A business leader says yes -- and is trying to oust the city's longtime mayor. The mayor offers a robust defense.
Cece Fandrey, 7, played at Huber Park in Shakopee on a recent sunny afternoon. Mayoral candidate Brad Tabke said Shakopee has been slow in building parks. Incumbent Mayor John Schmitt said financial reserves have been used to help keep taxes down.
Brad Tabke is worried about Shakopee.
He says it's under-policed as crime and gangs spread. That its downtown is sagging. That it's letting pollution creep in for lack of personnel to tackle it. That it's turning its back on the immigrants who are more and more defining it. And much, much more.
The critique comes from none other than the board chair of the city's Chamber and Visitors Bureau -- ordinarily, one would think, Salesman No. 1.
Tabke is running against incumbent Mayor John Schmitt on Nov. 8, hoping to change things.
Tabke ("tab key, like on a computer," smiles wife Katey) is a 32-year-old Iowa native whose residency in Shakopee dates to 2003 and who carries his iPad in his Mini Cooper.
Schmitt, 73, drives a van and is proud of having a website for his campaign -- though his son put it together. "Brad," he adds, "reminds me of my son."
They differ on a long list of issues and complaints. Here, distilled to capture the essence of each man's pitch, is a sample of what they had to say during a pair of extensive and at times pointed interviews. Tabke often used the word "ridiculous" and Schmitt more than once asked to have an exasperated response softened for publication.
Tabke: "Gangs and crime are rampant. We're 10 cops short of where we should be. The mayor commissioned a report that said we should have 1.5 officers per thousand people, and it's inexcusable that we're 10 short, considering the things that are going on. We're not violent compared to a Minneapolis, but a lot goes on, and we don't have enough uniforms to go around."
Schmitt: "Not true. We're five short. And we compensate with technology. Our department is at the top of its field in that. Our new police facility is wired to the hilt. Gangs are everywhere, not just Shakopee. We have people who know who they are." Perceptions of "enough" are tricky. "We used to have complaints of too few patrols; then we switched from all-white [vehicles] to black-and-white, and suddenly there were compliments: People were seeing them in their neighborhood."
Tabke: "We don't do a good job of using technology to get in touch with people. We have a Facebook page, but we don't allow people to put in comments! It's a complete one-way conversation: 'This is what the city says you shall hear.' It's frustrating. The current mayor and council don't realize the potential here, of creating community and bringing people together. Eden Prairie [www.facebook.com/cityofedenprairie] has thousands of users because they use it as they should; we have a couple of hundred because we don't."
Schmitt: "We have Twitter and Facebook and those kinds of things up and operational, but we don't have the people to work with it full-time. It takes people at our end, and we don't have those hours -- we operate a lean staff."
Tabke: "We have a huge Latino population that gets very, very little from the city. We try at park and rec [he's on the park board] to do things, and the police try, but there are no cultural festivals. We have a huge Russian community. They are not utilized. They could be to our advantage."
Schmitt: "There are barriers. We know the Hispanic community wants to help maintain the soccer complex, but they're never available at the right time. It's figuring out how to coordinate that. The real problem is trying to find the leadership in those cultural communities. With the Russians, they have their own organizations and we haven't been able to crash that barrier. With Hispanics, we can't seem to find organized leadership, and knocking on one door at a time is difficult. We've tried to hire Hispanic officers but the big cities gobble them up."
Tabke: "We are building two big parks now, but they sat for eight years. People have been promised by the developers and the city those things would be done a long time ago. A generation of kids grew up with no park. Shakopee has huge reserves just sitting there. We need to use them to get things done."
Schmitt: "Most of our reserves are special reserves set up for particular purposes that may not be touched for any purpose but that. In some cases, those funds are helping us keep taxes lower. We're not doing special assessments on people because we have these funds."
Tabke: "They had a rule that an electronic sign could only change once a day. That's not enough. Canterbury, a huge chamber member, could only change once a day. It was ridiculous. We wanted, I believe, every three minutes, I'm not sure. The council said, 'three times a day' -- better but completely arbitrary. We need to focus on our businsses."
