The candidates for Minnetonka City Council answered questions from the audience at an Oct. 1 candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Hopkins chapter.
All eight candidates, except for Jonathan Kerslake, were in attendance. The forum was moderated by chapter member Peggy Kvam.
All four wards are up for election, including a special election for the council member in at-Large B.
Running unopposed in Ward 1 is Brian Kirk. Current Councilmember Bob Ellingson is not seeking re-election.
Running in Ward 2 are incumbent Rebecca Schack and Kerslake.
Running in Ward 3 are incumbent Mike Happe and Bradley Schaeppi.
Running in Ward 4 are Kissy Coakley and Paul Lehman. Current Councilmember Tim Bergstedt is not seeking re-election.
Running unopposed for at-large seat B is Susan Carter.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 5. Absentee and early voting has already opened and can be done at city hall.
Candidates gave opening statements and were given a minute to respond to each question.
Questions were related to city funding mechanisms and candidates were asked whether they are supportive of those decisions.
“Do you support Minnetonka’s use of utility franchise fees or any other funding mechanism to expand it’s sidewalks and trail system?” Kvam asked of the candidates.
Happe voted against the use of utility franchise fees when the council took the action. Lehman was also not in support of the measure and cited similar concerns as Happe.
“I voted against it not because I don’t support the notion that we need more trails, sidewalks and safety in the city, we do, I just felt bad about it from a transparency standpoint,” Happe said. “If we wanted to do it we should have done it as part of the tax levy so we were transparent, and that’s why I voted against it.”
“My reaction to this is that I’m not in favor of hidden taxes on our community and when you make use of certain mechanisms, such as passing it through a utility bill. That doesn’t provide the transparency as to what the community really needs to spend on its infrastructure,” said Lehman.
Schack voted in support of the use of utility franchise fees. She highlighted the transparency on behalf of the city on the utility franchise fees.
“I was one of those six people that last fall voted in favor of the franchise fee, not because I thought it was a hidden tax. We talked a lot about it, it was in the Minnetonka Memo, it was highly publicized and it shows up on the utility bill every month,” Schack said. “I voted for it because I think the number [of] trails that we have, that we need to get completed in Minnetonka is north of $80 million.”
Carter was supportive of the franchise fee even though she was not on the council at the time. In her response, she pointed out the difficulty of funding projects.
“One of the challenges we face when we sit on city council is that if you don’t have a dedicated revenue stream for something and there are so many competing demands for our resources,” Carter said. “Oftentimes things that matter to people get lost.”
Schaeppi was supportive of the decision.
“I, personally, view this as an investment, not a tax,” Schaeppi said. “It is an investment in community health. Many of us live in disconnected neighborhoods and we need these trails to get out.”
Kirk noted his reluctance for supporting the measure was out of concern for individuals on fixed incomes.
“I struggled with the idea of using a franchise fee because I knew that people on fixed incomes and looking for affordable housing opportunities were going to struggle with every penny and dollar,” Kirk said. “If it is limited, I’m OK with that, too much of it, it’s going to harm those people who are on a fixed income.”
Coakley shared the sentiment that there need to be more sidewalks to make Minnetonka safer.
“The reason why I would support the franchise fee is because I believe that we need to create more sidewalks, we need to create more walking trails,” Coakley said. “We need to make sure that when people are walking up Excelsior (Boulevard) that they are walking up Excelsior (Boulevard) and they’re safe.”
The second city finance related question was on the council’s decision to increase the tax levy by an additional $100,000 and whether or not candidates were in support of the increase.
“Do you support the council’s recent action to increase the 2020 tax levy for environmental initiatives and why?” Kvam asked.
The candidates in support were Kirk, Schack, Schaeppi, Lehman and Coakley. They cited the urgency of climate change and positive civic engagement surrounding this issue.
Schack and Carter voted in favor of the additional funding when the preliminary tax levy was approved at the council meeting on Sept. 26.
“It was worth it to get the climate initiative started now,” Kirk said. “Our kids can’t wait until later.”
“It’s a city telling the community we support community engagement,” Schaeppi said. “Yes, it’s a tough time to spend that money, but it’s a smart time to start investing in community engagement.”
Coakley was supportive of the original $200,000 requested by the Minnetonka Climate Initiative.
“When I thought about that and I’ve heard my friends and family talk about why it’s important to make sure that we continue a healthy environment. I thought we should have had the $200,000,” Coakley said. “I learned from my daughter and I learned from people in Minnetonka about why it’s important to make sure that we continue to have a healthy environment.”
Happe voted against the additional funding and said he felt like the city isn’t recognized for the steps it has already taken on the issue and that he was opposed the increase to the levy.
“I don’t think we talk enough about what the city does that is already underway to save our environment and leave the world a better place for the next generation. By the end of this year the city is going to be 100% dependent on solar energy for all city facilities,” Happe said. “I voted no against the levy, 7.75%, that’s a huge burden particularly on people with fixed incomes. Over the last 20 years, our average levy increase has been about 4%, so this is twice as high and I just thought it was too much.”
Candidates also shared their thoughts on affordable housing, making new or residents who are not as engaged feel connected to the community and issues around lack of transportation options in the city. To watch the forum in its entirety, visit lwvmeph.org.
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