One incumbent and three newcomers are running for two Columbia Heights City Council posts. Election day is November 3, or there are ways to vote early or absentee.
The candidates, along with mayoral candidates whom we expect to report on in the October 21 edition, participated in candidate forums Sept. 30 which may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAM_LDJVOOc&feature=youtu.be.
The Northeaster asked seven questions separate from the forum. We’ll present each question with all candidates’ answers here, starting with the order in which they returned their answers, and then rotating.
1.) What must the city government do, within its capability, to improve the business community of Columbia Heights?
Kt Jacobs: We need to research and develop programs to assist owners of currently empty buildings that will encourage business development in those locations. We also need to continue purchasing properties that become available adjacent to those already in City hands so we can develop a light-industrial area or park. I would encourage development of a mentoring program for new/young entrepreneurs to work with our community’s long-term and successful business owners.
Connie Buesgens: Currently, our city government provides the Small Business Grant Facade Program and a grant program for COVID expenses. In addition, Anoka County offers two programs to our small businesses. The first, Open to Business program, works with entrepreneurs with anything from financing to day-to-day operations. Anoka County is also offering a grant program to assist them with COVID expenses. During my next term, I would like to add a program which focuses on assisting businesses in reducing their energy costs.
Andy Newton: “If you build it, they will come,” they say, but it takes more than that. It takes making a place a destination, a place people want to come for more than just shopping, which you can do anywhere these days. Art festivals, musical performances, theatre in the park, performance art, murals, etc. We can also, of course, look at ways we can assist businesses in being successful, not just helping financially, but looking at ways we can make sure they are visible to the public, that we partner with them in city celebrations and events, and promoting the already existing businesses, such as the incredible restaurant diversity that makes a tour of the town feel like a journey around the world.
Laura Dorle: We must do anything we can to ensure local businesses do not have to shutter their doors because of the pandemic. If elected, I would work to expand the Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Program and help connect current and prospective local business owners to resources beyond the city.
2.) Please give examples of potential city actions you support that will benefit new and diverse residents of the city.
Connie Buesgens: I support capital improvements to our parks, soccer fields that can bring people together from all backgrounds, skateboard park/s for our youth and more walking trails for everyone to enjoy. In addition, I would like to meet with residents who live near our small pocket parks, like our Pink park, and discuss ideas for improving those as well.
Andy Newton: It’s time to do some regularly-scheduled town halls with city leaders. Put the focus on the residents rather than the leaders without so many time/content restrictions. Make sure our parks and recreation resources are offering amenities that are attractive to varied ages, interests, cultural backgrounds, etc. Consider offering the new residents packets to renters too. Covering the cost could easily be offset by businesses advertising within the packet. Also, if I have anything to say about it, in 2021, the city will issue an official proclamation recognizing PRIDE!
Laura Dorle: I see my entire vision for the city as one that will benefit new, diverse residents and long-established residents. Racial justice, for example, is not simply a priority, it is a lens through which we need to approach every city action. Of course, there are potential efforts to specifically support those who have historically been underserved, like implementing and/or sharing housing assistance programs.
Kt Jacobs: The diversity training and application in the neighborhoods by our police department is essential to a safe community for all residents. Cultural programs that provide learning opportunities must be part of the first line of acceptance and are essential. Developing mentoring and training programs in City government to encourage more diversity in our staff is critical to bridging gaps that may currently exist.
3.) Please give examples of city actions you support that will benefit long-established residents of the city.
Andy Newton: Many long term residents have asked that our city ordinances be re-examined and re-thought regarding their enforcement, effectiveness or necessity. Street safety has become a big concern. It’s time to re-examine how pedestrian friendly our city is. Let’s look at our sidewalks, curbs, four way intersections, and high-traffic corridors. It’s also important to make sure that, as our city evolves and changes, our long-time residents feel valued and respected, that our history remains relevant.
Laura Dorle: One potential program that would support longer-established residents is an emergency deferred payment loan program for home repairs for low-
income residents. Much of our housing stock in Heights is aging, and the high cost of major repairs can be a barrier for low-income residents, those on a fixed income, and those who have faced recent hardships. Additionally, if we include energy-efficiency updates and solar installations it serves both to reduce costs for residents and meet climate goals.
Kt Jacobs: Encouraging owner-occupied housing to sustain ourselves long-term as a community is critical. This includes balance of licensed rental units that provide safe and healthy living environments for all renters, retail and service businesses that meet the needs of our residents, and business development that provides a solid tax base to the city.
Connie Buesgens: I support improvements to Murzyn Hall community center. It has been well loved and well used by our long term residents as well as others. Many people have taken advantage of the activities and city events that have occurred at our Murzyn Hall. It has been so well loved that it is in dire need of many repairs at this point. For instance, the roof leaks, there are flooding issues in the basement, flooring is worn on both floors, the fireplace needs repair, restrooms need upgrades and ADA compliance. These are just a few of the many issues with our beloved Murzyn Hall. By repairing and improving our Murzyn Hall we will be able to add more activities and events that everyone can enjoy long into the future.
4.) What is one unique idea or issue in your campaign that you believe separates you from other candidates?
