Edina City Council candidates answered hard-ball questions from Edina High School students last week in one of the last forums before Election Day.

The forum, hosted by the high school's speech and debate teams, was streamed live on YouTube Oct. 26. City Council candidates had the opportunity to give opening and closing statements as well as answer questions by EHS students. The students also asked lightning round and “hard-ball” questions, directing the candidates to respond to issues like high-density development and defunding police, and asking them to address certain weaknesses in each of their campaigns.

City Council candidates Janet Kitui, James Pierce, Carolyn Jackson, Rhonda Bland and Ukasha Dakane attended the forum. Mayor Jim Hovland also answered questions in a separate portion of the forum. Council candidate Joshua Ahlberg was unable to attend, but was able to provide pre-recorded opening and closing statements. Candidate Parinaz Kassemi did not attend.

Thoughts on high-density development

In a lightning round, captain of the EHS Speech Team and forum moderator Ananth Veluvali asked candidates whether they support high-density development in the Southdale area generally. Each candidate had to answer yes or no at first, but were allowed to elaborate after. All but Bland said yes.

Pierce said Edina is land-locked though it continues to grow, which means more density will be a necessary consequence. He said the Southdale Center area should be more of a focus for high-density development than other areas.

Jackson said the private market is largely driving new development in Edina. Through the 2018 Comprehensive Plan, which guides land-use in the city, new proposed developments should be more predictable, she noted. She also advocated for more green space in projects.

Dakane said density is a good thing in cities that are continually evolving and growing. He said this does not mean that the city needs to get overcrowded, but density does allow certain benefits, such as more affordable housing and walkability.

Kitui said she currently lives in a high-density 13-floor development and therefore, understands the need for them in the city. Affordable housing is especially needed for high-density developments, and needs to be requested of developers, she said. There has been progress on affordable housing, but it's been slow, she added.

The only candidate to answer no to the question of high density in Southdale, Bland said that while the Southdale area may be the best for density, it needs to be implemented thoughtfully and carefully. But all developments need to have the neighbors behind them, because if they are not involved, it will just make neighborhoods more angry, she said. Additionally, human scale in large developments needs to be seriously considered, she noted.

Support for defunding police

In another lightning round, candidates were asked whether they support defunding police. They had to answer yes or no, then were asked to elaborate. Kitui and Pierce answered yes, while Dakane, Jackson and Bland said no.

The forum’s definition of defunding police was the reallocation of resources away from the police toward other institutions. The phrase gained momentum after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Kitui said she supports defunding in that she would like to see more funding for social services and education in order to prevent the need for more responses by police officers.

Pierce said he supports allocating funds to need. This means looking at resources in the community, such as mental health services, and adhering to those, he said. He added that he definitely supports the police.

Bland said she is proud of the Edina Police Department and their training. She said the police are part of the community and continually weed out “bad” officers.

Jackson said the term ‘defunding police’ has become politicized. She said she advocates for alternative responses in some situations, like by social workers instead of by police.

Dakane said he would like to add on to the police department with enhancements such as mental health resources and more data collection. He said the police are critical to public safety, especially in light of what he’s seen in Minneapolis.

Addressing weaknesses in each candidates’ campaigns

Candidates were also asked about aspects of their campaigns that may be seen as weak spots.

Jackson was asked about the virtual City Council candidate forum that was hosted by the League of Women Voters Edina. In it, Jackson’s opening statement was re-recorded after she experienced sound issues. A part where she expressed frustration over the technical difficulties and used a curse word was originally removed. LWV-Edina’s video was posted online in edited form, which prompted community backlash before the original version was uploaded with a disclosure statement.

Jackson said she was not aware her microphone was on after experiencing sound issues when she used the curse word. She said it was a mistake, and would not purposely curse at a public forum. “It’s hurt me more than anybody else,” she said. She said she is in favor of full transparency, such as public data requests and open meeting laws.

Bland was asked whether she would be able to think for the future of Edina because she is the oldest candidate running for City Council. Bland responded that since she has lived in Edina for so long, she also has a lot of wisdom and capability for the position. She said she is invested in the future of the city. “Edina is part of the fabric of my life,” she said.

Pierce was asked about his use of ActBlue, a nonprofit technology organization that helps left-leaning candidates raise money. The City Council is a nonpartisan office. Pierce said he chose ActBlue not for its Democrat affiliation, but rather its system for collecting contributions. He said he tries to diversify his support from different parties and works for all of Edina. “I’m not beholden to any particular party,” he said.

Forum moderators asked about Dakane’s nonprofit, FRAYEO, and his ability to continue his work with that organization and dedicate time to the City Council position, if elected. Dakane responded that he’s good at allocating time effectively, and has experience in doing so. They also asked about how to avoid any conflicts of interest. Dakane said his nonprofit works with individuals, not with the city. “I am always guided by ethics,” he said.

Kitui was asked about an Edina City Council campaign she ran two years ago, and what she has to offer now in light of that defeat. Kitui said she is better equipped this time around. She observed that the political landscape is systemically designed to keep some people out, but that she made headway the first time despite losing in the vote count. Her policy positions from her previous campaign have not changed, she said, because the lack of affordable housing has still not been addressed. “That’s why I run,” Kitui explained.

In his opening and closing statements, Ahlberg said neighbor engagement is important for him, regardless of residents' political affiliation. He also said he wants to bring critical thinking and a younger perspective to the Edina City Council.

Other issues discussed at the forum included Edina’s climate action goals, support for local businesses during COVID-19 and the city’s progress on racial equity.

Moderator Veluvali, a junior at EHS, told the Sun Current that the inspiration to host a forum came from watching other similar events during this campaign season. “I don’t think they got into the policy specifics as much as a lot of people may have liked, myself included,” he said.

When deciding which “hard-ball” questions to ask, Veluvali said he researched the campaigns heavily.

“I was just examining and thinking critically what sort of stuff may be something that voters may be curious about,” he said. “I’m really happy with all the planning that went into this from our entire team.”

To view the entire forum, go to youtube.com/watch?v=-ooxjdcwrzE.

– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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