Candidates for council president differ on style and substance during debate
The two candidates for Rochester City Council president squared off Wednesday night on issues of development, transparency and the role of government.
Current Council President Randy Staver and challenger Sean Allen spent two hours making their case for the job during a forum at the Rochester Art Center. The event, hosted by the Post-Bulletin, attracted about 250 spectators.
Below are some of the key takeaways from the debate.
Allen attempted to distinguish himself by discussing his professional experience, as a development consultant and small business owner, as well as his support for the Kutzky Park Neighborhood and the grassroots arts community. He said, if elected, he would take a more proactive approach to the job, "instead of always reacting" to each issue one by one.
"I'm not somebody who's going to wait and expect solutions from outside our community [or] from outside developers," said Allen. "I'm going to try to work with people in the community to develop solutions ahead of time."
Staver, known for his even-keeled temperament, spent much of the night discussing the notable achievements that have occurred under his watch — such as the passage of Destination Medical Center — and defending his cautionary and often compromising approach to local politics.
"We have seven very unique individuals that sit [on the council] and it can be a challenge at times just to get the business of the city done," said Staver. He went on to add: "Sometimes, I realize, it takes longer than we would all like but we have limited resources, limited time and 112,000 different opinions."
Allen repeatedly critiqued what he described as a building permit process in need of "major overhaul." He said it takes an average of nine weeks in Rochester to get approval from the building safety department, compared to just three weeks in Minneapolis. It's an issue, Allen said, he has experienced first hand.
"Our business, with [Forager Brewery], we went to building safety and brought all the right documents and had all the stuff signed and notated," said Allen. "And they said, 'it will be three weeks.' And guess what? It was eight weeks later before they got back to us. Meanwhile, we're paying rent; we're paying to heat a building that is not usable."
He added: "It's literally an impediment to small businesses in the community."
Staver said incremental changes have been made to improve the process and took issue with Allen's comments about completely overhauling the department.
"You need to be specific," he said. "Are you going to go in and start firing different people? What are you going to do to make that sort of overarching change that we talk about? More often than not, it is a series of incremental changes to any organizational structure to achieve a final outcome. In the public arena, it's taking longer than I would like ... but it's too simple to just say 'we're going to make broad changes.' I think it's much harder than people think."
A complaint was recently filed with the ethics board regarding the lack of transparency of dinner meetings, which are held at rotating restaurants prior to council meetings and are paid for out of the mayor's discretionary budget.
Though the board declined to rule on the matter, some members did share the complainant's concerns over accessibility to the public. In response, Mayor Ardell Brede has put forth a proposal to be more intentional about selecting locations that are accessible to anyone who wants to attend.
As for getting rid of them entirely, as Allen proposed, Staver said the meetings still have value in creating comradery among council members. He also noted that they provide the council an opportunity to have informal conversations on city business that will not be discussed at a regular meeting.
"There is distinct value, in my opinion, to gatherings like the dinner meetings," said Staver. "There's a business component, there's a social component, and I think in the end it allows all of us as council members to do a better job."
Allen argued that because all council members are present, the dinners are public meetings and should be treated as such.
"Why would we uphold a tradition that is not transparent? The idea that comradery of the city council is more important than the people of the community seeing the agenda and minutes doesn't ring true to me."
The idea of "dark money" potentially making its way into local elections didn't sit well with either candidate. When asked about the idea, both Staver and Allen said they would not accept money from any covert political group.
Allen: "I think dark money — the idea of anonymous, large donations to political campaigns or to political issues — is not something that I can support ... I think at a local level especially. It's just completely inappropriate and I couldn't support it. I would never accept funding from a group like that."
Staver: "I have not been approached personally or my campaign group by such a group ... I would agree that we really don't need that sort of influence, that sort of tangible influence, especially in local elections."
We reported last week that a group of prominent local business leaders were planning to form a nonprofit that would allow donors to "confidentially impact" local elections. The individuals named later denied any involvement. It's unclear whether the organization has since been formed.
Staver's answer to the question of whether he supports a proposed $55 million expansion of the Rochester Public Library prompted a chorus of boos from the audience. "Not in that location," he said.
He later clarified:
I think the public library is a fundamental element of any community and we have a great one. I do have some issues with what we're trying to accomplish on that particular site. I'm thinking bigger picture here. I think, if we talk about the evolution of libraries, it's just not just stacks of books anymore. These are community gathering places; they are multi-media hubs. I think we should be thinking about a different location, perhaps, where we can embrace some of these new ideas. So I think spending that kind of money to expand in place is shortsighted. I really rather think more future.
Allen, who was first to answer, simply said "yes." He did, however, provide a full explanation for his support of the expansion in a blog post earlier this year.
Many other topics were discussed at the forum, from historic preservation to municipal broadband. You can watch the full debate on Allen's Facebook page. It will also be posted to the library's website.
Follow Sean on Twitter.
(Cover photo: The Med City Beat)