The Bemidji area chapter of the League of Women Voters held an informal candidate forum Saturday, Aug. 1, at Cameron Park.
Candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves, and seven minutes to answer three questions.
Beltrami County Board of Commissioner candidates present were Danny Anderson (District 4), Mike Bredon (District 5), Jim Lucachick (incumbent, District 5), Reed Olson (incumbent, District 2), and Christian Taylor-Johnson (District 5).
Absent was the incumbent District 4 commissioner Tim Sumner. District 2 challenger Joe Vene arrived briefly, but only after the forum had moved on from county to Bemidji City Council candidates, so he did not speak.
Council candidates present were Joe Gould, Adam Hellquist and Audrey Thayer (all for Ward 1), Josh Peterson and Jaime Thibodeaux (for Ward 2), Ron Johnson (incumbent for Ward 3), Don Heinonen and Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier III (both for Ward 5), John Henningsgaard, Michael Meehlhause, Jorge Prince and Mark Thorson (all running for mayor).
Council candidates absent were Laura Fairbanks and Ryan Enger, both running for Ward 1; Greg Kuhn and Paul Wiese, both running for Ward 3; Nancy Erickson, incumbent Ward 5 council member; Robert Elliot and Ivan Smith, candidates for mayor.
BELTRAMI COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS
DANNY ANDERSON, DISTRICT 4
Anderson has lived in the area since 2004, and owns an auto repair shop in Kelliher.
“I enjoy problem solving and keeping things in check,” he said.
One citizen asked if he owned property and paid taxes, to which he replied yes. Another citizen asked if he supported mandatory drug testing and background checks for elected officials.
“I feel whatever is good for the goose is good for the gander. If citizens are required to do it, so should elected officials, said Anderson. “No one should be exempt, no matter what political position you’re in.”
The one specific county issue he discussed were roads.
“A lot of what I hear from constituents is about roads. It’s a pretty rural part of the county, a lot of gravel roads,” he said. “I would like to improve them as long as it’s fiscally feasible.”
MIKE BREDON, DISTRICT 5
Mike Bredon grew up in the area and recently moved back to the area about five years ago.
Bredon, upon his mother’s death due to breast cancer, dropped out of high school, and witnessed his father’s undermining health and chronic alcoholism after that.
Bredon worked with a number of other community leaders to start the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless, the committee that operates the wintertime Wolfe, serving chronic inebriates overnight.
“My father was a chronic inebriate at the end of his life. When she died, he let go of it,” said Bredon, referencing his parents. “It was a very scary time for our family. As my father’s health deteriorated, I started to meet with different community leaders and shelters, and we started the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless. I’m very proud to be involved with that.”
Bredon said he was discouraged by the county’s decision to vote against Beltrami County being open to refugee resettlement.
“That vote was damaging to my own views, what are we doing here? I don’t want my daughter growing up thinking that she needs to read a book by its cover,” said Bredon.
“When refugees come to this country, they are vetted by a dozen of federal agencies,” Bredon continued.
“For those in need, we need to do what we can, where we can, every time.”
JIM LUCACHICK, DISTRICT 5
Jim Lucachick, the incumbent for District 5, owns Lucachick Architecture and has been involved with Habitat for Humanity, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse and the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area.
Lucachick defended his “no” vote on the refugee resettlement action.
“Did vote to not allow refugees, but I never called them an invasive species,” said Lucachick.
“I encourage people to do their homework on that issue.”
Lucachick said refugees and immigrants are still able to come into Beltrami County, and explained that his vote and “invasive” comment was referencing the federal Refugee Resettlement Program.
“My dad was an immigrant, his dad was an immigrant, he taught me a work ethic, you work hard, you pay your taxes, pay your bills and be respectful to people.”
The “invasive” comment was referencing a screenshot that was from Michael Meehlhause, current Ward 1 council member and mayoral candidate.
“That should have remained between a city councilman and a county commissioner,” said Lucachick.
One citizen asked Lucachick if he approved of President Donald Trump.
“I approve of a lot of things he’s doing, and I disapprove of a lot of things he does,” said Lucachick. “He tweets, does high school-like things, but he’s good on financial and work issues. I wish he would shut up and run this country like a business and be a decent human being.”
REED OLSON, DISTRICT 2
Reed Olson is the incumbent for District 2, and has lived in the area since the 90s. Olson is a co-owner of the Wild Hare Bistro and Coffeehouse in downtown Bemidji, and is the executive director for the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless.
