The citizens of Columbia Heights are an engaged electorate, as evidenced by the 101 questions they submitted to the Anoka-Blaine-Coon Rapids chapter of the League of Women Voters prior to the July 18 candidate forum. The forum was streamed online; only the candidates and LWV moderator Kathy Tingelstad were in the City Council chambers. Responses have been edited for length.
The forum can be viewed in its entirety at https://www.columbiaheightsmn.gov/. Go to the Government video tab on the bottom of the home page.
Tingelstad led off with questions for the mayoral candidates, Mike Ahrens, Cliff Johnson and incumbent Amáda Marquez-Simula. The top two vote-getters in the primary will go on to the general election on Nov. 8.
Asked about his motivation to run for office, Ahrens cited his 20-year residency in Columbia Heights and his work with local sports teams. Johnson said he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of rental property and he’s concerned about garbage, overgrown lawns and lack of sidewalks for pedestrians. Marquez-Simula said she is “the only candidate fighting for equality. I don’t wait for opportunities [to meet with citizens] to come to me.”
What are your goals for Columbia Heights?
Johnson: I want to strengthen city management of rental property, improve city services and public safety and traffic safety.
Marquez-Simula: We need to make our budget reflect our values. I’d like to bring more housing into the city, and businesses. Provide more community social workers and make safety improvements on Central Avenue.
Ahrens: Work with the police department to add more police. Work with current and future businesses, help make more affordable living for landlords and tenants.
What differentiates you from the other candidates?
Marquez-Simula: I moved to Columbia Heights nine years ago, became involved in the community. I helped start HeightsNEXT.
Ahrens: I pretty much want the same things as the others. I volunteer my free time with sports teams.
Johnson: I have been involved in this city for a long time. Graduated from Columbia Heights High School. I have been a landlord for 20 years. I know what it takes to be a landlord.
Are you in favor of putting the police under the City Manager, or leaving things as they are now, with the mayor able to do the hiring and firing?
Ahrens: That’s too much authority for one person to hold. It might be more effective if a committee did the hiring and firing.
Johnson: Keeping it as it is. This question was on the ballot before and voters turned it down. The city has spoken on this issue.
Marquez-Simula: I believe it’s going well as it is now. At the same time, it would be good to have opportunities for more people to make decisions. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
What would you do to revitalize Central Avenue and 38th Avenue?
Marquez-Simula: I would love to visit more businesses. I use social media to boost businesses in our city. I will continue networking outside Columbia Heights.
Ahrens: What used to be Rainbow was going to be Hy-Vee. Due to circumstances, that plan was shut down. That area has been empty about a decade, only two businesses still in business in that strip.
Johnson: I would concentrate on fundamentals such as rental properties, safety and garbage collection. Get that under control so businesses will want to come here. Make it a desirable city to be in.
What would you do to mitigate traffic problems in some places?
Ahrens: We’re going to have traffic issues on the backroads when work starts on Central and University and people starting driving on them. We need to fix those backroads. Some potholes could eat a car.
Johnson: Work with MnDOT to have input on the reconstruction of Central and University. I’d like to see left hand turns controlled. Get the police to enforce speed limits.
Marquez-Simula: We have people working with MnDOT for Central. I met two or three [MnDOT] people at Dairy Queen to [let them] see how loud and noisy it is. We want to be able to enjoy Central. Some of things we’re looking at include bringing in traffic calming techniques, fewer uncontrolled intersections, painted stop bars.
What can you do to increase participation in democracy in the city?
Johnson: Invite people, try to get as many people as possible involved on committees, work with employees. Getting people to come to meetings is hard, as I know from my HOA meetings.
Marquez-Simula: I am reaching out, being available, meeting people where they’re at. I’m always at the parks, I do Zoom meetings with cultural groups–East Africans, Tibetans, Latinos. I’m expanding my connections with the senior community.
Ahrens: Try to be more involved in the community. We are all together in our city and need to act together, put our diversity aside and come together.
What don’t people know about you?
Marquez-Simula: My dad played bass guitar. I love polka music, and I play the accordion.
Ahrens: I have a daughter who turned 2 on Friday. Since she was born, I hope to make better parenting decisions to pass on to her.
Johnson: I wrestled at Columbia Heights High School, I play hockey three-four times a week. I probably own 30 motorcycles—working on them is my hobby.
Given inflation, perhaps an impending economic downturn, do you support raising taxes?
Ahrens: Taxes on property or businesses? Raise taxes, no. Cut budgets, yes. Did we need a new library in 2014? Maybe that money could have been used to fix roads. We need to bring people back to work. The more people who work, the more taxes are generated.
Johnson: Raising taxes would be a last resort. I need to better understand where money is going, who’s costing the city more money. We should be charging more for rental licenses.
Marquez-Simula: I would like to be as creative as possible, and not cut services. Our staff operates on a very lean budget. Apply for community grants.
City Council candidates
Four out of seven candidates participated in the forum: Justice Spriggs, Nick Novitsky, incumbent, John Murzyn, incumbent, and Rachel James. Mohamed Aden, Ali Farah and Brook Ross did not attend. Farah has dropped out of the race, but his name remains on the ballot. Four candidates will go on to the general election Nov. 8.
Spriggs is a 25-year-old, fourth-year med student at the University of Minnesota. He’s concerned about affordable housing, transportation and getting a medical clinic back in Columbia Heights. Novitsky is a life-long resident with two teenaged daughters. He’s on his sixth year on the City Council and has served on the library, park and recreation boards and spearheaded the Jamboree. Murzyn is also a life-long Heights resident who worked in the city’s Public Works department for 38 years. He has served on the planning commission and been a police/fire liaison. Rachel James has lived in the city for 12 years, has been engaged in community ministry with First Lutheran Church and a multicultural advisor for CHPD.
