baker talked about the potential to possibly share services with the Freeborn County Attorney’s Office after the recent resignation of the city attorney, as well as partnering with other firms.
He also talked about the partnership with Freeborn County to develop the former Union Pacific line from Albert Lea to Hartland.
Beasley said he thought there needed to be a review of the city and county’s equipment and see if there was duplication.
When asked about what to put in between the two downtown buildings that were demolished, Baker said the current plan is to put a small park or green space with some parking in the back, though that area has been deemed a redevelopment area.
Beasley questioned putting a park in the middle of empty buildings and said he thought the city should think outside of the box and come up with more options, including bringing in more attraction downtown, such as art.
Beasley said he was not in favor of the city switching to an odd-even system for snow removal and said he had experience previously with that approach. He said it caused issues with people who didn’t have good parking or who had multiple cars, and that ticketing would add more costs on to people already dealing with inflation.
Baker said the council had previously done studies on the issue and noted that some of the cities that staff looked at wanted to go to the way Albert Lea does it, actually noting that the city can get the streets cleaned a day earlier in its current method.
Incumbent Reid Olson is running against opponent Sherri Rasmussen for the 4th Ward seat.
Olson said he was born and raised in Albert Lea and has a history in construction, presently working for Joshua Parks Construction out of Hollandale. He and his wife have three children.
Rasmussen said she grew up in Albert Lea, lived in New York working in the elevator business and returned to the community to take care of her father.
She said she hoped to bring her experiences back to Albert Lea to help the people in the city and to continue to build on the good work of the council thus far.
When asked what the appropriate time frame is to call back a constituent, Rasmussen talked about how in the various roles she has had, the practice was to return client calls within 24 hours. She said she would expect that as well.
She said she is available to speak with constituents and wants to work with them.
Olson said he thinks a city councilor should get back to a constituent who calls as soon as he can. He encouraged people to leave descriptions of their concern on their message so he can try to find the answer to that question before returning the call. He said some people simply need direction on who to call in the city about an issue, and sometimes people call about issues related to other entities such as the county or school district.
Olson said he thought the primary role of a council member is managing quality of life issues. He gave an example of when the council reduced hours at the library to keep taxes low and how upset people in the community got. They have since reopened weekend hours again.
Rasmussen said she thinks the most important job of a councilor is to be the ears and voice of the people they are serving. She said it is important to be available and to not be afraid of bringing up issues to the council.
“I really see my role here as being able to show up for the people,” she said.
Regarding snow removal, Rasmussen said when she lived in New York, the city where she lived had odd-even parking. She said even though it was sometimes frustrating, it was effective.
She also noted the importance of safety for the plow drivers.
Olson said he was not a fan of odd-even parking and noted the city’s streets actually get completely plowed in two or three days. He referenced a few studies done on the issue during his 16 years on the council.
Olson said he got reinvigorated on the council about six months to a year ago with some housing projects that are happening in the city. He also referenced a pilot project the city is doing to stabilize houses in disrepair and return them to the private market with money that would have otherwise been used to demolish them.
Rasmussen said she believes it’s her responsibility and now mission to run for the council and hopes she can help make Albert Lea a place that can keep the city’s youth here and bring them back after college. She said there needs to be more high-paying jobs here and talked about the importance of beautifying the city and keeping taxes affordable.
Brian “BJ” Anderson, who has lived in Albert Lea his whole life, said he has met a lot of people door knocking. When he has been at the door, some people have brought forward concerns, but at the end of the day most people love living in Albert Lea.
“I do, too, that’s why I’m running for City Council,” he said. “This is a great sense of community and I’d like to be a part of that community on another level.”
Ronnenberg said he chose to move to Albert 20 years ago with his family and raised his children here. Now that they have graduated and moved on, he is focused on what else he can do in the community.
“There was a day when I brought an issue forward, and it turned out I kind of had to fight the City Council,” he said. “… As a voice for Ward 6, I want (constituents) to know I will be the one to fight for them so they don’t necessarily have to have that fight.”
Ronnenberg said he thought the city needed to have a more proactive approach to growth and said in the past there have been times where it seemed the leadership of the community wanted to keep the community small.
He said people are leaving the community because they can’t afford to pay their taxes, and the way to offset that is by growing and drawing more people in to make it a destination.
Anderson said there will be several new faces on the council and there will be a new dynamic at the start of the new year. With some big expenses on the horizon for the city, he said he thinks some fresh ideas will be beneficial.
When asked what they thought should be done on the Blazing Star Landing, Anderson said he did not think it would be fair to be firm on a position without speaking to constituents, but noted that he often walks at the Blazing Star Trail and would be in favor of what people would have to say.
Ronnenberg said he would like to see an events center at the site that would draw people in for community events.
Regarding whether to change the city’s snow removal policy, Ronnenberg said on the surface he is not a fan of odd-even parking but would want to make sure a detailed analysis of the issue was done before any potential changes were made. He said he wouldn’t want to change how the plowing is done unless it would make it more efficient and would save the city money.
Anderson said he agreed that change for the sake of change was not good and said it would be necessary to speak to people involved, including plow drivers before considering.
The candidates were asked a question about consulting fees, and Anderson said over the years, those fees are actually something he has complained a lot about. He said ultimately it would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but if there’s an employee already in the city who could oversee the project that would be preferred.
Ronnenberg said he had mixed feelings about consulting firms but said if a consulting firm is hired, the city needs to at least have a way to hold it accountable for money spent.
When asked what they thought the No. 1 issue for their ward was aside from taxes, Anderson said he hears people talk about a lot of uncontrolled intersections, speeding and the upcoming upgrades needed at the wastewater treatment plant.
Ronnenberg said for him he believes it is petty crime. He spoke of a neighbor having gas siphoned out of her vehicle and another down the street having a catalytic converter stolen.
He said people need to support law enforcement and help in making the streets safer.
Candidates for 1st Ward, Rachel Christensen and Nicholas Nesse were unable to attend, and Woitas read a statement for both.
Check back for information about the Ward 6 forum.