Six candidates competing in primary for County Board seat

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April 25, 2014
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
April 29 primary will narrow the field to two candidates

Six candidates are competing in a primary April 29 for the Hennepin County Commissioner District 3 race — the seat formerly held by Gail Dorfman.

The top two vote getters will advance to the special election May 13. The candidates in the race with the most active campaigns include former state Rep. Marion Greene, former state Sen. Ken Kelash, St. Louis Park City Council Member Anne Mavity and Hennepin County prosecutor Ben Schweigert.

Bob “Again” Carney Jr. and Bob Reuer have also filed to run. Carney Jr. ran for mayor and Reuer ran for the City Council’s 13th Ward seat during the 2013 city election.

The special election for the county commissioner seat was triggered earlier this year when Dorfman stepped down from her post in March to take a job as executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services. She was first elected to the County Board in 2000.

District 3 includes St. Louis Park and southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods. Hennepin County government can be under the radar at times despite its significant budget and influence on transportation projects, public safety and social services, among other things.

The contentious Southwest Light Rail Transit project will be one of the major issues on the front burner for the new commissioner.

We checked in with the six candidates to get their perspective on the embattled project and other priorities for the office. Here are edited responses.

>>> SWJ: What’s your pitch to voters?

Schweigert: I’m running to build a future that we will be proud of, a future that’s more sustainable, more fair, and creates prosperity for more people. I believe I’m the candidate best able to make that future a reality. I’m an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney; I prosecute white-collar crime and I’m the legislative representative for the County Attorney’s Office. I know the county from the inside. I’ve worked on policy problems with people in various county agencies, I’ve seen what works, and I’ve seen where we can improve.

Our County Board needs a new, forward-looking perspective: new leadership to plan for the challenges of the coming decades. As a prosecutor, I know how to ask hard questions, make decisions based on evidence, and hold people accountable. That’s what I will do as a member of the County Board.

And you can trust that I will fight for our shared values as your County Commissioner, because I live them. I’ve fought for the rights of low-wage workers, consumers, and seniors. I’m active in my union and my neighborhood association. I bike or bus to work every day. I won’t disappear into the County Board room. I’ll be out in the community, working with you and learning from you.

Reuer: I have lived in this community (3rd District) all of my life. I have a deep commitment to it and want to see it prosper and grow. I want to bring a voice that needs to be heard, representing what I am hearing every day from the people of this community.

What I am hearing and also believe is that we must become stronger by spending our taxes more wisely and lowering them. Hard earned money needs to stay in the hands of our families.

We want strong infrastructure and social support systems. We must support these while being financially prudent.

What we are doing now with taxes being high and continually going up is not sustainable in the long run. High taxes are driving people away from this community. High taxes limit the number of new people moving in.

We have many opportunities ahead. By listening to the hearts and concerns of our community, and being wise financially, we will build our future. I will bring that voice to the commission.

Mavity: We live in a community that is pulsing with energy, economic vitality, creativity and opportunity. But too many of our neighbors are being left behind. I am running to continue the work I’ve done my whole life to fight for social justice and end disparities. This means fighting for livable wages, providing access to quality childcare, and ensuring that basic needs are met, while protecting our environment and fostering economic growth to create a healthier and more sustainable community. Working together, we can create prosperity throughout the county, and ensure that all residents have an opportunity to benefit from those successes. 

I offer leadership, experience and a track record of results to get this work done. It’s easy to talk about what you want to do — it’s a lot harder to actually roll your sleeves up and do it. Since graduating from Washburn High School, I’ve dedicated my personal time and my professional career to building strong communities, and I have a track record that demonstrates my ability to work in collaboration with residents and deliver results that have made our community a better place to live and work. 

Kelash: The Hennepin County Board is not a starter position in politics. The issues and controversies demand some background in how to deal with experts and advocates, how to provide help for constituents, and an understanding of the differences between the possible and the unlikely.  I have served my apprenticeship in elected office. 

