The Columbia Heights City Council chambers were stuffed and overflowing the evening of July 17 when four candidates for mayor shared their ideas with the public. One candidate, Jeff Harstad, was unable to attend, and Gary Peterson dropped out of the race. That left Connie Buesgens, Sean P. Clerkin, incumbent Donna Schmitt and Joseph Sturdevant to answer questions from the crowd.
The primary election is August 14; the top two vote-getters will run against each other in the November 16 general election.
The forum was sponsored by ABC League of Women Voters and HeightsNEXT. Kathy Tingelstad, a lobbyist and public relations consultant from Coon Rapids, served as moderator. Candidates were given one minute to answer each question. Their answers are printed verbatim below. The tape of the forum and the Anoka County Commissioner forum can be accessed at https://www.columbiaheightsmn.gov/news_detail_T17_R180.php
Background and qualifications
Sean Clerkin is a Columbia Heights resident who graduated from Columbia Heights High School in 1988. He’s been a member of the Columbia Heights Lions Club for two years. For the last five years, he’s coordinated the parade for the Jamboree, and has served on the park commission for six years.
Donna Schmitt was raised in Hermantown, Minn., and graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She’s been married for 41 years. A member of the Kiwanis, she also serves on the board of HeightsNEXT and on the Multicultural Advisory Committee. She defeated Gary Peterson for the mayor’s seat in 2016.
Connie Buesgens grew up in Carver County. She’s lived in Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis and for the last 19 years, in Columbia Heights. She’s active in HeightsNEXT, has served on the Planning and Zoning Commission and has served as a City Council member since 2016.
Joe Sturdevant served as Columbia Heights mayor from 1994-1998. He has served on the Planning Commission, the Charter Commission and the Columbia Heights School Board. He’s a member of the Lions Club and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
Why are you seeking this office?
Buesgens: I believe it’s time to start a new chapter. Columbia Heights is hot right now. We have Hy-Vee coming into our city. We have housing prices going through the roof. I just looked at the assessment values. The assessed values for our properties have gone up 15.2 percent in the last year. We have lots of new families coming into the city, new energy, and new babies being born. I’m seeing lots of baby strollers on the sidewalks – more than I’ve seen since I moved here 19 years ago. As your mayor, I want to keep moving forward, to continue to improve our quality of life.
Sturdevant: I would like to enhance communications between elected officials and city employees, committees and people. I also feel there is more need for transparency in the city and use the checks and balances we have in our system. I would be in the office every day. You can come and see me.
Clerkin: Like Joe, I would like to see more transparency. I would love to see more housing development, but I don’t want to do it by increasing the load on our taxpayers through TIF tax developments. I think it’s a good idea for retail, but I’m very much opposed to it for housing.
Schmitt: I ran two years ago and I’m running again because I love this city, and I want to see it be the best it can be. I would like to follow through with some of the decisions that are coming up. The city staff has done a great job in encouraging new businesses to come to our city, and I would like to see that continue. We have lost the majority of our industrial area to housing; we became more dependent on residents to come up with the tax base. We are a place where people live and eat, but when it comes to work, they go elsewhere. We need to encourage light industrial and commercial development; we need to prepare for the coming of Hy-Vee; we need to follow through with the office building on 40th and Central.
What interaction or knowledge of the city departments do you have or will you have?
Sturdevant: I’ve been on most of the committees at one time or another. Being retired, I intend to be here, like I was, for the five years I was here.
Clerkin: Parks and Rec is one department that I’ve had the most interaction with. As the mayor, I would have no choice but to have interactions with every single one of the departments and figure out what works best.
Schmitt: Right before I started my term as mayor, I sat down with each of the commission heads and asked questions. I went over some mission ideas with them. They presented some for me; I presented some for them. It was a good way for me to get to know them. Council members also work as liaisons, so we have each of the council members and I are liaisons to various commissions throughout the city.
Buesgens: I’ve interacted with a lot of the different departments. Yesterday I did a five-hour ride-along with the fire department to see what they do when they inspect properties. I’ve done a ride-along with the police department. I see myself, as a council member, as a liaison between residents and the staff. When an issue comes up, I talk to the staff to see how I can help the resident.
As mayor, what will you do to promote diversity and inclusion and to bring up leaders from under-represented communities?
Clerkin: I think the city has done a wonderful job to try to continue to support diversity. Unless my hands are in there, I don’t know what I would do, because I haven’t been there yet. I have worked with many people over the years. I don’t treat people any differently than someone else. I think the city has done a nice job of trying to bring everyone into the loop and grow their understanding of each different culture.
Schmitt: As mayor, I am part of the Multicultural Advisory Committee. Many people are on that committee that are from different cultures. We get together and talk about situations that specifically affected them and their association with the police. As a resident and a regular citizen, I’ve been working with the Islamic Center, attending the Christian-Muslim dialogue that they have during the school year. They’re very good discussions. They help us understand what is going on in their culture, we help them to understand how we look at the culture.