What are your goals for the city?
Novitsky: To continue to make Columbia Heights a safe city, and friendly, welcoming community. To improve the information flow between businesses and the city and the residents.
Murzyn: Make sure Columbia Heights is as safe as it has been, keep everything running smoothly. The Lions Club and the Boosters are working to make our playgrounds accessible.
James: Livability. We need sidewalks and better safety at crosswalks. We need a grocery store. We need to bring diverse people to the table. Our city is better when we can hear from everyone.
Spriggs: Short-term: soccer fields, a skate park, adding sidewalks and art. Long-term: redevelop Central Avenue and bring in new businesses, get a medical clinic back in the community.
What would you do to enhance public safety?
Murzyn: Safer parks, make changes to Central and University to make streets safer for every resident.
James: I have been volunteering with the Police Department and have been a block captain for the last six years. I like our community-oriented policing. I would hold town halls with the police and diverse communities to promote understanding.
Spriggs: We should collaborate with other cities around us – St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Fridley, New Brighton. I would increase the number of social workers on staff.
Novitsky: We need to continue to fund public safety in the city. Our equipment and resources are for everybody in the community. I’m happy we have a social worker with the police for the day shift and the night shift. We need to improve communication. It’s so important.
Hwy. 65—How do you see the city being impacted by changes and how can we get ready for them?
James: Central is the heartbeat of our city. Too often people just pass through the city. We need to partner with the state to make it safe and add some color and lights.
Spriggs: I have a lot of concerns for the safety of walkers and bikers. Redevelopment should be for all the people, not just a way to get in and out of Minneapolis. We need to look at ways to improve walkability, such as wider sidewalks, and setting businesses up for increased foot traffic.
Novitsky: The city should have more control over the street. Put up more Stop and Yield signs, create clearer and better sightlines.
Murzyn: MnDOT is really interested in working with the city and residents. They want to stop pedestrians from getting hit and killed. I’d like to see the speed limit reduced to 30 mph from 53rd to 37th.
How would you promote new businesses and revitalize downtown?
Spriggs: The façade program is working really well. I’d like to expand that to the Fridley border. Promoting small businesses is entwined with livability. What types of businesses do we want to bring into Columbia Heights? Certainly, a grocery store.
Novitsky: The façade program shows we do care about our businesses.
Murzyn: I’m working with Community Development, reaching out to corporate prospects. We have a new brewery, and the façade program is working great.
James: I would love to be able to buy groceries in Columbia Heights and go out for a beer. The owner of El Tequila told me he’s waiting for the domino effect of new apartments in the area to take hold.
Given inflation, perhaps an impending economic downturn, do you support raising taxes?
Novitsky: Most city employees received raises. I would not be in favor of decreasing services. We need to be more proactive than reactive. Taxes may have to go up.
Murzyn: I don’t want anybody to lose their home because of taxes. We need to keep them where they are or keep them as low as possible to make residents happy. We don’t want to lose public works, police or fire services.
James: Some people in the city are struggling to pay for gas and groceries. We do need to maintain services. Overall, we’re using our tax money very efficiently.
Spriggs: In a survey, 73% of residents supported dedicated fees for a rec center, so there is an appetite for a small tax increase. If I had to make a choice between raising taxes or making cuts, I would support a small increase.
What’s your favorite place to spend time?
Murzyn: Going to the parks with my grandkids. I just can’t say no to them.
James: Taco Loco, Big Marina, Phoever, Sarna’s. Bike rides at Silverwood and Kordiak. The Heights Theater …
Spriggs: Eating at Pizza Man, Sarna’s. Kordiak Park is only a block away. The splash pad at Huset.
Novitsky: Sullivan Park. Murzyn Hall is a great place to meet new people. A lot of my kids’ friendships started there.
What are new ways Columbia Heights can embrace multiculturality?
James: I would encourage the city to develop and adopt an equity statement, which they could use to make decisions for funding. We can continue to support efforts to include everyone.
Spriggs: Being biracial, when we talk about diverse cultures, we need to back things up with actions. Asking people who are not involved to become involved needs a point person so they don’t go in blind.
Novitsky: Keep community and outreach going. Get more people to apply for boards and commissions, and run for office.
Murzyn: Have more picnics and bring people together. Open it up to different people.
If you could change one thing in the city’s zoning ordinance, what would it be?
Spriggs: Anything we can do to help businesses expand our local economy is good. Reuse old industrial plants, the Rainbow site, 37th and Stinson. Get creative with what we can do with what we have.
Novitsky: I would like to see a hard number on mixed use percentages. Every apartment building should have a certain fixed percentage of its space devoted to business.
Murzyn: Change our zoning so that family-friendly neighborhoods aren’t bought out by “We buy ugly houses” businesses. Limit the number of rental properties in a block.
James: We need housing, but we don’t want these multinational companies that come in and buy up our single-family homes. The proposed ordinance in discussion at City Hall is very progressive in limiting this possible changeover. Only 25% of Black familiies own a house, while 77% of white families own a home. Our strength is in our diversity.
What would a climate action plan for the city look like?
Novitsky: I would have to see the plan, but we could invest in solar power for city facilities, have city pollinator gardens.
Murzyn: I would have to read more about climate action and understand it. We’re just a small community. Make sure it works for all of the community.
James: We are seeing the effects of climate change. Public Works says there’s not as much snow in November as there was 20-30 years ago. I would like to see solar energy expanded to businesses.
Spriggs: Reducing emissions and moving toward renewable energy – how to work toward that for the city.
Below: Provided photos of candidates as they appeared in the Northeaster.