Laura Dorle: My people-centered approach to governing grounded in community organizing is what makes my candidacy unique. It can be difficult for working people and families to keep up with everything coming through the city. For that reason, I would make sure to proactively reach out to residents and stakeholders. For example, I would doorknock a neighborhood near a proposed development to get input.
Kt Jacobs: An entrepreneurial/business owner mentorship program to create liaisons for success and proposing a moratorium on new rental licenses make me unique to this candidate group.
Connie Buesgens: I am an advocate for the redevelopment of the Central Avenue corridor to include new independently owned businesses, housing, and gathering spaces. A healthy and vibrant commercial center for Columbia Heights makes our city attractive to new residents and businesses.
Andy Newton: My bachelor’s degree minor focused on group process/dynamics and conflict resolution. I know this background will be a tremendous aid in communication with other council members and with residents.
5.) What do you believe is your strongest base of support?
Kt Jacobs: My three years of consistent attendance and engagement in city operations and my direct interaction with the community members for the past three years provides a strong crossover of community support.
Connie Buesgens: My base of support comes from people in our community who want to improve the quality of life in our city.
Andrew Newton: I’d love to think I have support from many people from many backgrounds. To say I have a monopoly on one group would lack humility.
Laura Dorle: Those neighbors who believe that all of Heights deserves to thrive, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, native or newcomer, homeowner or renter.
6.) What did you find most surprising about questions asked and answered in the September 30 forum?
Connie Buesgens: As far as the questions, nothing stood out to me as surprising. I think the questions were good and everyone did a good job answering them.
Andy Newton: I was surprised how many questions we made it through in an hour. I thought it was a good mixture of content and I felt we all did well. It’s important to remember that we aren’t running to be lightning-round game show contestants. This is a job of careful thoughtful consideration and collaboration, so the real work will be very different from a forum, though a forum definitely has value for content. I look forward to discussing the issues with the other council members and voters in a more traditional setting.
Laura Dorle: I was surprised that there was not a question asked about policing, as it is a topic that I have been asked about most frequently, especially given the national conversation following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis officers.
Kt Jacobs: I was surprised at the continuation of responses geared to global issues rather than Columbia Heights-specific issues, and the absence of “nuts and bolts” ideas when addressing change. As a candidate, you cannot understand your City if you are not fully present, especially if that presence does not include being engaged and attentive to the processes and issues of the community.
7.) What inspires and refreshes you, prepares you to creatively take on the sometimes thankless job of being a public official? This could mean hobbies, family, writers, you name it.
Andy Newton: First, of course, is my family. I write, sing, and perform music on various instruments. I’m a silversmith and have lately been exploring metal sculpture/welding. I carve traditional wood bows and hunt with them. I knit scarves and hats. I love to camp and fish with my wife and daughter. I enjoy the English romantic poets, especially Wordsworth. I’m obsessed with all things Lord of the Rings. I love to garden and spend a lot of time in the yard tending pollinator-friendly flowerbeds.All of these things not only inspire and refresh the mind and body, but also serve to influence perspective, keep one grounded, and help to recharge the soul for the work that needs to be done. They help me expand my perspective and find common ground with people, which is where good communication begins.
Laura Dorle: I am inspired to take on the job by the amazing neighbors I have in Heights. I am refreshed by my dog Buddy and cats Jorge and Pumpkin, making art, dancing, eating delicious local food with people I love, and playing Catan (among other board games).
Kt Jacobs: Travel, my perennial garden and the Arts are my go-to activities. I have worked in high stress careers for decades and have developed the ability to compartmentalize aspects of my life creating appropriate “shut-down” time.
Connie Buesgens: Interacting and listening to the residents in the community keeps my feet on solid ground and gives me the energy to help keep our city moving.
Candidates’ backgrounds, forum
Laura Dorle grew up in St. Cloud. She has lived in Columbia Heights for two 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.
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.
Connie 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.
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.
The September 30 forum asked why they are seeking the post, short and long-term goals. There were questions about eliminating systemic racism, working with others on the council, and improving residential areas without gentrifying.
All agreed, on a question about greatest needs for youth, that teens are the priority, though they had a variety of solutions. Newton is for arts programs, soccer fields, and skateboard parks. Buesgens dittoed, plus repair Murzyn Hall and create volunteer opportunities. Dorle said she wants to be a parent and would like a strong partnership with the school board. Jacobs added “getting youth involved civically.” In a separate question, all agreed with additional restrictions on tobacco sales and vaping.
About experience owning or managing a business, and support for businesses: Buesgens had an eBay store and has been advocating as a council member for business programs. Dorle has worked as a consultant and is concerned about local hospitality businesses. Jacobs owned printing businesses and was part owner of a restaurant. Newton helped run and manage a tattoo shop in Northeast, and has managed bands.
The September 30 forum was a project of the League of Women Voters ABC (Anoka-Blaine-Coon Rapids), the North Suburban Optimists, and Meto North Chamber of Commerce, with city communications and events staff providing technical support.
Below: File photos of the candidates in this order: Connie Buesgens, Laura Dorle, Kt Jacobs, and Andy Newton.