The candidates for Hennepin County District 1 Commissioner met to discuss their platforms and answer voter-submitted questions Sept. 29 at CCX Media Studios in Brooklyn Park. The race is between Brooklyn Park mayor Jeff Lunde and longtime Hennepin County staffer De’Vonna Pittman.
The district encompasses Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale. Mike Opat, District 1’s representative since 1993, is not seeking re-election.
Lunde’s first remarks at the forum focused on his record as mayor. Specifically, he mentioned his lack of partisanship and touted an initiative to open a youth homeless center in Brooklyn Park and the recent sale of the state’s second-largest apartment complex, Huntington Place Apartments, to a nonprofit.
“Working across party lines isn’t a slogan, it’s a habit,” said Lunde.
Pittman highlighted her background in her opening statement. She said her move to the district was the product of a “goal to create a better life for myself,” and how, over the past 20 years in the district, she had made a career of bringing a better life to others. She mentioned her position at the county, knowledge of Osseo Area Schools, and her experience as a small business owner.
Both candidates agreed that with uncertainty from the pandemic, now was not the time to consider tax levy increases. When pressed for any issues that might warrant future increases, Lunde mentioned transit projects, and Pittman chose affordable housing programs.
Pittman warned that if homelessness was not grappled with soon, “tent cities will keep popping up around our district.” She said to fund a solution, the county would look to financial sources other than taxpayers.
Lunde said the district has repeatedly suffered from a lack of support for effective transit systems, and the county needs to be prepared to move quickly on opportunities. Still, he maintained that he would not advocate for tax increases.
When questioned on how to best support residents and businesses in the district for the remainder of the pandemic, Pittman pointed to partnerships with Hennepin Healthcare, State Legislature and Congress and law enforcement. Lunde said he would primarily advocate for mobile health care programs to get medical care to those who have difficulty accessing care.
The candidates were also questioned on the potential closing of libraries. In June, the County Board opted to keep nine libraries closed for the remainder of 2020, including the Osseo and Golden Valley libraries.
Pittman said she had been contacted by frustrated librarians who had felt excluded from the conversations around the library reopening plans, and said the county needed to be “clear and appropriate” in future decision-making. Lunde said the board may need to consider a new long-term strategy for libraries to better serve patron needs. He said he didn’t think libraries need to be physical locations but should provide critical resource libraries, like access to the internet.
Balancing difficult issues
The candidates were also asked to explain how they would approach new or divisive issues with staff members and constituents.
Lunde said he prefers to seek out local experts to find solutions to new issues and values early communication with staff if he plans to vote against their recommendation. He said he plans to “stay out in the street” to stay connected with residents and their ideas.
Pittman proposed a once- or twice-monthly virtual engagement session between the board, constituents and stakeholders, something she said the board has never attempted. She said controversial decisions at the county level were often made without adequately communicating to residents, especially those with the most stake in the matter.
Both candidates agreed that the county does not take a large role in addressing housing needs. Lunde said the county should be more aggressive on the issue, which he warranted was complex: his conversations with Huntington Place residents revealed several issues with affordable housing policies.
Pittman said in her experience, staff did have innovative ideas on housing, but the ideas tend to “die by the time they reach the County Board.” She said that contract for deed transactions could be better utilized, empty lots in the district could be analyzed and continued investment should be made in the Productive Day and STS programs.
Law enforcement and social justice
The candidates agreed that the county has a role in reducing disparities in housing, employment, transportation and justice. Lunde said closing the gaps begins with education.
“When youth feel important and listened to, we will see results,” he said.
Pittman said it is important for the county and its staff to first acknowledge the existence of racial disparities before it could combat those disparities. She said the county does not like focus on “what it does wrong.”
On the topic of the Hennepin County jail and justice system, both candidates agreed reforms are possible. Pittman said she is interested in expanding resources for incarcerated individuals so they could find work when their sentences were complete. Lunde said he would like to divert arrested individuals with addiction issues to places other than jail.
“Jail won’t fix an addiction issue. Our goal shouldn’t be to lock people up, because there are some people whose only crime is being addicted to something,” he said.