Seven people are running for two seats on Columbia Heights City Council. Come the August 11 primary, voters will narrow the field to four. The candidates met at City Hall July 14 for a forum broadcast over local cable channels and Facebook Live, due to COVID-19. The League of Women Voters presided over the forum. For brevity here, the questions are distilled to subjects.
Connie Buesgens, incumbent
Buesgens has served on the City Council for three and a half years and served on the planning commission before that. She is a 21-year resident of Columbia Heights and a member of HeightsNEXT. She wants to see more development downtown and strengthen sustainability by focusing on infrastructure.
Best way to learn Heights history: Read “Bootstrap Town.” We have a lively and colorful past. Several generations live here.
Park improvements: Only $50,000 is set aside for park repairs each year. Splash pads and other improvements came through grants for special projects. People want things, but we don’t have the money. Our public works projects need to be viewed through an environmental lens.
Fighting climate change: Four city buildings have solar panels. Moody’s Investors Service is requiring cities to have a climate change program as one of the criteria for assigning a credit rating.
Taxes: Only 9% of property in the city is commercial. We try very hard to keep taxes in balance. I hope the new City Hall will spark more development downtown. One thing we don’t have control over is housing prices. The average home price in Columbia Heights is now $250,000, it was $150,000. So taxes go up. And no, I don’t know what’s going on with Hy-Vee.
Police: Columbia Heights’ Police department has made a lot of changes. Community policing undergirds everything they do. Their main goal is to develop strong relationships. Seeing what happened in Minneapolis [the George Floyd killing] was very upsetting to them. Any increase in our policing is expensive.
Fighting institutional racism: Institutional racism does exist. I became more aware of it when I moved from Carver County to Minneapolis, then to Seattle. It’s been a constant growing experience to me. As a council person, I keep an eye on things. Call it out if you see racism.
COVID-19: This is a virus. The virus shut down the businesses. There are a lot of health issues; it takes people months to recover. Until we reach herd immunity or get a vaccine, this is going to be our lifestyle. Please wear a mask. I want to continue serving, working to improve the quality of life we have here.
Laura Dorle grew up in St. Cloud. She has lived in Columbia Heights for six years. She works for the Land Stewardship Action Fund, where she organizes farmers and rural Minnesotans around agricultural issues. She has worked as a policy associate for the City of Minneapolis, which showed her how municipal governments work. She would like to see Columbia Heights move to 100% renewable energy.
Best way to learn Heights history: Columbia Heights represents what makes the state and the country beautiful. Historically, it’s an immigrant city. I’m going to have to read that book.
Park improvements: I definitely support park improvements. I’ve been talking to neighbors at Huset Park. People are looking for more opportunities, more infrastructure for children and dogs. We have a lot to do as a growing city.
Fighting climate change: We’re going to have to develop more affordable housing and mixed use properties. We need to invest in clean, renewable electricity, and that includes the city vehicle fleet, too.
Taxes: We need to make sure our community can afford taxes. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. We need to make sure people are earning living wages. I see a lot of open space and opportunity that we’re currently missing.
Police: George Floyd really shook me. My grandfather was a lieutenant in the St. Paul Police Department. I’m pretty impressed with Columbia Heights officers, and I was grateful for Lenny Austin’s statement after the trouble in Minneapolis.
Fighting institutional racism: Institutional racism is deeply rooted in Minnesota. I love the diversity all around me here – race, class, gender. I know why people have not been engaged. One thing [that would help] is having our city council be more representative of the community. I want to make sure diversity is not just represented in the people that live here but also in city staff. It will be important to do planning around diversity and inclusion and in the school system. There’s a big difference between structural and personal racism and it’s important for the council to address it.
COVID-19: I would yield to partners in state government, the CDC, and the Minnesota Department of Health about what we should be doing to insure the health of all of our community. I would hate to see everything reopen in the Heights and have to shut it down again.
Kt Jacobs is a 27-year Columbia Heights resident. She’s served on the charter commission, the 2020 Census, the city’s Centennial celebration committee and has made it a point to attend every city council meeting, budget meeting and commission meeting for the past three years. She would encourage owner-occupied housing, and continue the Central Avenue façade program. Bringing new businesses to the lower Central Avenue corridor is one of her “passions.”
Best way to learn Heights history: I attended the library sessions when older residents shared their experiences. It was very entertaining and educational. I loved hearing about street cars and how the kids would jump on the street car to get on the train. There is so much texture to this city.
Park improvements: For a community of our size, we have one of the more comprehensive park systems. We need to be fiscally responsible in how we improve and maintain our parks, what we add. I’m not in favor of a dog park; too many cities dismantling them because of liability problems.
Fighting climate change: We have a forester the city has just hired recently. We have a terrific tree program. The Alatus project [on 40th and Central] is incorporating quite a few green items.
Taxes: I am very much aware of people on fixed incomes maintaining homes and trying to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. Avoid bonding. People cannot afford another tax bill. Be fiscally responsible. Access grant money, federal dollars so that we live within our budget.
Police: I give our police department 9 out of 10. We always have a chance for improvement. They were one of the first to use body cams, which I was against. I quickly changed my mind after they used them to track someone down and make an arrest. They use de-escalation to solve problems. They’re boots on the pavement. Their training is monthly if not weekly. We’ve got an excellent police department. I see it as part of the community vision.
Fighting institutional racism: Whether you’re talking about a job applicant or running for council, you need to have a skill set to fulfill the position. The question becomes why aren’t we seeing these people? What can we do to help them become viable candidates for an elected position? You can’t legislate emotions and ethics. The teachable movements that we create change with — we need to consistently strive for that. I was not raised with prejudice, I strive to better myself every day.
COVID-19: I think it’s essential we follow state and federal guidelines. We are not nearly as far into this process as we’re going to be. It’s going to take us into 2021. COVID has impacted our budgets. We need to be diligent and respectful how we move about the community.
Andy Newton has been a summer camp staffer; he drives a truck and does service work for a small furniture company. He is an artist and musician. His daughter attends school in Columbia Heights. He is a member of HeightsNEXT. He would like to restart the city’s Arts Commission. “I’m a straight white male. I’m privileged. Last year the LGBTQ community was denied recognition by the current mayor. This planted seeds for my candidacy. All people can have equity and a seat at the table.”
Best way to learn Heights history: It’s really fun and interesting to look into our history, where we came from. Where I live used to be a golf course; I’m looking for the holes. Recent history is more important to me, where have we been in the last few years. The Somali community is rich here, and the LGBTQ community.
Park improvements: Our parks are giant lawns. We could do better. Get away from chemicals. Make more soccer fields. Paying for it — we’ll find a way. We need programs especially for teens.
Fighting climate change: The biggest thing we can do is make sure people have the tools they need to make better environmental choices. Provide resources where people can find out more about recycling. How do I go solar in Columbia Heights? Go to this website, etc. We need to improve runoff, especially on Central Avenue.
Taxes: Taxes are never affordable. Things are going to get worse before they get better with COVID. We may need to tighten our belts and stay low for a while. I don’t have any answers right now.
Police: I sat down with Sgt. Justin Fletcher and talked with him about what he felt [after George Floyd’s death]. He’s got it figured out. I love our de-escalation techniques. I would like to see less law enforcement degrees and more social work degrees for our cops.
Fighting institutional racism: We need to establish a more safe and open forum for people of color in town. I talked to a lot of them to come to meetings and they don’t feel recognized, don’t feel like their voices are heard. Hearing them but not listening to them. I attended the gathering at Huset Park. It was designed for white residents to sit quietly and listen to the voices of people of color in town telling us what they experience. They were hard things to hear, hard judgments, but vital for us to sit with that discomfort. By merely existing, we white people have privilege. We need to sit down, shut up and listen.
COVID-19: When 9/11 happened, the Patriot Act took all kinds of actions that limited freedoms. We need to wear masks. You wear your mask for other people, not for yourself.
Scott Skaja moved to Columbia Heights in 2006. He lives, works and goes to church in the city. His daughters attend Heights schools. An avid bicyclist, he has assisted with the recreation department, Jamboree, the food shelf and serves on the Centennial celebration committee. He’s had a career in film and video since 1985 and knows how to run a business, balance budgets and meet deadlines. He believes arts and culture attract people to communities.
Best way to learn Heights history: I’ve also read “Bootstrap Town.” Outstanding things have happened here. That hard work ethic has been here from day one. People living in their basements before building on top of that.
Park improvements: I support updating parks. We have quite a few in good shape. I’d like to see more natural landscape, less concrete.
Fighting climate change: I work on Xcel Energy programs. I would have them assist the city in how to help businesses with solar panels and business practices to reduce energy use. Bicycles are big part of my life. It can be difficult to move around. We could make that easier.
Taxes: We need to look at property taxes vs. income. We need to attract new businesses that would help the budget. We need to increase industry, spend some money on PR. I would like to take a look at a city sales tax. There’s room for improvement, such as the fast food alley on north side of Central. We can do better. Put a cap on automotive businesses. They’re part of the city’s history, but there are better creative industries for Central.
Police: I don’t know the police department very well. My wife has lot of interaction with them at the food shelf where she volunteers. Columbia Heights is a beacon in the metro area. It’s important to find out and get their ideas on improvements.
Fighting institutional racism: This problem has been around in this country for 400 years. Can’t fix it with one or two statements. We’re all very sad about what happened to George Floyd. We have divided messaging. We need more unified messaging across the whole infrastructure. I go to an event every year at Columbia Academy and I see so many different colors of people and languages. One of my big pushes is to sit down and talk with people. I want them to be more fairly represented.
COVID-19: I support the mask law. I was in Minneapolis last week shopping. It’s not a big deal. I’m sure the stop sign was controversial, but we got used to it. We got used to taking our shoes off at the airport.
Bobby Williams, incumbent
Bobby Williams was born on a small farm north of Cambridge, Minn. He is the senior partner in Bobby and Steve’s Auto World. He has served on the City Council since 2000.
Best way to learn Heights history: This was a Polish community when I first got here. What an eye opener to go to Poland [on the Sister City program]. I toured Auschwitz and a salt mine.
Park improvements: $6 million is a scary number, but we have the land and the equipment. We should constantly be improving our parks.
Fighting climate change: I know the climate is changing. How we change it, I’m not really sure what’s going on. What’s causing it? I think God controls it and he is in charge. I don’t have an answer.
Taxes: We need to set a goal for the city manager, a five-year plan. Our budget increased 10% this year; over five years, that’s a 50% increase. We need to have a long-term goal. Taxes are a constant asking more from people, yet there’s not enough money to do what we want to do. Bottom line is, we do need more businesses.
Police: Our chief learned a lot at FBI school. I’m a firm believer in a strong police force. They are so busy. Young people pass out from heroin and the police take them to the hospital.
Fighting institutional racism: I don’t see any issues with race at all. We have lots of different nationalities and colors. I’ve been to Africa and Jamaica. I don’t have any discrimination with anyone. People are people. Some are different but we’re all human.
COVID-19: I’ve seen a lot of virus. My brother had polio. They stopped it. Most of my acquaintances are older folks in nursing homes. We’re a free country. We’re not free any more. We have to wear masks. Good hygiene is always good. We gotta work everyone together. We’re supposed to love one another and share with one another.
Julienne Wyckoff was born in Columbia Heights and grew up on Reservoir Blvd. A former model and airline flight attendant, she served as Columbia Heights mayor from 2003-2004.
Best way to learn Heights history: I never got to finish what I started, the Columbia Heights Historical Society. The City Council made it difficult. I gave the records to the Anoka County Historical Society.
Park improvements: I have already been to the council to consider a smoking ban in parks. Medtronic employees smoke at Sullivan Park, because they can’t smoke at work. They leave cigarette butts all over. Get people involved in their parks and see what they want.
Fighting climate change: I am so proud of Heights. I hardly have any garbage because of composting. We’re a tree city. We need to plant more trees to clean the air. I hope the new city hall will be more green. We need solar chargers for electric cars and to make our pavement more permeable.
Taxes: Next year my taxes will raise my mortgage payment $30 month. We have to be more mindful of taxes, and take care of the city. Sometimes we have to say no to the city manager. We need to increase the tax base. We don’t even have a grocery store; we need basic services. We have no dry cleaner, no jewelry repair here. Go and ask, look at open spaces and empty buildings and see what would fit. Seek the people who can fill it up.
Police: I love our chief right now, and he’s concerned about these issues. I saw two officers having dinner at the Thai restaurant. It’s good to see them in a friendly way. I’d like them to just walk the beat more. See them out there a little bit more. Even get a police dog. People smile when they see a dog.
Fighting institutional racism: I attended the seminar at Huset Park. It was very sad for me to hear about our students being called the N-word by their peers. It starts with each other, it starts in the home. We need to talk with one another. As I learned more, I am a part of the problem.
COVID-19: Columbia Heights has its own little hotspot. We have to wear our masks. They’re a pain in the butt, but we need to do it. It’s bad for people of color, bad for the environment. I hope we will rise from it smarter and stronger. Please wear your masks.
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