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Local candidates attend forum, meet-and-greet

John Becker (right), City Council candidate for Ward 2, speaks at the Monday candidate forum hosted by Toastmasters. He was joined by fellow candidates (far left to right) Evan Brown, running for Wards 3 and 4, David Harris, who is running for mayor, Glen Witham and Ernie Stone, who are both running for Wards 3 and 4, and Mayoral Candidate Kevin Serres. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

The Hiawatha Valley Toastmasters and Red Wing chapter of League of Women Voters offered Red Wing voters two opportunities to meet and discuss issues with mayoral and City Council candidates last week as the city prepares for its primary election Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Toastmasters hosted a candidate forum at the American Legion July 18, during which a panel of candidates answered questions submitted by attendees.

Mayoral candidates David Harris and Kevin Serres, along with City Council Ward 2 candidate John Becker and Wards 3-4 candidates Glen Witham, Evan Brown, Glen Witham and Ernie Stone introduced themselves and fielded questions. Several candidates were unable to attend.

Questions covered a range of topics including the city’s financial well-being, decision-making processes and candidates’ opinions on the city’s strengths and weaknesses.

Money talks

Serres, Stone and Witham identified excessive city spending and a need for improved accountability as primary financial concerns in their answers to a question about the city’s financial health now and in the future.

“As a resident, I tend to watch some of the things that the city spends money on, and sometimes, quite frankly, I just shake my head and wonder, ‘Why is that happening?’” Witham said. “I’m not at this point hands-on involved with the budget so I can’t give too thorough of an opinion on that, but I do see sometimes things that I believe are a little extreme.”

Witham gave examples of what he believes are unnecessary expenses racked up by the city, including an abundance of large Public Works vehicles and the roundabouts the city plans to install on Levee Street and near Twin Bluff Middle School.

Serres and Stone also cited the roundabouts as an example of poorly spent funds.

“I favor roundabouts in the country where you have two intersecting county roads that work excellent,” Stone said. “But here we are in an environment where every time a town does a little bit of revamping, they get a roundabout. We live in Red Wing, which is a unique, beautiful city. Why is it that we always seem to get on the bandwagon and do what everyone else does?”

Rather than continue building new features such as roundabouts and new neighborhoods, Stone suggested the city should narrow its focus to the preservation of existing features including sidewalks, parks and cultural assets.

Serres expressed safety concerns with the new roundabout, recalling the death of a friend who had been killed when a car entering the roundabout T-boned his vehicle.

“Roundabouts do not work,” he said. “People don’t know how to drive around them, but they want to put one in front of the (middle school). Within six months, somebody’s going to get killed on that thing because people can’t drive and children don’t know how to walk around a roundabout.”

Grow and thrive here

Becker, Harris and Brown focused on the need for growth as their primary financial concerns in Red Wing.

Becker said the city could benefit from more internal growth rather than “import prosperity” by relocating outside companies to the city.

“I am a big believer the the fact that you can grow your economy from within,” he said. “Red Wing competes with every other community for these companies that are moving. We don’t have to compete with anyone who’s already here. So, we have an inside lane into helping those businesses.”

Harris said the area’s dwindling population of young people hinders the city’s growth, with few college students staying here and few young families moving here.

To keep young people here, Harris recommends keeping students in Red Wing by bringing back a four-year college and, “at the other end of the scale,” address the needs of students, particularly those with difficult home lives, early on in their school careers.

“I don’t have solutions for why families don’t stick together, except that I do think we need to all as a community figure out ways to take care of children,” he said.

Brown also identified Red Wing’s aging population as a financial concern — one he believes could be addressed with attracting more living-wage jobs with benefits, building off of the city’s “strong and storied manufacturing district.”

“This is something we can build upon our history as a manufacturing city,” he said. “If you don’t address our demographic trends and attraction young people with families, if we don’t offer them jobs that will keep them here or allow them to buy houses and purchase services, they’re going to move other places.”

At Wednesday’s event, hosted by the Red Wing League of Women Voters, candidates gave brief presentations on their platforms before the meet-and-greet segment.

Attending were Ward 2 candidates Becker, Adam Matthew Gettings, Greg Boek; Ward 3-4 candidates Brown, Witham and Stone; mayoral candidates Harris and Sean Dowse, with Ahkeem Brown arriving for the meet-and-greet. Mayoral hopeful Kevin Serres was absent.

LWV President Amy Nelson said the event aimed to create a well-informed voting population.

“So many times you can see one phrase in a newspaper, or you can see the one person say one thing, and that’s how you interpret that, but you’re not getting the breadth or the interaction,” she said. “You’re not able to ask the questions and get how they feel about certain events.”

During the meet-and-greet segment, voters had the opportunity to have candidates address specific concerns through personal conversation.

“When you hear those different conversations happen, you know what questions to ask. Being informed and able to generate your own questions is so important,” Nelson said.

With the primary election approaching in August, Nelson encourages voters in Red Wing to vote in both the primary and general elections, re-emphasizing a point Ernie Stone mentioned in his presentation: “The world revolves around those who show up.”

“Go out and vote,” she said. “Around here, if it’s not the November election, it’s only those people who show up that make a decision. You can have landslide votes pretty quickly.”