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North metro cities choosing leaders

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA and PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune s taff w riters
  • October 16, 2012 - 10:26 AM

In two cities at the northern edges of Anoka County, the Nov. 6 elections could bring about a change in tone and direction. East Bethel residents will choose a mayor and two city council members; Ramsey will choose a mayor, as well as three council members. All seven positions are contested.

Two years ago, a new majority rode into the East Bethel council on a wave of resistance to a planned sewer treatment plant that already had been set into motion by a lame-duck council. This year, water and sewer remains the overriding issue, but the refrain has changed to making the new system -- set to start reclaiming wastewater by early next year -- work for the city.

The past two years were marked by animosity between the holdovers and the new majority, which worked hard to circumvent the previous council's work to install the $38 million wastewater system and municipal water supply. The two members who remained from the previous council are not running for reelection. The candidates who are running to replace them -- who fall on both sides of the city's water and development issues -- all said it's important to keep the council collegial, even if they don't always agree.

Mayor Richard Lawrence, 58, is seeking a second term. Owner of East Bethel Machine, he's a 20-year resident of the city. His challenger is Tanner Balfany, 28. Balfany, an insurance agent for Associated Insurance Agents, has lived in the city for five years.

Lawrence, once a strong opponent of the system, now says the city has to continue its work to attract businesses to the city, starting with its work with Ady-Voltedge, a community development consultant.

"Will we do it in two years?" he said. "No, this is a 20-year project, minimum. It's in its infancy, and it's crucial that we get a good start in the right direction."

It's vital, however, to refrain from raising taxes on already-stretched residents and business owners, he said.

His opponent, Balfany, said he thinks the water systems are needed to attract development, but that a leadership vacuum and ill feelings at City Hall have led to delays and a perception that the city is unfriendly to business.

"Given the history with the current and past council, and the change that's happened between the two, has left developers with an uneasy feeling that East Bethel may not be willing to work with them," he said. "It will be one of my goals to be sure that that image is changed and that the city of East Bethel is portrayed in a positive manner, that we are willing to work with businesses and developers to make sure that East Bethel is a growing city."

Current council members Steve Voss and Bill Boyer are not running for reelection. Their at-large seats have four contenders.

• Ron Koller, 56, tool and die maker for Graco, who has lived in the community for about 22 years.

• Brian Mundle, 30, a construction manager for new residential building, who has lived and worked in the community for most of his life.

• Randy Plaisance, 50, who works in Target's printing division and is a lifelong resident.

• Tom Ronning, 63, a retired consultant for the United Auto Workers union, an eight-year resident.

Plaisance and Koller both said they are concerned about the city's work so far to collaborate and communicate with residents. Koller went so far as to suggest that work on the sewer and water project should be suspended until the city can be sure all the players agree on its aims and how to get there. He's also concerned that the project as it stands now is not going to be sustainable for long-term development in the city.

Still, all four said what's vital now is to make sure the city sets conditions to ensure it can attract enough new commercial and residential development to create a tax base that's broad enough to pay for the system when bond payments come due.

"It's very important that when we sit down and start talking about the issues of the city and what needs to be done, that we can't continue to talk about what's been," Plaisance said, "because when you start that conversation you end up going around in a great big circle and you end up in the same place you were when you started the conversation."

Ramsey

In Ramsey, longtime council member Sarah Strommen is running for mayor against incumbent Bob Ramsey. Both are extremely passionate about their city, but their visions couldn't be much more different.

Strommen, the only woman on the seven-member council, served two terms between 2002 and 2008. She gave up politics to spend more time with her young son, then returned to the council last year after winning a special election to fill the seat vacated by David Jeffrey, who was battling pancreatic cancer.

A Fulbright scholar who holds degrees from Grinnell College and Duke University, Strommen's time away from politics afforded her a different perspective of the way the city can be run.

"My skill is in bringing people together with conflicting views," said Strommen, associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit that strives to protect Minnesota's natural and scenic heritage. She often deals with state policy revolving around these issues.

As a manager of eight funding grants, Strommen said she is used to being held accountable and transparent in her work, and those are important traits for a mayor.

"We have opportunities in Ramsey -- with the COR [development project], with our Northstar station," she said. "We need to make retail complimentary, not competitive in the COR. The city needs to invest strategically in this, but we can't forget parts of the city we've ignored -- our industrial space that could bring business and jobs to our community. The Mississippi River offers a huge opportunity. There's great potential to be tapped."

Bob Ramsey was elected mayor in 2008, saying he wanted to streamline government. He says he had seen how a previous Ramsey council had created the much-maligned Ramsey Town Center "and the black eye we had with the media."

He said he also cringed at the direction he saw the city taking, which he describes as "environmentally driven."

"It's important for us to be responsible for our environment, but there's an extent," Ramsey said. "When it costs 50 times what we need to spend, I'm opposed to that."

Mayor Ramsey got to view his city from afar last winter -- after he was forced to close his own small business. He worked on an oil field near Minot, N.D., 500 miles away, for several months, returning home to attend council meetings every other week.

"I was never disconnected at all," he said.

He has since found work in Ramsey.

"When I moved to Ramsey from Coon Rapids in 2005, there were things that were desperately wrong," he said. "By the time I got elected in 2008, I had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done."

Ramsey declined the League of Women's Voters invitation to debate Strommen.

mbaca@startribune.com • 612-673-4409 plevy@startribune.ocm • 612-673-4419

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