When asked the drug testing and background check question, Olson said he completely disagrees with the premise out of privacy concerns, and disagreed with the property owning question, too.
“I completely disagree with anyone doing drug tests, for a job or any reason. It’s an invasion of privacy,” said Olson. “I pay property taxes by owning a home, but I find that an odd question.”
“When people call me with a concern, I don’t ask how much they pay in local taxes,” continued Olson. “Any citizen has the right to run for office. I understand the reason for the question, but I wholly disagree with it.”
Olson also spoke his mind on issues around incarceration and policing.
“In the remodeling or rebuilding of the jail, we have a good opportunity to make some change,” he said. “Look at the roster, Native Americans make up 25 percent of our population, but 90 percent of our jail. Most of them are in there pre-trial, for minor drug offenses or other misdemeanors.”
“We have issues in our society that well pre-date us, people have historical memory of being discriminated against, or for whatever reason not feeling like a full member of this community,” he added.
“At the county, do we have a work force that reflects the community we’re serving? We have a lot of talent in the Native American community, but for whatever reason they’re not applying for jobs at the county,” said Olson.
CHRISTIAN TAYLOR-JOHNSON, DISTRICT 5
Christian Taylor-Johnson is a senior at Bemidji State University, focusing his studies on Indigenous studies and political science.
“I grew up on the Leech Lake reservation,” he said. “I really care about this community, that’s the main reason why I decided to run.”
Taylor-Johnson calls himself a “social justice warrior,” and described a motto he learned from his father, when leading, remember “ICE.”
“Integrity, character and ethics, and I intend to do that,” he said.
Taylor-Johnson was asked if he agreed with the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners to vote down a resolution, criticizing Gov. Tim Walz during the earlier days of the pandemic.
“I think we could have stayed shut down a little longer, we still would have been able to maintain our small businesses,” said Taylor-Johnson. “During this pandemic, we found out we have money, for just about anything we want, when it comes to war, a blip in the stock market, why is there, when it comes down to bailing out small businesses, local families and real people, we can’t find the money?”
“It’s always about finances, let’s care about people instead of finances.”
bemidji city council
JOE GOULD, WARD 1
Joe Gould has lived in Bemidji for five years, and is a social studies teacher at Voyageurs High School. His family has lived in the area since the 1930s, and said he had many teachers and public servants in his family.
“These are trying times for our country, we need to address racial disparities and combat COVID-19,” he said. “Public service is in my blood.”
Gould has over 15 years of legislative experience, most notably working with the legislature on securing millions of dollars in funding for both school districts and expanding rural internet projects.
Gould spoke on his ideas on how to bring a wellness center to Bemidji.
“I would support bringing key stakeholders together and try to look look forward as best as possible,” said Gould. “I would support a wellness center…. I’m on the board for Boys and Girls Club, maybe we could tie it into there as well.”
Gould, when asked on what his thoughts were on expanding the city, said he was a supporter of economic development, especially if it brings good jobs to Bemidji.
“I think we should take a hard look at any proposal that creates new jobs for people,” he said. “When I go on walks with my wife, we notice vacant parcels, that would be a good opportunity for housing development and get more income, property tax wise.”
“I think case by case, generally supportive of economic development,” added Gould. “I like Bemidji as a regional center city, we have a pretty good thing going here.”
ADAM HELLQUIST, WARD 1
Adam Hellquist was born and raised in Bemidji, and has spent the majority of his working career in information technology. Hellquist also has done a fair amount of volunteer work, with Community Table, Meals on Wheels, and has been on the clean up crew for the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festivals.
“City government is very interesting to me,” he said. “At a very small level, we are affecting where we live. The decisions we make affect us directly, and I want to be a part of those decisions.”
Hellquist spoke on his thoughts on the Sanford Event Center.
“The Sanford Center has a reputation problem in the community,” he said. “We’re a regional hub, that should be a place that should be bringing people here.”
“Obviously, Venuworks has had a couple problems,” he added “The solution coming to the table that maybe the city should run it, but I don’t think that’s going to work the way we want it to.”
Hellquist said he did own property in the city and pays taxes. He opposes drug testing and background checks for elected officials.
“As an IT person, privacy stuff is really important to me,” he explained. “I reject the notion, that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. I don’t really like outright invasion of people’s privacy, wouldn’t support background checks and drug tests outright.”
AUDREY THAYER, WARD 1
Audrey Thayer has lived in the Bemidji community for 30 years, and her family has been here for generations.
“We have problems here,” she said. “How do we address Sanford Center issues, how do we address wellness issues, how do we find money for our alcohol and drug dependence issues?”
Thayer was a property owner, but when one of her children died she sold the house and is now renting. Thayer opposes mandatory background checks and drug testing for elected official.
“I worked for the U.S. Constitution, imagine my feelings on whether we should do those tests or not,” she said. “We have to remember our Constitution, and be very careful about the rights of people.”
Thayer said she would be supportive of diverting some of the city’s liquor store funds into alcohol dependency resources.
“A wet shelter can be a challenge,” she said. “We have to look at all avenues, we can’t pass judgement. We gotta have a model that can meet the needs of our people, we’re all unique, it’s easy for us to say that we don’t like this or that, but we gotta look at what everybody needs.”
JOSH PETERSON, WARD 2
Josh Peterson is about a lifelong resident of Bemidji, and owns the house his grandparents built. Peterson has been active with the Bemidji Jaycees since 2015, and his first experience with the Bemidji City Council was when he was 15 years old, when he asked for a resolution of support to bring a local access TV station to Bemidji.
When asked how he would heal some tension between the council and the business community, he explained that he would want to do everything he could to move forward.
“At that time, in my job as a reporter for Lakeland News, covering the city beat, I saw a lot of feuding at the city,” he said. “As a journalist you don’t really have a chance to have an opinion, but stepping into this realm,and taking on being the Executive Director for Visit Bemidji, I made it known that I would not get involved in any old arguments.”
“I think there’s an effort, an interest in business community, to work together with the city council, to see what’s best for everyone to move the city forward.”
When asked on how he would bring youth voices to the table, Peterson brought up his Jaycee experience, which is a leadership development through community service organization for 18-40 year olds.
“Younger people see things in a different way,” he said. “They’re not tainted, they’re open minded. Let’s make them part of the conversation for the envision 2030 project…. that’s an opportunity to bring new young voices in, because in 2030, they’re going to standing where I’m standing.”
“Let’s plant that seed, get them inspired, put their foot print in the sand on where they want to see the city go.”
JAIME THIBODEAUX, WARD 2
Jaime Thibodeaux, a coastal Louisiana native, has lived in Bemidji for a number of years, moving here to play hockey and to be near the Headwaters of the Mississippi.
She works as a hydrologist and an ecologist, and has volunteer experience with the Audubon Society.
“I work in very large infrastructure projects, with big business on big projects,” said Thibodeaux. “I’m a pragmatic decision maker, strategic, with a long-term view on decision making. I’m very focused on solutions, and bringing everyone together to address problems.”
When asked on bringing a wellness center to Bemidji, Thibodeaux explained that the city will have to prioritize the needs before the wants.
“We have a really big task ahead of us, recovering from COVID-19, we have to make sure we prioritize essential functions of our communities before we put ourselves more at risk for financial burdens.”
“Sanford is really committed and invested in our community,” she said. “They are making real commitments to our health and wellness.”
Thibodeaux said she would support opening up hockey to make it more accessible for children of lower incomes, and would like to promote imaginative play in the wellness center as well.
Thibodeaux is also very supportive of the art community.
“One of the reasons that kept me here once i moved here is that we have so much, including our arts,” said Thibodeaux. ” Any way the city can foster and grow that movement, the better. We’re really a music hub, if we can find a way to have good accessibility to our arts, for people of all income levels, it’s just amazing the talent we have here.”
RON JOHNSON, WARD 3
Ron Johnson was born and raised in Bemidji, and was instrumental in bringing a public TV station here to Bemidji. Johnson has been with Lakeland PBS for 41 years, has served on the Bemidji City Council since the early 2000s, and is heavily involved with the Coalition for Greater Minnesota Cities and the League of Minnesota Cities.
“We’re gonna have some new faces on the council,” said Johnson. “There could be several. That’s one of my pitches, good to have a little bit experience left on the council, just to mentor them.”
He also compared city politics to sports, and that it’s good to have a healthy mix of “veterans” and “rookies.”
“This covid has got everyone wondering what’s going to happen, what’s down the road,” he said, when speaking on moving the city forward. “We need to lead our businesses through this.”
“With colleges and whether or not they’ll be meeting in person, what that enrollment is going to mean… if classes are online, are they going move to Bemidji and help our economy? This city depends on it,” said Johnson.
Johnson said one of the city’s issues is a lack of clear communication.
“The listening session for police advisory, that’s the type of thing that should be done in person, this covid is changing the way we’re doing things right now, hopefully it will get better.”
DON HEINONEN, WARD 5
Don Heinonen has lived in the community since the 80s, and has been involved in the Jaycees and complementary organizations since, with involvement in the Eagles and Elks Clubs as well as serving on numerous city committees.
Heinonen said he would be supportive of background checks and drug testing for elected officials, but was criticized on that stance by an attendee of the event, who brought up Heinonen’s previous issues with campaign finance violations during his 2018 bid for councillor-at-large.
“I was only convicted of one of the three charges, and it all came down to one word in the campaign finance rules booklet, and that was the word ‘may,'” said Heinonen.
“I have answered to the state, paid my fine, and moved on,” he added. “For my campaign this year, I went back to doing what I did in the first two campaigns, personally paying for my own. Two years ago was the first time I had ever taken a dime, to run for a campaign, I was new to it, I learned from it, and I moved on.”
Heinonen said he would not have voted in favor of the new liquor store.
“That took taxable property off the rolls, we need to develop what’s here, city owns enough property, but we need to bring it back to taxable property,” he said. “We need to focus on keeping our tax base… it’s very tough, hard thing for us to do. I would suggest a moratorium on taking any more taxable property for city use.”
“The only way we’re going to grow our tax base is through annexation, and we need to have conversations with surrounding townships, get them back at the table for annexation agreements,” said Heinonen.
ERNEST “JOEY” OPPEGAARD-PELTIER III, WARD 5
Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier III has lived in the area for two years, and has experience working grassroots campaigns, as well as in “Rock the Vote” and Our Revolution Bemidji.
Oppegaard-Peltier explained that while he does not directly pay property taxes, he does pay them through the rental process, in which he revealed he rented from Johnson’s brother.
Oppegaard-Peltier said while he thinks the proposed police advisory commission the city is undertaking is a good step forward, he would like to see it have more power.
“We’ve seen these types of committees fizzle out shortly after they’re created,” he said. “They’re an advisory committee that whispers in the ears of those they’re advising and don’t have teeth to actually do anything. I think the committee should have the power to fire public employees, and legal representation to see it through.”
When asked if the city should annex around the lake, Oppegaard-Peltier thinks it’s an avenue that should be looked into.
“Something we should look into, what revenue will bring it in, the cost of legal suits,” he said. “If that weighs out, and we come out ahead, we should take those properties in, I feel.”
Oppegaard-Peltier said the city’s liquor stores relieve the property tax burden.
“I hear the anger and frustrations against our homeless people, a good majority of the customers that go to the liquor stores are working individuals, do actually have jobs and are functitoning people in our community,” he said. “Honestly, if it’s not a publicly owned store, it’ll be a private liquor store they’re going to.”
The format for these candidates changed due to a lack of time. All four candidates answered as many questions that time would allow before the forum wrapped up at 12 noon. Questions for the mayoral candidates largely revolved around the decision to enact a curfew at the end of May.
“I had the impression that law enforcement made some questionable decisions that night,” said Henningsgaard. “I wanted to know more information, but I’m not sure it all came down satisfactorily. I read what Chief Mastin said in the paper, that streets would be patrolled by licensed officers, and I trusted that. I really trust his judgement and going forward, trust that he’s doing the right thing.”
“Again, judgement the way things happen in crisis, people react,” he added. “I was comforted by Chief Mastin, that he wanted to do right, and moving forward, recognizing mistakes had been made, we’ll be all the better for it.”
“Public safety is best done by trained professionals,” said Meehlhause. “The best intentions can lead to some really bad mistakes or situations, we can all agree that’s what happened the night of that curfew.”
“That was a scary situation,” said Meehlhause. “I disagreed with Off Grid and Representative Grossell with what they did. Even if you have good intentions, unless law enforcement asked for help, you might inadvertently cause more harm, you have to learn from the mistakes you make and learn to get better.”
“People have the right to protect themselves, their families and their properties,” said Prince. “I am in no way in favor of people taking the law into their own hands, especially in the middle of a crisis.”
“They might not have been trained the way law enforcement has been trained,” he added. “I’m certainly not in favor of someone taking it upon themselves to become law enforcement.”
“As i suspect, most truths are somewhere in the middle,” said Prince. “Because there wasn’t a lot of clear communication right after things happened, a lot of speculation, a lot was posted on social media, and that was part of the issue.”
“I’m an advocate for the Second Amendment, but I also believe in civility, the civic process and rule of law,” said Thorson. “Law can best be carried out by rule of law, not running by mobs and militias.”