Richfield council candidates answer voters’ questions at forum

 

Three of the four candidates for Richfield City Council Ward 1 sit in on a public forum at the Richfield Municipal Center May 6, responding to questions on a wide range of issues as voters on Richfield’s west side prepare to head to the polls May 23. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

Three of the four city council candidates in Richfield’s Ward 1 special election had the chance to test out the seat they’re after as they stepped up to the dais for a public forum May 6.

During an event organized by the Richfield League of Women Voters, the west-side candidates addressed issues ranging from affordable housing, to immigration, to organized trash hauling and the controversial Veterans Park Band Shell.

The panel, sitting in the Richfield City Council chambers, consisted of candidates Simon Trautmann, Zack Olson and Gordon Hanson, while candidate Brandt Krueger was absent. Krueger explained in a written statement that he was out of town while his wife accepted a national professional award.

Affordable housing

As the candidates took questions from the League of Women Voters – as well as queries relayed from the audience – the burgeoning concern of affordable housing loomed large. For Richfield, affordable housing was highlighted as a touchpoint issue in 2015 when a developer purchased Crossroads at Penn apartments and renovated the property, meaning most of the residents in the sprawling complex had to move, while Crossroads was renamed Concierge Apartments as part of an up-market transition.

“I supported the Crossroads-Concierge plan,” Olson said. “I think they did a lot of good for the community.” That comment comes after a city memo described how crime went down at the property while its value increased.

“I believe in affordable housing, but it’s got to be a good mix. We’ve got to draw families that want to live here,” Olson said, emphasizing Richfield’s already-sizable stock of naturally occurring, non-subsidized affordable housing.

Crossroads was an example of that segment; so is Seasons Park Apartments in southwestern Richfield, where the nonprofit corporation Aeon has signed a purchase agreement for the property in its mission to preserve affordable housing in the metro.

Trautmann praised the deal struck at Seasons Park, while acknowledging the “dual mandate” faced by the city – to protect naturally occurring affordable housing while also promoting prosperity and the growth of Richfield’s housing stock.

Hanson referred to his experience on the Richfield Housing Visioning Task Force that addressed the affordable housing question in recent years. He supports aiming for a mix of 80 percent market rate and 20 percent income-capped affordable units in new multi-family complexes “as kind of a starting point for opening the discussion” with developers.

But affordable housing, he added, is a regional issue “in which Richfield definitely needs to be a partner.”

Another question addressed the possibility of an ordinance that would require owners of apartment buildings to seek nonprofit buyers before selling to for-profit developers. Each candidate stated opposition to such a policy out of fear it could discourage outside investment.

Not all nonprofits would benefit Richfield anyway, according to Trautmann.

“There are bad nonprofits, and there are great for-profit developers and investors,” he said.

Comprehensive Plan priorities

When asked about his priorities as Richfield works to form a new long-range Comprehensive Plan for the city, Hanson conjured the image of snarled traffic to illustrate his desire for a multi-generational approach.

“I want to create a traffic jam with three types of vehicles – little kids with scooters, young families pushing their baby strollers, and senior citizens with their walkers.”

He added a desire to preserve spaces for small businesses on Penn Avenue as the corridor is redeveloped.

Olson pointed to the difficulty the city has experienced in accomplishing that redevelopment as he outlined his priorities for the Comprehensive Plan.

“Penn Avenue’s been a sore spot for many years. I’ve heard about it ever since I moved here,” he said.

Olson also stressed his desire to preserve single-family homes, lamenting the 12 houses that were recently removed from 66th Street to make way for the road’s reconstruction.

Although Trautmann reported that as he’s talked with Richfield residents, they’ve expressed an overall affection for their city, he said he’d like to see an enhanced partnership with the Richfield School Board as he addressed the Comprehensive Plan question.

Spending priorities

Hanson, too, said he would like to see more collaboration between the city and the schools. Such synergy could be part of a branding effort, he explained while responding to a question about spending priorities. He emphasized his background in marketing to explain how his experience could be helpful in the realm of branding. Parks, public safety and economic development round out Hanson’s list of budget priorities.

Trautmann described his spending priorities as public safety and education, and suggested there might be more avenues to explore partnerships for development, such as at Richfield Lake, where the Lyndale Gardens commercial and quasi-public space is under development.

As for Olson, “safety is my number one priority,” the candidate said, emphasizing bikes and pedestrians. He said his other spending priority is business growth.

Attracting new businesses

Like Hanson, Olson also cited a background in marketing, mentioning his work when asked how the city might attract new businesses. To Olson, the problem is awareness.
“People don’t know where Richfield is. They don’t know what it is about,” he said.

He emphasized transportation, too, saying there should be a priority for residents of neighboring cities to “get in, get out and spend their money here.”

Trautmann sees the restaurant business as a way of wooing other entrepreneurs. He explained, “One of the best ways to attract small business owners is to have great restaurants, a great energy and culture around the neighborhood where you are. … We are one or two restaurants away from exploding in terms of having a reputation for being a great restaurant location.”

Hanson, meanwhile, sees opportunity in the Metro Independent Business Alliance, of which he is a member. He’d like to see Richfield partner with the group.

He also referred to an event he once organized called Avenues of Opportunity, in which vacant commercial spaces along Penn Avenue were available for small-business owners to tour, open-house style.