Buesgens: When I lived in Seattle, one thing I learned was to treat everyone with respect. I met people from everywhere. Between Boeing and Microsoft bringing in people from around the world, I learned to be open. I learned so much and I enjoyed it. I was happy to move to Columbia Heights, where I can experience the same thing. One thing I would look at is creating events that bring us together with things we have in common. One is an adult regulation-size soccer field. There are so many different people that play soccer. It’s one thing we have in common. We can get together, rub shoulders and get to know each other.
Sturdevant: I think the churches [mosques], and people have a way of doing things is hard for some of us to understand. I would say get to know the people themselves.
How will you work to protect the rights and safety of our immigrant residents?
Schmitt: As I work with our [police] chief, we have discussed several times how do we protect every resident here, not just the citizens, but the ones who are here, however they came. We need to make sure that they feel safe to report crime. So that they feel safe; they won’t have people knocking on their door all hours of the night. We also need to help the residents who have been here for many, many years feel safe. We are working with them; it’s not going to be perfect. We’re doing our best in our community to keep our residents safe. We’re not Minneapolis, but we’re making sure we’re protecting our residents.
Buesgens: The biggest thing for me is trust. We need to find people within our community who we can talk to so that as concerns come up, we can use that trust. Education is another way. I’ve had people from different cultures contact me. I’ve worked with them and the police department to solve their issues. Some are afraid to call. I think the biggest thing is to try to find ways to build trust. I know our police department’s working very hard to do that. Creating a multicultural police force is one way. Events in the city, getting out into the city and interacting with people so that they feel comfortable talking with us when issues come up.
Sturdevant: Most of these people don’t know our language. If we give our police what they need to do their job, they’ll be in better shape.
Clerkin: This really does come down to working with the police department and how we give them tools to work with people. The law is the law. If someone is here illegally, the key word is “illegal.” We can’t bend the law every which direction we want. We can try to get them into citizenship.
Will you and how will you support home ownership as it relates to what happened with property rights at Grand Central Lofts?
Buesgens: Some people are concerned about owner occupancy and would like to reduce the number of rentals in our city. But a lot of people are still able to buy homes in our city. As we’ve seen out there with our hot market, they’re few and far between. I’d like to encourage homeowners to take care of their properties and focus on the landlords to make sure they’re taking care of their rental property so there are no issues with homeowners next to renters. I would like our city to well with home ownership, but I also feel that renters are just as important as home owners. The biggest thing is taking care of our properties.
Sturdevant: Maintaining property is the thing to do. If people are living next door to each other and the renters aren’t getting along, like we had a few years back, so housing has to keep on top of what is going on.
Clerkin: With regard to rentals, the city needs to be hold landlords more accountable and be much less flexible with landlords and letting their properties decline. As far as promoting home ownership, there’s really not a whole lot of things to do except maintain a good city and good citizenship, a strong police department and public works department. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot we can do.
Schmitt: I’m sure many of you are aware of the discussion between the condos at Grand Central Lofts and the apartments that are going up. One of the things that is a key there: Rental property can go up pretty much any place. We have not too much control over that. People can decide to buy a house, or a condo, and turn it into rental property. They’re free to do that. Grand Central Flats is a listed property with the city; we do have control over it. They do have city inspectors, Dominium is already taking care of the property on 37th. We are very happy with a lot of the things we’re seeing.
What will you do as mayor to make sure that the Hy-Vee grocery store is completed?
Sturdevant: I see they’re building one in Robbinsdale now.
Clerkin: There’s a few kinks in the road that need to be put into place, but it really comes down to everything had to be approved at one point, they ended up with a big wrench in the works that stopped it in its tracks and now it’s just a matter of getting in there and negotiating. I believe they’re just going to build a smaller structure instead of the full-scale ones like the one in Robbinsdale. That’s really about all you can do.
Schmitt: I agree with Sean. It’s a private business; they own that property. They have every reason to go in there and build. If they’ve delayed, there’s probably a very good reason for the delay. They’re putting up multiple stores throughout Minnesota and I understand they’re waiting for a warehouse to be finished to accommodate those stores. Now that that warehouse is done, we are looking forward to them starting to build. They’ve already come and discussed it with the city. Hopefully, we’ll see the groundbreaking soon. It won’t open this year. They’re also building a convenience store and a gas station.
Buesgens: This is the number one question in Columbia Heights. They came to the Planning Commission on the 10th of July to request re-approval for their gas station and convenience store. They told staff they’re looking to start construction in October. They hope to submit their site plans in September for the grocery store. In the last year, the grocery business has been turned upside down. What Hy-Vee did, at least from the articles I read, was take time to back away and look at their strategies to see how they can compete with Amazon delivering food to homes. They’re paying approximately $174,000 in taxes on that property. I don’t think they’re going to let it sit too long. We have to be patient. Just keep an eye on the Planning Commission schedule.
