A lot of fresh faces could be sitting on the Bloomington City Council next year.
On a council that is usually heavy with members who have deep city experience, redistricting and the departure of three incumbents with more than 40 years of combined tenure mean that at least three — and perhaps as many as five — newcomers could win seats on the seven-member council in the Nov. 5 election.
It could be a “watershed” for the state’s fifth-biggest city, said former Mayor Neil Peterson, who held office from 1990 through 1994.
“Bloomington historically has always had long-standing elected officials on the City Council and in the mayor’s seat,” he said. “They always came into the job seasoned.”
Five of the 10 council candidates have little or no background at City Hall, though some have worked behind the scenes on local political campaigns. Even the two incumbents who are seeking re-election — Tom Hulting and Jack Baloga — have just four and two years, respectively, on the council.
Baloga, for one, is pushing his experience in his District 3 race. Baloga served on the Planning Commission, which in Bloomington has been an incubator for future mayors and council members. As recently as two years ago, five of seven council members were former commission members.
“The future of Bloomington hinges upon the City Council having knowledgeable members who are experienced and effective and can enact policy that is desirable for the community,” Baloga said. “I’ve seen how the sausage is made.”
Though the council is officially nonpartisan, this year’s candidates represent a wide range of political views, from the Tea Party to the DFL. Four years ago, Hulting gained a council seat after being endorsed by local Republicans. This year, the major parties have not endorsed for council races, though the Facebook page of the local Tea Party group is urging people to vote for Zavier Bicott, Rick Bohnen, Ken Johnson and Hulting.
Bicott said he has Libertarian Party and Tea Party endorsement. He is running for the at-large seat being vacated by eight-year Council Member Karen Nordstrom.
“I hadn’t really been someone who was following everything that was happening in Bloomington,” Bicott said. “But with some incumbents retiring … more people are willing to serve the community.”
Bohnen, who last year unsuccessfully challenged Bloomington DFL Rep. Ann Lenczewski for a state House seat, is running in District 1. The fiery language on his campaign website — “My years as a small-business man have given me the experience, knowledge and courage it will take to overcome the tyranny imposed on you by those currently serving in office” — is left over from that campaign, he said.
“I don’t really have a big agenda; I think the city has been run really well,” Bohnen said. “I would like to see lower taxes.”
The partisan tone of some of the election talk disturbs Steve Peterson, who represented District 1 for 14 years and is not seeking re-election. Peterson, a political moderate, noted that he often partnered with Vern Wilcox, one of the most conservative voices on the council, to get things done.
Wilcox is leaving the council after 20 years.
“The City Council in Bloomington has been a collaborative enterprise,” Peterson said. “It’s the old saw about local politics: There’s no Republican or Democratic way to plow the street when there’s a snowfall.”
Planning Commission member Jon Oleson is running for Wilcox’s District 4 seat. Though he touts his commission experience in his council run, he also says that turnover can be a good thing.
“It’s an opportunity and a responsibility,” Oleson said. The responsibility, he said, is to maintain the city’s high credit rating and the city services that residents praise in city surveys.
“The opportunity is that when you get new blood, you get different perspectives,” Oleson said. “But we’re having a major change in the makeup of the council. We could have five totally green people coming in.
“If four of the five are Tea Party people, I am really concerned for the city.”
Hulting, who with Wilcox has been the most steadfastly conservative voice on the council, said he hopes people turn out for an off-year election. If they do, he said, he thinks conservatives will have a chance to become a majority on the council.
“Certainly there’s a chance; frankly, I think there is a good chance,” he said.
Peterson said he hopes voters look past political labels to temperament and decisionmaking.
“I hope we get people who are open-minded and willing to learn and don’t think they have all the answers,” he said.
A fuller look at all the Bloomington council candidates will run in the Oct. 30 West Extra.