The next county commissioner for Hennepin County’s District 6 will face the twin challenges of heightened tensions surrounding racial justice following the killing of George Floyd and tightening budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those two issues were front and center during a League of Women Voters candidate forum last month as six hopefuls made their case ahead of the Hennepin County District 6 primary, set for Tuesday, Aug. 11. The candidates, who seek to fill the seat being vacated by Jan Callison, met via videoconference for the June 18 forum, which was moderated by Peggy Kvam, president of the Minnetonka/Eden Prairie/Hopkins League of Women Voters. District 6 covers much of the western suburbs, including Edina, northern Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata.
One of Kvam’s questions was posed in light of the calls to defund Minneapolis Police that reached fevered pitch following Floyd’s death at the hands an officer. The moderator asked the candidates how Hennepin County would be affected if Minneapolis goes through with the proposal, which has been endorsed by a majority of the city council there.
If Minneapolis were to defund its police department, it could put more responsibility at the feet of the county, said candidate Dario Anselmo of Edina, an entrepreneur and
former state representative. “Having a well-run police department is important to Minneapolis, and Hennepin County can’t do all of it. So I just hope that we don’t get caught in their overreaction,” Anselmo said.
While he is opposed to the idea of defunding police, he does favor bolstering the social component of law enforcement. “Embedding more mental health workers is something I’ve been an advocate for for a long time,” Anselmo said.
He also condemned racial disparities in the criminal justice system, observing, “Too many people of color end up in that system for the wrong reasons.”
Candidates Brad Aho and Cheri Sudit also came out explicitly against defunding police. “I think we need to look at our policing policies,” said Aho, who sits on the Eden Prairie City Council. But, agreeing with Anselmo, he predicted defunding Minneapolis Police would unduly shift the law enforcement burden onto the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
Aho said bad actors filled a “leadership void” during the unrest that following the killing of Floyd. “We can and must do better,” he declared. But regarding the objections behind the unrest, he added, “The time is now to have action to fight against these different discriminations and racism in our community.”
Sudit, a Minnetonka resident, also voiced openness to exploring reform despite being “very much against defunding the police department.” As for staffing at the sheriff’s office, “I think we need more people of color,” Sudit said. “I certainly think we could use more women in this department and training” regarding racism and sexual harassment.
In presenting her credentials on issues surrounding bias, Sudit cited her experience as an attorney for Hennepin County specializing in employment discrimination. “I have personally dedicated my career to this issue,” she said.
But measures such as implicit bias training don’t get to the root of the problem, according to Minnetonka resident Kimberly Wilburn, who described herself as a scientist, veterinarian and community organizer.
“Implicit bias training doesn’t work if you’re dealing with a systemic racist system,” Wilburn said. She added, “This is not a push for or against defunding, but if you don’t understand why, after continual murder of our people, why people are calling for defunding, I think that’s a problem.”
Wilburn, a person of color, called for more diversity in county government. “There are not enough faces and voices like mine at the table,” she said.
Wilburn wants the county to embrace the NAACP’s Twin Cities Economic Inclusion Plan, which addresses the region’s the deep racial disparities. “It’s time to start governing with more inclusion,” she said.
Chris LaTondresse, a member of the Hopkins School Board, spoke against the traditional policing model when it comes to most law enforcement interactions. “An armed officer with a badge and a gun is not the right answer for many – or even most – situations,” LaTondresse said. “I think we need to give Hutch (Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson) the funding he needs to dispatch social workers and mental health professionals into the field for some of these calls.”
Of the six District 6 candidates, Hopkins resident Carmella Doby came out most explicitly in favor of defunding police. “I think that this change is a long time needed,” Doby said. “We do have to realize that this is a systematic problem.”
She called for cultural competence training for officers and promoted the idea of a community review board that would have “more power than just discuss the issues.”
“COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to the foundation of our government,” LaTondresse said as he answered a question about budget priorities. “Right now, local governments are in emergency mode.”
Whatever approach the commission takes to its budget, it should come through a lens of equity, Wilburn said. She was particularly concerned for the health and human services budget, which she views as underfunded already.
One question asked candidates asked how they would handle an increase in child protection services cases or heightened demand on the foster care system that the pandemic could cause.
There’s “a lot of room for improvement” in those areas,” Aho said, pointing to the $220 million the county is receiving from the federal CARES Act as one potential source of help.
The county needs to examine “what role racism is having in separating families of color, and are all these children that have been placed in foster care, do they really need to be in foster care?” Wilburn said.
The issues of child protection and the foster care system are close to Doby, who referenced her own upbringing as a foster child. She agreed that “sometimes systematic racism can play a role” in foster care.
There’s a need for greater focus on children’s mental health services, she continued. “A lot of times being in foster care, social workers and judges, they forget that you are still a child,” Doby said.
Another priority area that could be victimized by the pandemic is the county’s 2040 Bicycle Transportation Plan. A question posed to candidates mentioned that the plan calls for $1.5 million per year to hit the goal of completing a trail network by 2040, although current funding levels amount to half that sum.
No candidate would pledge to fully funding the plan. “We’re in a tough budget cycle so I really can’t make a commitment to doing it,” Anselmo said.
He would potentially go to the Three Rivers Park District and its $60 million budget for assistance in completing the trail system. “I might lean on some of our partners to help in that process,” Anselmo said.
Aho, too, envisions seeking help for trail funding, pointing to state and federal grants as an option.
The present conditions mean trails can’t be first in line for funding, according to Wilburn. “There are going to be some needs that trump the trail system at this point, unfortunately.”
Doby concurred. “The budget gets spent on people first, over trails and parks,” she said.
Other candidates related the trail system to broader issues. Sudit spoke of the mental health benefits such resources provide in calling the trail system “truly what makes our western suburbs special.” She said she would “hate to see budgetary cuts in those areas.”
LaTondresse related the trail system to broader issues surrounding transportation. Saying the transportation system needs to be designed with the most vulnerable populations in mind, he underlined the importance of investing in transit and trails, though he stopped short of committing to a specific funding level for the bike trail plan.
One issue the candidates were all in agreement about was the importance of local governments such as Hennepin County. The county operates on a $2.5 billion budget and touches the lives of one in five Minnesotans, LaTondresse noted.
Aho cited core services such as parks, libraries and transportation as he reasoned, “Local government has the biggest impact on our daily lives.”
The candidates were also asked about climate change, what committees within the commission they would like to join, budget priorities, affordable housing and homelessness. The forum is available for streaming at tinyurl.com/y7zo8n3d.
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent