County commissioner candidates pitch their case

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February 12, 2014
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The five candidates running for County Commissioner Gail Dorfman’s seat discussed what their top priorities would be if elected, how the county can help reduce racial disparities and hopes for Southwest LRT, among other things at a recent forum in the Whittier neighborhood moderated by the League of Women Voters of Minneapolis. 

The candidates include former state Rep. Marion Greene, public policy analyst Katie Hatt, former state Sen. Ken Kelash, St. Louis Park City Council Member Anne Mavity and Hennepin County prosecutor Ben Schweigert.  

Dorfman, who represents the county’s 3rd District, will step down in early March to take a job as head of St. Stephen’s Human Services. The district includes St. Louis Park and southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods. 

The Hennepin County Board has seven commissioners and is chaired by Mike Opat (1st District). The budget approved for 2014 is $1.78 billion. The county spends money on public works, public safety, health programs, libraries, capital improvements and human services, among other things. Human services programs account for the largest portion of the budget — about 25 percent. 

A primary is set for April 29 and special election on May 13. 

Here are excerpts from the Jan. 30 forum. To listen to audio from the event, click here.  

What are your thoughts about the current route options for SW LRT?

Mavity said she’s “100 percent committed to creating Southwest Light Rail as part of a regional transit system.” She added that she’s been on the “front lines” working on the project for years as a St. Louis Park City Council member. 

She said she supports the current alignment, which was approved by impacted cities along the line. “We need to move forward, not backward,” she said.

However, she said she has concerns about the transparency of the planning process. “When more voices are at the table, we get better solutions,” she said.

Schweigert said he wants to see the Southwest LRT line be built and attract many riders. “What I don’t want to see is a situation where we’re second guessing decisions made years ago or see the line fail or not happen. I want to see it succeed,” he said. 

He said it’s important to further study the impacts of a shallow tunnel on the hydrology of the Chain of Lakes and freight relocation. 

Hatt said it’s critical for the project to proceed. “Central Corridor is opening in June — nearly 10 years to the day after Hiawatha. If we’re only building one line every 10 years we’re not going to keep up with regions such as Denver. When I was there a year ago they had 80 miles of rail under construction or open,” she said.

She said she’s supportive of the current alignment, but added the Kenilworth bike path must be protected. 

Kelash said he also agrees with the proposed alignment. He said the county’s role is to “mitigate the problems” for the residents impacted by the project. 

He predicted the line would spark significant transit-oriented development projects.

Greene said there have been “struggles with the process” and said she wants to see more transparency and community engagement in future projects. 

As the process moves forward, she said she wants to see government “open to outcome as opposed to attached to outcome.” 

“I will commit to you that I won’t come to a project with an idea pre-developed and then go find data to support that plan,” she said. “The community engagement process, the research process is part of what will inform a decision that we can all make together.” 

 

What are your thoughts on ending homelessness in Hennepin County, and what ideas do you have about the funding needs and what sources should be explored? 

Hatt said “homelessness is a very troubling and very urgent issue in our community.” 

She said the county needs to commit to ongoing operating funding for programs for the homeless. 

“This is also smart budget investment for the county,” she said, noting that it costs roughly $3,000 a month to shelter a family of three. “We can make better investments in affordable housing that will lead to greater stability and more permanent homes for people experiencing homelessness,” she said. 

Kelash said during his time in the Senate he had the opportunity to visit organizations serving homeless youth. He said the county needs to increase the number of shelters and increase funding for it. He said Phoenix and Salt Lake City have done great work on the behalf of homeless veterans and would like Hennepin County to apply lessons learned in those cities. 

Greene praised Dorfman for her work on behalf of the homeless and homeless veterans, in particular. 

“I’m really interested in models where we can get people into housing and surround them with the other services that will support them and stabilize their lives,” she said.

She said she would like to see wraparound services for homeless families, in particular, and “become an expert in data” to maximize the effectiveness of county programs.

Mavity said the homelessness problem has been a choice of the policy community in terms of where to invest resources.

“Because we know how to end homelessness,” she said, pointing to strides made in reducing veteran homelessness, among other things.

She said she has spent the last 16 years working to end homelessness with other community leaders.

She noted investing in affordable housing with wraparound services is much cheaper than having homeless people cycle through the criminal justice system and emergency rooms. 

Schweigert also saluted Dorfman’s work on homelessness.

Homelessness among families and youth remains a big problem, he noted, pointing to the foreclosure crisis and the region’s tight rental vacancy rate. 

Investing in housing along with social services for people facing challenges is crucial, he said. 

What should the county stop doing? 

Greene said: “The county should stop being a secret.” [Earlier in the forum, Greene noted that many people she has talked to on the campaign trail aren’t aware of the county’s work.]

Mavity said the county needs to be more open and residents need to have full access to studies and reports that inform policy decisions. “It needs to stop being inaccessible and start being much more accessible and accountable to all of us,” she said.

Schweigert said the county needs to “stop prioritizing cars on the county roads over and above other uses — bikes and pedestrians.”

Hatt said the county needs to “stop investing resources via our sheriff in picking up our undocumented neighbors and putting them in the Hennepin County Jail for 48 hours” who are later deported. She said public safety resources should also not be used to evict people from their homes who are facing foreclosures. 

Kelash said the county needs to “stop trying to hide its efforts” to work with cities in the county. County leaders need to encourage cities within Hennepin County to collaborate better on projects that benefit the entire county.