The County budget is the second largest government budget after the State’s. If elected, I would not be approaching the biggest budget I had ever seen.  My four years of experience as a state Senator gave me the opportunity to oversee a broad range of issues, craft legislation, and develop relationships with County officials. It gave me an understanding of County projects. It is one of the many positions that have prepared me to serve on the County board.   

My work for 15 years on the NRP Policy Board gave me an appreciation for grass roots input early in the decision-making process. Such early involvement usually results in better outcomes for all projects that affect our residents.    

Greene: I’m thrilled to run for Hennepin County Commissioner. I’m a healthcare finance professional and former State Representative from southwest Minneapolis, and am running because no elected body has more day-to-day impact on the opportunity gap and the social safety net than the County Board. We can take the enormous financial and human power of the county to improve opportunity for everyone. There are four ways in which I want to build equity in our region:

Expand community engagement with the County. Southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park is a hotbed of progressive activism. Let’s bring that to bear at the County.

Increase interdisciplinary thinking and interjurisdictional partnerships. Every investment at the County should have multiple bottom lines. And let’s work in close collaboration with cities, schools, parks and libraries to do that.

Focus on early childhood. Studies show this is the smartest place to invest — it’s also an entry point for closing the opportunity gap. Stable housing, health care, transit, jobs — let’s reach multiple generations and get kids arriving at school-age ready to learn.

Strengthen health care. Hennepin’s health care system, and HCMC in particular, are nation-leading. Let’s ensure health care for all — no more disparities, no exceptions.

There is a place for my compassionate, smart leadership on the Hennepin County Board. I ask for your support in the upcoming Primary Election on April 29, and the General Election on May 13.

Carney Jr.: I’m asking for your vote in this special election to demand an alternative to the disastrous Southwest Light Rail plan. I’d like to think that all elected public servants are temp workers … but this special election is the ultimate “elected temp job.” It ends in January 2015.  During that time I will focus exclusively on the Southwest Light Rail issue. Beyond that, my only promise is this: I will “do my homework” as needed regarding County Board issues, and will try not to do anything stupid. 

>>> Given the latest developments with SW LRT, what is the ideal scenario for the project, in your opinion?

Schweigert: I’m committed to a transportation future that’s healthier for people, neighborhoods, and the planet. Our light-rail network is an important component of that, including the SWLRT line. We can’t advance this project unless each city along the line can conclude that it is good deal for its citizens. I’m committed to looking forward and working with all stakeholders to build that kind of agreement.

I understand that the deal currently being offered the City of Minneapolis is not what the city thought it was going to get at the beginning of this process. As county commissioner, I will engage with Minneapolis’s city leaders to address this concern and make a new agreement focusing on areas of general consensus: protecting the lakes, preserving the bike path, mitigating impacts on communities, and looking ahead to future transportation investments.

In the same spirit of looking forward, I don’t plan to revisit the general outlines of the Met Council’s current proposal. It seems to me that doing so would lead to indefinite delay and possible failure of the project. I prefer to work with my friends and allies in local government to restore confidence in the project and move ahead.

Reuer: The matter should be put to a county-wide vote to ensure the voice of the community leads the development. Development should be conducted in a more cost-effective manner. More alternatives should be explored.

Mavity: Creating SWLRT is about equity.  It’s about creating a platform for businesses to invest and grow jobs, to create affordable housing opportunities, and about sustainability as we plan for future generations.

One of the challenges of the SWLRT process has been the lack of trust in the process itself. I will bring a background in neighborhood organizing, and a lifetime spent creating opportunities for people to have a voice in issues that impact their lives, to ensure transparency, accountability and authentic community engagement in future county planning processes.

I am committed to creating Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) as one key component of a regional transit system.  Now, after nearly a decade of studies and planning, the Met Council has voted on a plan to move forward.  Minneapolis and the other cities along the line now have an opportunity to work with the Met Council to help make this plan better respond to specific concerns.  I am confident that these discussions will lead to critical improvements to the plan.  In the end, I support the Met Council’s action: It’s time to get this project moving.

