Little Falls City Council candidates spend all afternoon at Chamber-sponsored forum

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

It was a long afternoon at the forum for Little Falls City  Council candidates, sponsored by the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Monday. The forum was separated into three parts; one part for each of the wards in the city.

Candidates for the Ward 1 seat were incumbent Loren Boyum and challenger Robin Hensel. Candidate Brent Wittwer was unable to attend the forum.

Incumbent Urban Otremba and his challengers Theresa Skorseth and Greg Zylka, represented Ward 2.

In Ward 3, incumbent Frank Gosiak answered questions with his opponents, Richard Berg and Kathy Woitalla. Audreen ‘Ozzie’ Wilczek Schwegman who filed for the seat has dropped out of the race.

As candidates shared their reasons for seeking public office, Boyum, Zylka and Gosiak said they wanted to serve and give back to their community.

“Our city is of value to all of us, and we need to preserve the future,” Boyum said.

“There are plenty of challenges for the city and I want to be a part of it,” said Zylka. “I want to help.”

Gosiak said he’s learned a lot as a member of the council over the past four years and was taught by his father to give back.

Hensel, Skorseth and Woitalla all said they wanted things to change.

Hensel was motivated to seek a seat on the Council because she’s seen “much discrimination in free speech and free access” and said she “could not, in good conscience, not run.”

Skorseth said the fact that she felt as though she was not represented motivated her to run. She said she wants to represent all the people who gave up the hope that they would be represented.

Berg said he wanted to run against Gosiak, because if he were running unopposed, he may not be out there visiting constituents. “There has to be checks and balances,” he said.

“In order to change, we need new people on the Council, new ideas and a fresh look,” said Woitalla.

Otremba, who has served 30 years on the Council during his lifetime, said he enjoyed politics and the challenge.

The candidates felt the biggest challenges facing the city included its aging infrastructure (Little Falls is more than 150 years old), bringing businesses to the city with jobs that pay a livable wage, attracting tourists and new residents to the area and finding  ways to keep younger people from moving out.

Skorseth said poverty needs to be addressed and not just by county or state agencies, as well as the lack of motivation for residents to move forward.

Hensel feels the city’s debt needs to be examined and that  citizen input was necessary. She said city staff and elected officials have made costly mistakes and she’d liked to look into the lawsuits and which city staff or officials were involved in causing them.

The city debt and budget restraints were also the biggest concerns for Otremba and Gosiak.

“We have to pay for water, streets and bring the debt down,” Otremba said. “It’s not easy, but it has to be done.”

Candidates were asked what challenges they might face in dealing with the public.

Hensel said she had no problem dealing with the public, but more challenges dealing with city staff and elected officials, who she said were “less than forthcoming.”

She also took the opportunity to answer a question that had been sent to candidates by the Morrison County Record. The question and candidate answers regarding the city’s sign ordinance, were not published as the incumbents were not allowed to talk about the ordinance due to Hensel’s impending lawsuit.

She said the old ordinance was likely unconstitutional and not enforced uniformly. She said the city shouldn’t have a sign ordinance if it can’t or won’t be enforced uniformly, and that the situation has added costs to the city.

She also wanted to address an assumption regarding what it would cost city taxpayers if a settlement were to be made in her lawsuit. She said it is only partially true that Little Falls taxpayers would pay for it. Little Falls is insured by the League of Minnesota Cities, and said she had been assured by her attorney that if the lawsuit were successful and there was a payout, it would be shared by all Minnesota taxpayers, not just local citizens.

Boyum said unrealistic expectations caused issues with the public and a lack of understanding as residents learn some information, but not all. He said appropriate communication had to occur, and that the public, Council and city staff had to work together.

Being a part of the public and finding the public “creative,” not challenging, Skorseth said communication was needed. “We’re not stupid. Give us information. Make us a part,” she said.

Having an open door policy at Coborn’s where Zylka is manager, he said he saw no challenge working with the public.

“I have a fairly good resume dealing with the public,” he said. However, he said public office holders are usually only viewed as being right with half of the people. “The public can always have input,” he said, but that they had to let the elected officials make the decisions.

Woitalla agreed somewhat, saying the Council needed to listen to everyone, but wouldn’t make everyone happy.

Misinformation circulating in the public caused the most problems, said Gosiak. “Misinformation sent out by politicians and grandstanding or people with grudges,” he said.

As far as bringing new employment opportunities to the city and expanding the employment base, Boyum said workforce preparation was crucial. Working with the school district, county, community college and businesses, young people needed to acquire the skills necessary for the businesses to come to the area, he said.

Instead of corporate welfare, Hensel said one idea would be to award small entrepreneur grants with repayment in community service.

In addition to several other ideas, including a community-run grocery store and greenhouse, Hensel felt implementing a citywide “Christmas Every Day” program, where merchants and citizens wore costumes could bring visitors to the city.

Zylka said he talks to people daily who “love Little Falls.” Contrary to what others believe, he said, the city has great staffing and Council and has much to offer.

“We need to look at the community and see what it has to offer,” and market that, he said.

Working with Carol Anderson of the Community Development of Morrison County was one way to expand business and the employment base, Gosiak said. The city must show businesses what it has to offer and the bike trail that is being planned should be pursued, he said.

Otremba and Berg agreed expanding employment and the business base was necessary and Skorseth said she wasn’t sure how to bring in new business, but was willing to work with anyone to figure it out.

When asked what they would do if the city had unlimited funding, a city complex, a community center with a large walking track, gyms and a baseball complex, a concert hall, a grocery store on the west side, indoor and outdoor activities for youth and the elderly, a community garden, leisure center and a women’s peace and justice center were some of the ideas floated around.

The forum will be rebroadcast on local access television Channel 10 during selected times, and continuously on local access Channel 12 in Little Falls.