By Brian Ojanpa
The Free Press
NORTH MANKATO —
Office-seekers at the North Mankato City Council candidates forum Wednesday were in unanimous agreement that one of the city's most popular amenities -- annual curbside pickup of people's junk -- is a darn good thing that should continue despite the costs to the city.
Actually, consensus agreement was the rule of the evening on most of the issues raised at the Greater Mankato Growth/League of Women Voters forum at South Central College.
Mayor Dave Dehen, who is running unopposed, was joined by five of the candidates running for two at-large council seats.
Present were incumbent Billy Steiner, former councilor Kenny DeWitte, repeat candidate Kim Spears and first-time office-seekers Tom Rieff and Kurt Richardson. A sixth candidate, Peter Wachtel, was not present.
The forum format called for each candidate to answer a series of prepared questions.
To a query asking candidates what the city's strategic plan for the future should be and what is their top priority, Richardson led off with a short but impassioned call for rapid safety improvements to accident-prone Highway 14, which claimed the life of his son.
"I want to see Highway 14 widened before too many more lives are lost there -- the sooner the better," he said.
Rieff said the city needs to develop a long-term financial plan in light of ongoing cuts in state aid. He also looks to further collaboration with other local government entities.
"What is the focus of the city? Where have we been and where are we going to go?" Rieff said.
"Who are we? Are we a bedroom community or are we another Mankato?"
Steiner, running for his fifth term, noted that the city already has a strategic plan in place -- its capital improvement plan.
DeWitte cautioned that "we need to start focusing on where we're going with our taxes" in view of the city's growing number of retirees.
Another question, regarding the city's renewed search for a new city administrator after eschewing the first batch of finalists, brought these responses:
Rieff: "If someone isn't viable after the second search I'd suggest hiring a headhunter because this is a job not to be taken lightly."
DeWitte and Spears said the entire council rather than a couple of council members should be involved in the interview process.
To the question "What do you feel about the increased economic cooperation between North Mankato and Mankato?" all candidates favored full speed ahead, with Rieff taking that sentiment a step further.
"I think we've just hit the tip of the iceberg in some of the things that can be done," he said, suggesting that the cities should also look into joint refuse and utilities ventures.
Another question focused on the city's economic development panel of non-elected officials, the North Mankato Port Authority. To wit: "How do you feel about the Port Authority and the money spent to improve the 200 block of Belgrade Avenue?"
DeWitte, Steiner and Richardson lauded the panel's efforts in economic development. Said Steiner, "When bond people come down from the Cities they're amazed as to the growth that's gone on here."
Rieff suggested looking into the feasibility of a joint economic development authority involving North Mankato and Mankato, though he acknowledged that dismantling the Port Authority might be an "insurmountable task."
Spears, a frequent critic of the Port Authority, suggested that it overreaches by enabling some people to open businesses even though they have no business experience.