Kelash: The SW LRT project is vital to our region. And a rejection by either Minneapolis or St. Louis Park would be a serious setback for any future transit projects.  

Both municipalities should bargain for four things. 1) They should require that either tunnels or skyways be included in the station design to allow access across the freight lines to the LRT stations from all sides. 2) They should require that any mitigation for sound or safety is aesthetically appealing. 3) Minneapolis should demand investment by the County in the LRT Stations that serve the North Side of Minneapolis. 4) Both cities should expect the County to provide public infrastructure to maximize the development near the stations.  

There should be a park or plaza that is close to the station for pedestrians and bikes where developers can maximize higher density housing for all income levels. These green spaces help create a sense of community, a fact well demonstrated in Minneapolis by the success of the NRP program. Ground floor businesses support the needs of the residents in the area around the plaza.  The County should locate some of their many services close to these transit hubs.  Pedestrian and bikeway only corridors should lead to these plazas to expand the area where housing would be affordable. 

Greene: The plan laid out by the Met Council and the municipal consent process must be fulfilled with care, transparency, community input, and supported financially and politically to be a success. As Commissioner, I look forward to rebuilding connection and trust between constituents and the County. I will advocate for Southwest LRT as part of a comprehensive, multimodal transportation system, and reach out to people on all sides of this issue to ensure they are engaged and heard in decisions going forward. I will serve on the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), to ensure that mitigation for affected communities is fair and diligent.

Carney Jr.: I recently laid out my Southwest Light Rail Alternative plan in a Star Tribune op-ed  – it’s on my website, with lots of additional detail, at www.bobagain.com. Here’s the guts: use Metro Mobility size buses, and lots of them, to provide far more robust service for the corridor, with five-minute service frequency. 

Use existing infrastructure whenever possible — specifically use Shady Oak Road to serve the Golden Triangle area, instead of bulldozing a light rail line through it. Grade, pave and share with bikes the right of way from Shady Oak to Calhoun, then share the Greenway — to Uptown Transit Station, with stops at Lyndale and a new Nicollet/I-35W/Lake/Greenway Transit Station. 

From there, the smaller buses will use inner ramps to go up to existing MnPASS lanes, then back and forth to downtown. Result: a dedicated, congestion-free right of way from Shady Oak to downtown. A trip from Uptown Transit Station to the downtown I-35W ramp will take about six minutes — the route then loops through the heart of downtown.

There’s more: my plan includes five-minute service along the entire Greenway — from Uptown to Hiawatha — with elevators linking to all existing North/South bus routes. There will also be five-minute service frequency on Broadway, linking to all North and Northeast bus routes, with another shuttle linking to Uptown. The operating cost for my plan is comparable to the light rail plan.

That’s “Plan A” – my web site also has “Plan B”: re-route light rail to the Uptown Transit Station at Hennepin and the Greenway, then tunnel under Hennepin toward downtown surfacing near Dunwoody. If we’re going to have Light Rail, a route that goes where We the People are is a minimum requirement. 

Of course, because my “Plan A” and “Plan B” routes go thru Uptown, we can and will leave Kenilworth alone … as it is … with no freight re-routing!

To see just how disastrously flawed the Metropolitan Council process has been, recall that during the “Locally Preferred Alternative” process we were told Uptown options were unrealistically expensive because they would require tunneling. The Eden Prairie re-route added about $300 million to the cost. Now we’re talking tunnels under a bike path. That’s crazy! If the current plan had been presented initially, it would never have been accepted as a “Locally Preferred Alternative.”  

>>> What would be your main goals your first few months in office?

Schweigert: I am focused on the long-term, making Hennepin County a fairer, more sustainable, more prosperous place for decades to come, and there are concrete steps we can take in the short-term to begin building that future. First, I want Hennepin County to be a place that fights inequality and creates opportunity for everyone, so we need to better coordinate our early childhood work, forge a stronger partnership with our schools, and adopt a county living wage policy.