Recently there were special appointments to the Economic Development Authority. What about the vetting procedure? Should it be used in all cases or just in appointments?
Clerkin: Being on the outside looking in, it’s hard for me to really get into that question. You should try to get the person’s background, make sure they’re qualified for that position.
Schmitt: The EDA consists of members from the City Council and two members from outside that group. We go through an interview process with all our commission members. They do need to fill out an application. When I first got on the council it was, ‘Oh, you know so-and-so. Everybody knows them, let’s just put them on.’ It’s not just putting on your best friend right now.
Buesgens: I’m not aware of any special appointments to EDA in the last two years. If there’s an opening in the spring, they take applications and interview and then we as a council decide. The last Planning Commission openings, we had seven people apply for two positions. There’s more interest in these positions and more people who want to be on the commission. We have discussed changing procedures so that next spring, we not only have new people but a better balance, better representation of the people we have in the community.
Sturdevant: I really don’t know. I think everything they have done has been answered. It’s the Council that makes the final decision for the people.
What is your perspective on Smart Streets and adequate roads for trucks and commerce?
Schmitt: Smart Streets is a term that’s been bandied about by multiple commissions at the state, federal and local level. Some of the aspects of smart streets can be pretty smart. We have some very wide roads in Columbia Heights that don’t need to be that wide, like 40th. We are actually looking at possibly narrowing that down. We’re talking with Anoka County, which is probably one of the more conservative counties in the state and they’re thinking it’s a great idea. It is something we are talking about.
Buesgens: I would definitely propose a safer streets program so that cars, trucks, bikers, walkers, children, pets are safe. We have serious issues. One of the questions I get asked about on the Council is ‘What are we going to do about speeders? What are we going to do about these streets?’ We can’t ticket our way out of this problem. Besides, they’re finding that tickets don’t change behavior. What other cities have done is change the actual structures of the streets – bumpouts, narrower roads, solar-powered speed signs.
Sturdevant: Design of the street you have to put both cars and trucks on the street. You can put lines on the street. You have to have something that can hold the traffic.
Clerkin: I go back and forth on this one. I have problems with taking traffic lanes for bicycles. But you have to be able to ride safely. People don’t slow down cars for bicycles. Where we have space to make it work, I agree with it. People should be able to move around the city. As far as commerce, Central, University, 40th are the roads that take most of the commerce traffic. We still need to keep room for trucks to make turns. There are a lot of areas of the city that are missing sidewalks, which would make things a lot easier for everyone.
It seems the new waste disposal company’s not performing well. What would you do going forward to fix this issue?
Buesgens: Last Monday at the City Council meeting, our public works director Kevin Hansen sat down with Waste Management. They are looking at liquefied damages. We have leverage where they can get fined for not conducting business as they should. There should not be blocks that are missing [pickup]. On Friday afternoon I was out in the neighborhoods and I ran into Jesse [Davies] and the manager from Waste Management. They were following the trucks; they were taking inventory. They’re on it. I asked them what happens if they don’t improve their performance. We have to go out and get bids from a different company, which can be tricky.
Sturdevant: I guess I didn’t realize they were having problems. Now we have one truck for garbage, one truck for grass and one truck for miscellaneous. Instead of one truck, now we have three trucks coming down the street, which is hard on the streets. I don’t know the solution. They’re picking up my garbage, at least.
Clerkin: I was at the last council meeting. I’m aware that Kevin has been very proactive in recent weeks. If we can’t solve it, we have to go with another company. That’s a tight squeeze, but the contract does allow us an out to find another purveyor. Obviously, it would be much easier for them to get it right than for us to try and find some else to do it.
Schmitt: It is almost impossible to find somebody in the middle of a contract. Kevin said, ‘If we fire somebody, who’s going to pick up the garbage the next day?’ We need to have that in place. We want to make this work; the company wants to make it work. We are doing the best we can. We presented them with a list of items they needed to improve. They have talked to their drivers, retrained them to see what they should be picking up, what they can leave behind. They have four trucks that go out every day. Two garbage trucks, the recycle truck and the organics pickup. If one of those trucks breaks down, they have to let the city know.
Do you support the current school bond referendum?
Sturdevant: I understand the referendum is for the band, the interior of the school. I’m in support of that. I’ve been on the school board.
Clerkin: I’ve been doing research, trying to figure out exactly what way I should go on this one. I’m torn in both directions. Some people feel the district has been run improperly and don’t want to support that. The other thing is, it’s [about] kids. Bottom line, if I had to vote right now, I’d probably vote no. But I’m gathering information as we speak. I don’t have to vote until November.