Schmitt: "That's an easy one. The proposal was to change them every 30 seconds. Other communities our size told us the consensus was to change about every 20 minutes. Otherwise drivers become engrossed in the signs while driving 30 mph, and that's a safety issue. But we have not seen an ordinance; the rate of change hasn't reached council level yet."
Tabke: "We've been without a natural resources coordinator since 2008. That person should be re-hired and be out making sure natural corridors are kept up and educating people on things like rain gardens and prairie plantings. We have purple loosestrife [an invasive species] growing in ponds, and nothing is being done about it. We have to make sure we're environmentally friendly."
Schmitt: "Public works staff does work on some of those issues. We don't necessarily do eradication at this point. We had people on staff, but with construction going south, new developments drying up virtually 100 percent, we could not justify that cost and reduced the budget by upwards of $180,000 in that maelstrom."
Tabke: "I love downtown; it symbolizes our position as a town. But I look around and see empty storefronts. We need more grocery stores, restaurants, upscale bars for people to gather. It's frustrating the city hasn't helped out. Businesses can't survive on an island, and the mix is not right down there." [Passing an empty coffee shop during a photo shoot later:] "She wanted help and couldn't get it."
Schmitt: "What do you do for struggling businesses? Give them a donation? A $10,000 loan? The biggest problem for the coffee shop was a roof that leaked like a sieve. She was supposed to come up with funds to repair it. We're not in that kind of business."
Tabke: "The county came to the city years ago and said, 'We want to work with you.' The city put it off and didn't act on it. Finally the county came to the chamber and said, 'We need help getting something done.' The chamber stepped up and it got done."
Schmitt: "Matt [Lehman, a strong-willed veteran councilman who owns a business on that stretch of a key city thoroughfare, and the mayor's electoral challenger last time around] kept stalling it. He wanted a quick, temporary fix, but we had very old infrastructure underneath and needed to do it right, and to fix other problems. We wanted to do it a year earlier. But Matt got into the act -- 'You're spending too much, we can't afford it' -- and we couldn't pull enough folks together. In the end we got it done, and done right."
Tabke: "We need to have elections take place during election years, so more people take part. Turnout is exceedingly low, and that's sad -- as low as 15 percent," an arrangement that tends to favor Old Guard incumbents, he said, because newcomers aren't that engaged with politics.
Schmitt: "I have mixed emotions. In election years, our own issues can get lost. It's a toss-up, for me. I did propose going to even-year elections, but the basic sentiment of the council was, 'It's not broken, don't attempt to fix it.'"
Tabke: "A lot of it lies within John Schmitt. I like him a lot and his wife is phenomenal, but I don't think he stands up and leads. A mayor should set the agenda and vision. He hasn't done that. Case in point: the community center [expansion] referendum which failed last year. It got completely eaten up to the lowest common denominator and the mayor supported the project behind the scenes but refused to write a letter to the editor. There was no leadership."
Schmitt: "A mayor does lead but is one of five votes and cannot crack the whip on folks. A mayor doesn't write letters to the editor. If we're that hard up for communication, we do have a problem. Some of their own supporters didn't work very hard for it. There was a lot of leftover bitterness in the community over the community center project -- a lot of history there that he does not understand."
With any challenge bound to be framed in terms of alleged shortcomings, what's the most important positive case for the mayor? Schmitt stresses transportation.
"Don't overlook what we did in fixing the problem [with stoplights] at Hwys. 494 and 169. We worked with the state. We came up with funds. We built a new [County Road] 21. We're not asleep out here. We know what's going on.
"On transit, we have nine buses on the road, over 10,000 riders a month, and it's growing every month. We have the Hecker building [the shuttered auto dealership on Hwy. 169] that's about to become a central facility for all transit operations, with a park-and-ride. We want to extend transit to the University of Minnesota so kids can save money living at home, and to 494.
"And we have other plans: First Avenue heading west to 169 is a disaster, and we're working on dressing it up and getting rid of rusty bridges: sandblasting, painting, the works. We will do the same for them at 101 east."
And while Tabke's age is closer than his to the median age in town, Schmitt adds that he -- the retiree with no young kids at home -- has the time for a demanding job. "I'm off to a meeting right now," he said in late morning. "Being the mayor of a community of 35,000 means being a member of organizations beneficial to us that do meet. I have time for that at this stage in my life."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285