“A number of spaces were rented during that event,” Hanson said, stating his intention to organize a similar showing again.

Organized garbage hauling

The three Ward 1 candidates had the chance to address an ongoing question facing Richfield and other metro municipalities: Should the city establish an organized garbage hauling policy to replace the current free-market framework?

Although Hanson stated his affinity for the free market in many instances, he said that in some industries, like utilities, a more regulated, organized approach is best.
Some have suggested letting voters decide, “and as a simple policy statement I guess I would support that,” Hanson said.

He would at least like to see the city institute a designated day on which residents could push larger items to the curb for pick up. He would also like to see the city ensure that trash haulers are following responsible recycling and labor practices.

Some haulers, Hanson said, hire from temporary labor offices instead of hiring directly, as a way to avoid paying a living wage, “and I don’t think we should be complicit in that sort of activity.”

Trautmann came out in full support of organized hauling. An organized system would require a contract between the city and haulers, and the candidate stressed he could benefit the city by drawing on his experience negotiating agreements as a lawyer for small businesses.

“I appreciate the individual haulers, their businesses. But municipal garbage doesn’t destroy competition, because larger contractors still compete between the cities,” he said, also mentioning haulers would be accountable to the city council and that “the savings would be pretty significant.”

Olson came out staunchly opposed to organized hauling. “I don’t think the city should be involved in the business of trash collecting. You can’t be for small business and then take away the competition,” he said.

He responded to the point about limiting the number of trucks on the road by comparing trash hauling to other industries.

“We might as well get rid of FedEx and UPS, too, and just have one mail truck delivering mail,” Olson said.

Veterans Park bandshell

As the controversial bandshell project in Veterans Park remains in a holding pattern after construction bids came in over budget, the candidates had their chance to weigh in on the debate.

“I’m a little torn on this one,” Olson said, before continuing, “because of the cost of it I don’t support it right now. … If it’s going to bring people here and help brand us, then maybe that’s up for discussion.”

Hanson praised the bandshell project as a community builder, although he was concerned about the difficulties bandshell boosters have experienced in raising funds for the project.

“I think it has to show some legs in that respect, but as a general concept I love things that bring people together, and I see the bandshell as something that does that,” Hanson said.

Trautmann noted that the council has already approved the project, but nonetheless expressed support for the concert stage. “Anything that brings Richfield citizens together,” he said.

Edina’s border buildings

Responding to a question about establishing enhanced dialogue with neighboring cities, candidates mentioned the Edina-Richfield border as a point of emphasis. There, Richfield residents on the east side of Xerxes Avenue have raised concerns as redevelopment plans unfold.

The recently built Onyx apartment complex was one source of frustration for neighbors, who have complained of the building’s shadow effect on the single-family homes on the Richfield side.

“I feel for those residents right there,” Olson said, stating, “Cooperation is a must.”

Southdale Library is the site of further redevelopment planned on the border. To illustrate his commitment to keeping tabs on projects across the boundary, Hanson cited his attendance at community input sessions that were held during the winter to form a vision for the Southdale Library redevelopment.

Trautmann also emphasized Richfield’s need for a presence at meetings in neighboring cities. He is open to exploring the formation of an “intercity relations commission,” in which Richfield residents would attend forums and work sessions in neighboring communities.

Partisan politics

The Richfield City Council is a non-partisan body, with the ballot leaving off candidates’ political affiliations. When the Ward 1 candidates were asked whether that’s the way the election should be conducted, all three endorsed the council’s non-partisan model.

“When you have a fire at your house you don’t care if the firemen are Democrats or Republicans,” Hanson said.

He did, however, point to the partisan influence that can seep into council races, questioning whether all candidates are actually non-partisan, “which I truly am.”
Olson added, “It’s not a red or blue issue. It’s a red, white and blue solution.”

Trautmann is the only of the four council candidates to publicize endorsements from left-leaning officials. That list includes Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel, Ward 2 Councilmember Edwina Garcia and Ward 3 Councilmember Maria Regan Gonzalez.

Trautmann praised the council’s non-partisan format and council members’ ability to form consensus despite their personal political affiliations. But regarding whether political parties should support candidates in non-partisan races, “that’s just people organizing however they choose to organize,” Trautmann said. “Our Constitution encourages us to organize in any way that we think is helpful to get our voice and message out.”

Sanctuary city?

No candidate directly answered a question of whether Richfield should assign itself status as a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. Richfield Police have a hands-off approach to immigration enforcement, leaving that to federal authorities. But when they arrest someone on a warrant who is flagged for deportation, police will turn that individual over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Chief Jay Henthorne has stated.

All three candidates at the forum endorsed the city’s approach to immigration.

“We just want to make sure everybody’s safe,” Olson said.

Trautmann added, “We do not have an interest in effecting federal policy here in Richfield. We want to protect our citizens.”

The city also ought to continue efforts to diversify a police force that doesn’t reflect the community’s demographics, he said.

Hanson weighed in, “I’m very comfortable with our current situation where our local police force does not act as federal agents.”

However, he also voiced a need for a more diverse police department.

“We need to get a police force that reflects our community,” Hanson said.

Voters on Richfield’s west side will head to the polls Tuesday, May 23.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.