Schmitt: I agree with Sean. My research isn’t done. I’ve been trying to reach out to the committee. Two members of the school board have contacted me and would like to meet with me. But at this point, my research isn’t done, my decision hasn’t been made. This is a great question that you need to ask of the school board candidates coming up to the primary. I’ll give my opinion later, but not at this point.
Buesgens: I support the school bond. I supported it the last time. Education is the bedrock of our democracy. Our children deserve to be educated the best they can be because they’re going to be the ones out getting jobs, they’re going to be paying our taxes, they’re going to be paying Social Security, they’re going to be taking care of us. All children deserve a good education. They also deserve to have a good, healthy learning environment that is safe. At North Park, there are serious issues about safety for not only getting into the school but special education, the kids with special needs, that door cannot be opened because it’s right next to their classroom. Some people say, ‘They’re not our kids.’ Last winter there was an article in the Tribune. Parents have erased district lines. Everybody is educating everybody else’s kids. It’s a totally different ballgame with school choice.
Would you be willing to support additional staff for the new library?
Clerkin: I’m not sure why they would need additional staff, but if they’re really truly in need of additional staff so the library can function at the proper level, then yes.
Schmitt: I have not heard of them requesting any additional staffing at this time. I was not aware of it. We have added staff to other departments. They just need to do a presentation on why they need it and what hours they need. In that respect, I’m very willing to listen.
Buesgens: Yes, I would support additional staff. There’s other needs in our community, too, as far as staffing. We have three key spots to use in the next five years to redevelop and increase our economic tax base. Those areas are Central Avenue, University and Stinson along 37th. If we can increase revenue from those areas that are not residential, we could afford to increase staff.
Sturdevant: The library has more floor space. During school time, I see more kids going to the library, they need someone to help it run more smoothly. I would say yes.
What areas of the city would you like to see revitalized?
Buesgens: One area is 37th and Stinson, the strip mall. That area is ripe for redevelopment. I was on the comprehensive steering committee for 40th and Central. One of the areas is the northeast quadrant with the old strip mall in there. I would love to see that redeveloped. I think we can do a prettier, nicer downtown. Plus, one-level strip malls don’t bring in a lot of new tax revenue. The third area the staff is working to get grant money for is the southwest quadrant of 40th and University. It’s covered with woods right now. It has serious mitigation issues and we need to get that shovel-ready.
Sturdevant: Mine would be 37th and Stinson. There are shops there that are ready to close. You don’t see many cars in front of them. Somehow, you’ve got to get them out of there. It’s kind of disgraceful when you look over into St. Anthony.
Clerkin: I do agree with the previous two on 37th and Stinson. It does have a blight look to it. I think our Central Avenue business corridor really needs to be hammered on to try to make it better. There’s programs out there, grants, that could help the buildings’ facades look better. Then there’s just simple things: emptying their garbage, keeping their lots clean, keeping the sidewalks clean. It would really help people considering moving to the area.
Schmitt: We have a new store coming, a store that’s going to bring in people from all over. We want our neighbors to look good. We want that commercial area to look good. We don’t want them to shop at Hy-Vee and head home. We want them to stay and take a look at what else we have. The lower end of Central, let’s get it going. We’ve done a lot with the upper end, the Fridley side. We need to start working down this way.
Where do you see Columbia Heights in five years, if you were mayor?
Sturdevant: Brighter lights. So many things. More closeness with, I guess you’d call them foreigners. We’ve got to welcome them. They’re coming and they’ve got to be safe. We’ve all got to get along a lot better than we are now.
Clerkin: You have a police department that everyone loves to see come around, but isn’t used very greatly because everything is going so beautifully in the town. A school system that attracts students from other districts because of how well it’s run and maintained. A Central Avenue corridor that is vibrant and generating more taxes so we can lower the taxes on homeowners.
Schmitt: When I first became mayor, I did a state of the city speech, and I said with our new council, our average age dropped down to the mid-fifties. I’m expecting in five years that the median age of the council will be even lower. We have a bunch of passionate residents here that want the best for our city. Community Grounds is doing multiple fundraisers for the schools. People have gone out and invented a sustainable group that hasn’t been there before. We have the Lions working with multiple things. It’s because residents want something new.
Buesgens: We’re working right now with nine businesses with new signage, facades, lighting, security cameras to help Central Avenue be a safer place for people to come down and enjoy. I see a more vibrant community. I see more people walking, I see more people biking, more baby strollers and families moving in. I’ve seen a lot of great people doing a lot of great things. I want to see that continue, because I want to see Heights shine.
Below: From left to right: Sean Clerkin, Donna Schmitt (incumbent), Connie Buesgens, and Joe Sturdevant shared a light moment before the forum began on the evening of July 18. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)