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Hennepin County Commissioner candidate forum

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The race to replace Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman (3rd District) is heating up, with the special election for this seat to be held in a few months. Several candidates have lined up to enter a primary on April 29th (the election will take place May 13th - see here for more information). Four candidates turned out for a forum on March 6th at the Linden Hills park building for a conversation about transit issues. The forum was hosted by the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, streets.mn and the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. The forum was moderated by Paula Pentel, who according to the event’s Facebook page is “coordinator of the Urban Studies program at the University of Minnesota.” The four candidates who turned out for this event included Anne Mavity, Council Member in St. Louis Park (with whom your Examiner has conducted a previous interview); Ben Schweigert, attorney with Hennepin County; Ken Kelash, former state legislator; and Marion Greene, also a former state legislator. Ms. Pentel was an excellent moderator, keeping the candidates within their allotted answer time and making sure her presence was visible throughout the night.

The first question of the evening dealt with healthy communities and how to create them. Ms. Mavity said it was important to be “working with the community” and not forcing “top-down reforms.” Mr. Schweigert introduced himself as a “lifelong progressive” and spoke of the need to “break down the silos in the county bureaucracy” and to create a “living wage policy at the county.” Ms. Greene said she wanted to help improve the health in communities of color, and used the Hennepin County Hospital’s new social service center as an example for other hospitals to follow. Mr. Kelash said the county needs to “bring healthy living to the communities” and said he would work with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board toward that goal.

The next question was about protected bikeways, which the city of Minneapolis has pledged to create more of in the next decade. Mr. Schweigert said these were a “critical part” of making sure bicyclists are safe. Ms. Greene spoke about the bikeways in the context of creating “multi-modal transit” and said sometimes it is the “little things that are not expensive” that could be more conducive to bicyclists. Mr. Kelash spoke of the need for “more segregated bike trails” around the county. Ms. Mavity used Times Square in New York City as an example of how to move from a car-favored area to a walkable area. She also spoke of her work on a Complete Streets policy in St. Louis Park.

The following question concerned equity in transit, and how to involve people of color in these decisions. Ms. Greene said that the current work was “not thorough” and said the county needed to work on this. Mr. Kelash said that as an example he was “disappointed in the Hiawatha Line” because it had failed to support the surrounding communities with development. He said it was important that there be “no concentration of affordable housing in any one area” and said it would also need to be around light rail lines. Ms. Mavity said the economic and social disparities facing Minneapolis are “key challenges” and cited her own work on the Southwest Light Rail. Mr. Schweigert said transit must “work better for everyone” but that the “backbone is the bus service,” saying there was investment needed there as well.

The next question dealt directly with the contentious issue of the Southwest Light Rail, asking a simple question: where is the agreement here? Mr. Kelash said bluntly the project “needs to happen,” but said the issue of relocating freight rail was “very divisive.” He said if elected he would go along with any decision made by the Met Council. Ms. Mavity said this project was a “key priority” but that she noticed people feel a “loss of trust in the process itself.” She said her “key issues” were “safety” and the project’s “impact on the chain of lakes.” Mr. Schweigert said he “wants to see it built and succeed” but said the “lakes have to be protected.” He also spoke of the need for public officials to “think broader” in the area past this single project. Ms. Greene said the area “needs light rail” but that the “process has been frustrating.” She said the negotiations need a “bridge builder” but also a strong bargainer.

The next question asked about each candidate’s take on a Complete Streets policy. Ms. Mavity spoke of a tragic accident in the past involving her brother, saying she sees the need for this personally. She spoke of her “smart and aggressive” work on the Minnetonka Ave bridge over Highway 100 to expand its sidewalk and bicycle paths. Mr. Schweigert said the policy was good but the implementation at the government level so far had been bad. He said the county needs “leadership at the top” to make the “departments work together.” He also said the Met Council will need to get involved with this policy. Ms. Greene said she favors such a policy but that “every street should not have to work for every user,” a point Ms. Mavity later criticized. Mr. Kelash said officials need to “make sure we’re taking care of the whole county” and that they must “accommodate” the city of Minneapolis’ desire to have more biking.

The final question of the evening concerned how Hennepin County can use funding to produce long-lasting benefits. Mr. Schweigert cited his work in the city of Philadelphia and said funding needed to “produce the kind of communities we want to have.” Ms. Greene cited the work of Move.MN and its proposal to have the legislature “set aside funds for transit,” saying this could help remove funding questions from transit projects. She spoke of the need for the county to create an “equity planning scorecard” for these projects. Mr. Kelash cited his work in the Minnesota legislature in 2010 on transit issues and also said the county needs to “invest in green space” around such areas as light rail stations. Ms. Mavity said the county “sets the table for drawing investment” and that it needs to make sure its “values are backed up by budgets and strategies.”

The candidates were given three minutes for closing statements, and the forum concluded. Your Examiner found this to be a very interesting forum that dealt with a variety of issues in which Hennepin County may not always be the first government institutions people might think of when they consider transit projects. The people of Hennepin County are quite lucky in that they have four very intelligent, dedicated and thoughtful people looking to replace the long-standing board member Ms. Dorfman when she retires. Stay tuned to this space for more coverage of the special election for the Third District of Hennepin County.

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