Candidate Forum: CWC District 2 candidates address public concerns
A packed room of Crow Wing County residents turned out to hear from county commissioner hopefuls for Districts 2 and 3 at a candidate forum Tuesday, Oct. 2, at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Candidates for District 2 - which covers Crosslake, Jenkins, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point and Nisswa - include Bill Brekken, a realty associate from Brainerd, and incumbent county commissioner Paul Thiede from Pequot Lakes.
Thiede spoke of his dedication to serving country and community, citing his status as an Air Force veteran and veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
He used the Land Services Building, a combination of offices formerly separated, as an example of his administration's current efforts to cut costs while maintaining and enhancing effectiveness.
"More work is accomplished more efficiently with less people while attaining a 96 percent customer satisfaction approval rating," said Thiede.
Thiede concluded by saying that next year the county would be debt free.
Brekken said he is running for the seat of county commissioner because he believes it is his responsibility.
"I believe wholeheartedly that listening and asking questions are the key," said Brekken. "I am a connector and a bridge builder, and I desire to be that for the county."
Brekken worked with a variety of organizations over the years, including the Salvation Army, United Way, the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation, Bridges of Hope, the Women's Fund and the Center for Lifelong Learning at Central Lakes College. He said he listed those relationships he built because it shows the diversity in the community he has interacted with.
Two of the largest issues of public concern in this election are drug use and mental health, and both Thiede and Brekken agreed.
Thiede said the drug problem, specifically concerning meth, is a societal problem that any single person can't solve on their own.
"It's going take a community effort that involves a whole lot of people," said Thiede.
In response to a question about what organizations the county could partner with when tackling drug and mental health issues, he said it should be "every single solitary one we can get our hands on," from federal assistance down to "old sewing circles of women with extensive parenting knowledge."
Thiede said he spent a considerable amount of his career lobbying at the federal level regarding funding for mental health services. He said he wants do a better job "untying the hands" of counties so they could do work more efficiently on their own.
Brekken said he thinks the key to addressing the meth issue lies in collaboration. He said the county already has the resources needed, but has been reactive in the past rather than proactive.
"We have the expertise already there," said Brekken. "We need to listen to them to put together a plan."
Similarly, relating to mental health, Brekken said he would focus on supporting mental health staff and experts in the field rather than making decisions from the top down.
"What can we do to help, what can we provide, what roadblocks can we get out of their way?" he asked. "If we need to fight at the Capitol, we will go fight at the Capitol."
Thiede focused many of his answers on defending the work the county has already done under his direction as District 2 commissioner, while Brekken offered plans for how he would improve these areas.
Thiede said he was proud of what his administration accomplished financially and said he would not apologize for eight consecutive years of a zero levy increase. He challenged anyone who claimed services have been cut because of budget issues to look at how services have consolidated and become more efficient.
"It's easy to say, 'You have eight years of cutting the budget,'" said Thiede. "We didn't cut the budget. We just didn't increase it."
Thiede also brought up the development of the Milford Mine historical site, purchase of the old fire tower and surrounding land in Pequot Lakes and relationships built with recreational land users as examples of his leadership in managing natural resources. He said he believes the county can continue on the trend it is currently on.
Brekken disagreed with Thiede on budget concerns, saying county staff has paid the price when funds tightened.
"We've given back everything that we've saved," said Brekken.
He said even though the levy and budget cuts did save money, it did not put anything back into individuals' pockets.
"Cutting doesn't need to be the only thing," said Brekken. "We're not reinvesting."
Brekken said that water is a large economic driver for Crow Wing County. He said he wants to work closely with the lake associations and manage and protect watersheds in the area. He also said he has heard complaints about the amount of clear cutting occurring and would work to address that.
"Healthy forests protect healthy lakes," he said.
Candidates were asked a series of questions from the audience, including one about whether the county should hand out free condoms since the board's decision to discontinue that service.
"I think that if condoms can prevent pregnancies, if condoms can prevent infections and disease, my question would be, why wouldn't we?" said Brekken.
Thiede said this issue is more than simply asking whether or not condoms should be distributed, but that there is a broader societal issue at play.
"I have been pro-life from conception to death," he said. "This is another issue that's controversial. It's not going to be resolved today."
He said people may fight like crazy about this topic, but that's what democracy is about.
Brekken said he ran against Thiede because he felt that residents were not a priority under the current administration.
"If we're meeting the needs of both our staff and our community, we're doing our job," he said.
Thiede took issue with Brekken's statement.
"I never said you will never be part of the process," he said.
He then spoke of his personal philosophy. He quoted Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, saying, "The risk of ridicule is insufficient reason for me to remain silent about something I am persuaded is true."
Thiede said that philosophy is how he tries to conduct himself and how he votes. He said if he believes something is true, he will support it.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Early voting is available at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse in Brainerd until Monday, Nov. 5.