The second night of debates hosted by KBRF and Daily Journal Media took place on Thursday, Oct. 1 at Fergus Falls City Hall. Candidates for city Council and mayor went head to head to discuss subjects such as economic development, creating a welcoming community and challenges facing the city.
City Council: Ward 2
The first debate of the night was for the Ward 2 City Council seat. Ward 2 includes Lake Alice, Opperman Lake, Hoot Lake and Wright Lake, and is currently represented by Tom Rufer, executive assistant at Lake Region Healthcare. His opponent on the ballot is write-in candidate Mark Leighton, certified scuba instructor, bank president and chairman, certified financial planner and independent insurance agent.
Both candidates made their qualifications for the position clear. Rufer pointed out his membership and presidency on Noon Kiwanis, membership on the City Council Legislative Committee, his position on the Fergus Falls Port Authority, his experience testifying before the House and Senate tax and bonding committee as a representative of Fergus Falls, his membership on the boards of a number of nonprofits and his completion of the Blandin Community Leadership Program. Leighton spoke about his experience in the Lions Club, Boy Scouts and serving on boards for housing, health services and economics development.
Leighton focused primarily on what he saw as excessive spending by the city. “The city must reduce its spending and reduce real estate taxes,” he said. He brought charts to show the tax levee in Fergus Falls, which was $4 million in 2012 and is projected to go to $6.7 million in 2021, as well as general expenses ($9.8 million in 2013, $14 million in 2021) and capital expenditures. “I’ve studied the last two city budgets and feel there needs to be better transparency to the public. … I will promote zero-based budgeting, each department will need to justify their spending starting with the first dollar and that needs to be presented to the council and the citizens in detail.”
Rufer focused on outlining his successes during his time on city council, including the sales tax proposal that is waiting to be voted on by the state, currently held up by coronavirus, which would help fund an outdoor aquatic center and revitalization of the DeLagoon recreational area. He also spoke about his part in helping the city bring Otter Cove Children’s Museum to Fergus Falls, filling the Target and Shopko buildings and the money the city has saved by refinancing city bonds, outsourcing some departments and restructuring personnel and increasing the street maintenance fund by 20% over the last two years. “As far as how I feel about the current council, folks, the current council ain’t broke, it don’t need fixing. The council that we have right now has the tools, we have the ability to have respectful political debate, of which I think the big guys could probably take a lesson from the Fergus Falls City Council,” he said in his closing statement.
City Council: Ward 3
The second debate took place between the three contenders for Ward 3, incumbent Brent Thompson, Victoria McWane-Creek and write-in candidate Al Kremeier. Ward 3 includes the Regional Treatment Center and Minnesota State and Community College.
Thompson, who has served on City Council for four years, spoke about his commitment to listening to and representing constituents. “I put out a survey when I was elected four years ago and I had over 500 responses. I have used the results of that survey, along with emails and calls I received over the years and even to this day, to guide me on my decision process. I have tried to stay true to the wishes of the majority that I represent,” he said. “I pretty much run on the platform that I go with what the majority wants. Like I said, I put out a survey and I got pretty much the figures that I want. Every once in a while, like when we went for additional funding for the RTC to tear more of it down, I went door to door, I picked six or seven streets, I went out door to door and I asked the questions. … I listen to what the people in my ward have to say.”
McWane-Creek took a different approach to the debate, touching upon the needs of minorities. “I believe that as a representative on the City Council, it is my obligation not only to ensure that the majority is heard, but also to preserve the rights of the minority so that everyone has an opportunity to have an excellent experience in our community, not just some of us,” she said. She brought up issues like the need for affordable, high-quality housing, child care and public transportation, as well as better community inclusiveness. “I believe that we need a Fergus Falls that works for each and every one of us, in fact a Fergus Falls that works for all. … That means that we have to make sure that folks who come through our community, who choose to live here and/or just pass through, feel as though they belong here from the moment they enter.”
Kremeier was primarily concerned with supporting businesses and bringing new businesses in. “What I want everyone to know is my push for this community is business and industry, support the local businesses that we have, we need to bolster them, put them up and help (with) whatever we can do to get this business back, going in Fergus Falls,” he said. He went on to say he hopes to see Downtown Fergus Falls revitalized with businesses but that the city should be somewhat selective in the businesses that come here, for instance, looking at whether or not they are a place where people would want to work. “I aim to bring industry to this city, and business, and also support our local businesses. I want to reestablish our tax base, rebuild our infrastructure and I aim to create a Fergus Falls that is thriving in business and opportunities for growth, and renewed community pride,” he said.
At the end of the debate, a confrontation took place between incumbent Thompson and write-in candidate Kremeier. In his closing statements, Thompson said he had come to the debate because Kremeier had been spreading rumors about him regarding “backdoor dealings” with the Herzog Property Management/Unique Opportunities buildings on Tower Road, and because Kremeier was telling people he was running as a write-in candidate because Thompson had dropped out of the race. “Talk about backdoor dealings,” he said. “We don’t need that on the council.”
Kremeier, whose closing statements followed Thompson, said he was “shocked” by what Thompson said and complained, “My closing arguments shouldn’t have to be a rebuttal to him.” He denied everything Thompson accused him of and said, “I don’t believe in attacking people.”
The final debate of the night was between candidates for Fergus Falls mayor. Incumbent Ben Schierer, John Strauch and write-in candidate Mike Mortenson discussed challenges facing the city, economic development, how to entice new industries to the city and what makes a good leader.
Schierer spotlighted his family’s community involvement and his successes as mayor over the last four years, including his role in starting Greater Fergus Falls (GFF). “When I took office, economic development was one person inside City Hall. We brought that outside of City Hall, it broadened our relationship and partnership with the business community and showed results. Unemployment in Fergus Falls has declined over my time in office,” he said. “When I took office there were 21 vacant storefronts downtown, today there are six and soon to be four.” He added that GFF has helped over 26 businesses open their doors since the closing of Target.
Write-in candidate Mortenson also aimed his attention at economic development, saying that business needs to be brought back to Fergus Falls, but he believes that a private economic development group would better serve the community. His idea for the group would be for it to be composed of people who are specialists in zoning, construction, bankers, rental real estate and who can partner with businesses to see them through the process of moving to Fergus Falls. “Economic development is everything to me and it’s everything to this city as well. One of the things that we need to do is we need to make sure that, whether it’s Greater Fergus Falls or it’s another entity, that we set it up with people who are specialists,” he says. The group would also purchase empty buildings in the city which it would then lease out to these companies, Mortenson explained. “Right now, we’re at the mercy of whoever owns those buildings. … The owner will not lease, he just wants to sell.” By leasing out the buildings, the economic development group can grow and purchase more buildings to lease out.
Strauch’s main focus for the debate was on cutting and better allocating spending, using the Regional Treatment Center to bring in jobs and helping those in need. “Let’s help the people that are hurting in our city, the elderly, let’s do things that show our citizens that we care and we appreciate their tax dollars,” he said. “The RTC is something that we really need to address and, as a leader, I would look forward to trying to get a veterans rehabilitation center up there to try and save that building, to help our veterans, that’s something that we could get federal dollars for.”
The third and final debate for the 2020 election will take place on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. The debaters will be candidates for Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners seats in District 1 (Dan Bucholz and Betsy Roder), District 3 (Kurt Mortenson and Christine Tungseth) and District 5 (Lee Rogness and Angie Brown). The debate will be streamed live on the Fergus Falls Facebook page and website as well as on KBRF.