Second, I want to build a transportation system that’s healthier for people, neighborhoods, and the planet. I’m committed to expanding our light rail network, improving arterial bus service, building a network of protected bike lanes, and implementing the county’s Complete Streets policy to help our neighborhoods be more walkable. I will start by charting a path forward on SWLRT and by beginning implementation of the county’s new bike plan.

Third, I will continue Commissioner Dorfman’s work to end homelessness, with a focus on families and unaccompanied youth. I’ll draw on my experience in affordable housing and community development to advance new projects, supported by new investments in the Affordable Housing Incentive Fund.

Reuer: Lower taxes; be proactive in developing and maintaining efficient transportation systems and infrastructure; support opportunities for people to be self-reliant; ensure solid support of productive health and social programs; and maintain and continue to develop our high quality parks and other community assets.

Mavity: I will evaluate Hennepin county’s budget and investments through an equity lens of how our programs and policies reduce disparities, and ensure that we are delivering cost-effective outcomes, that are strengthening our communities and improving people’s lives.   We cannot do this without ensuring that residents and communities that are impacted by these decisions are authentic participants in our planning and priorities.   We also need transparency and accountability so that residents have easy access to information about county services and expenditures. 

I will prioritize three key areas of opportunity:

Environmental Stewardship and Sustainable, Healthy Communities: Together we can build a Hennepin County that is clean, sustainable, and thriving by finding alternative clean energy solutions, reducing waste streams and significantly expanding opportunities for recycling and reuse.  We will create, improve and sustain physical environments to keep residents healthy.

Preventing and Ending Homelessness: It’s a disgrace, and short-sighted, that we have thousands of children homeless in our community every night.  We need to ensure that basic needs are met, and provide access to quality early education, so that every child has a chance to succeed in school.  We will improve coordination of existing county programs in housing, mental health, corrections, health care and social services and reduce our use of expensive, and less effective crisis interventions.

Regional Transit and Connectivity: Creating a world-class multi-modal transportation system includes better transit, bus service, roads, walkability, and safe biking options. Early goals are to evaluate safety hot-spots to make immediate improvements.

Kelash:  My first priority would be to learn from and about the other Board members: what the issues of concern are in their districts, where we may have differing priorities, and how we can work together.  

Second, I want to get to know the county employees who make Hennepin County a model for the nation; I want to learn how I can help them do their jobs even better and more efficiently.   

Third, I want to be an advocate for the kind of transit oriented development that will make Hennepin County a great place to live, work and play in the future.   

Fourth, I want to use my experience at the State Capitol to encourage State funding of County goals and development.  

But I remind people that this Special Election seats the winner on the Board for only seven short months.  So voters should be wary of inflated promises and overblown expectations. Whoever wins this Special Election must run again for office in November. 

Greene: 

— Expand community engagement with the County: I will immediately establish a regular schedule of community availability, throughout the district. I will use new and old media, and communication with neighborhood groups and lists to engage as many people as possible in County initiatives. Further, I support culturally relevant pop-up, street and mobile initiatives that reach people beyond those participating in established organizations.

— Increase interdisciplinary thinking and interjurisdictional partnerships: I will meet with the County Administrator and department heads to understand the current culture of the County. I will also sit down with the Minneapolis and St. Louis Park mayors and city council members to deepen relationships and identify ways that the County and this district’s municipalities can work together more closely. There are already projects I know of that the Cities are undertaking that make sense for the County - let’s work together and share resources where appropriate.

— Focus on early childhood: I will immediately get started on bringing together the County, school districts and municipalities to develop a plan to get all Hennepin County children ready for kindergarten by 2020. This is not just about academic readiness – it will include measures of social and emotional development. I will reconvene the Youth Coordinating Board’s “Early Childhood Action Group” and leverage “A-GRAD” to reinvigorate partnerships across jurisdictions.

— Strengthen health care: I will secure a seat on the board of the Hennepin Healthcare System to ensure the network stays on solid financial footing without sacrificing staffing or care. I will partner with system leadership to focus attention on addressing health disparities.

Carney Jr.: See above.