Falcon Heights council hopefuls discuss policing and other issues at candidate forum


The Sept. 25 League of Women Voters-sponsored Falcon Heights City Council candidate forum included all seven people running for two seats on the council. From left, Michael Wade, Paula Mielke, Mark Miazga, Melanie Leehy, incumbent Tony Fischer, Ronald Dixon and Tom Brace. Mike Munzenrider

Falcon Heights City Council candidate Tom Brace (right) touted his career in public safety, and said “new blood” on the council would help the city face its challenges. Mike Munzenrider photo

Candidates Melanie Leehy, incumbent Tony Fischer, who is running for his first full term on the council, and Ronald Dixon talked to forum attendees. Leehy was a co-chair of the Falcon Heights Inclusion and Policing Task Force, which was formed by the council following the police killing of Philando Castile. Dixon said he would focus on more than the “minimum issues,” championing progressive causes. Mike Munzenrider photo

Candidates Michael Wade, Paula Mielke and Mark Miazga as the forum ended. Wade served on the Inclusion and Policing Task Force and said he’d bring a fresh point of view to the council. Mielke led the group that called for the formation of the task force and has been a vocal activist since Castile was killed. Miazga is a research study coordinator at the University of Minnesota who said he does his homework when making decisions. Mike Munzenrider photo

The Roseville Area League of Women Voters held a brisk candidate forum Sept. 25 that included all seven people running for two spots on the Falcon Heights City Council.

The forum was dominated by issues brought to the fore by the July 6, 2016, police killing of Philando Castile, who was shot to death in Falcon Heights by a St. Anthony officer during a traffic stop.

Sitting council member Pamela Harris is not seeking reelection after 12 years on the council. Incumbent Tony Fischer is and will be going after his first full term after being elected to a partial, two-year term, in 2015.

The rest of the candidates are Tom Brace, Ronald Dixon, Melanie Leehy, Mark Miazga, Paula Mielke and Michael Wade. All the candidates have prior experience or involvement in government.

The well-attended forum, held at Falcon Heights City Hall, was a departure from the frequently heated and contentious city council meetings, packed with protesters and concerned citizens, that have marked the past year in the city.

Candidates agreed that the challenges presented by Castile’s death will be ongoing, including more costly policing and the continued rebuilding of trust between the community and its government, arguing they’d be the right city council member to move the city forward.

 

Candidates

Despite their agreement, the slate of candidates presents voters with distinct choices.

Brace said he spent his career in public safety, having served as the Minnesota State Fire Marshal for 16 years, and previously serving a decade in the same position in Washington state.

Dixon, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2015, said he’s committed to championing progressive causes like a $15 minimum wage, at the local level.

Fischer touted his deliberative style of decision making, focusing on what he said were the positive aspects of Falcon Heights, including the current city government and staff, despite all the negativity that has been associated with the city in the wake of Castile’s death.

Leehy, who was a co-chair of the city’s Inclusion and Policing Task Force, said she’s served Falcon Heights for more than a decade in various capacities, framing herself as someone who can get things done.

Miazga coordinates research studies at the University of Minnesota. He said he’s spent his career in social justice, and has experience in various levels of non-elected government service. “I know how the system works,” he said.

Mielke was instrumental in the formation of the Inclusion and Policing Task Force, heading the group that recommended the city council form it, and has been a vocal activist since Castile was killed, with experience on the city Parks and Recreation Commission and the Ramsey County Library Board.

Wade served on the task force, and as a 9-year Minnesota resident who has lived in Falcon Heights for nearly three, said he’d be a set of fresh eyes on the city council.

 

New police department

One of the biggest changes coming to Falcon Heights that new council members will face, is a switch in policing, and the costs associated with it.

The city has contracted with St. Anthony Village for police service since the mid-90s, but that deal ends Dec. 31. St. Anthony ended the contract after Falcon Heights refused to take on liability for St. Anthony police officers working within Falcon Heights city limits, a move directly related to Castile’s death.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office will patrol Falcon Heights come the new year, though with it will come a 30 percent increase in the cost of police service. The sheriff’s office was the only police department to offer its services to Falcon Heights and candidates said they were alarmed by that fact. 

Fischer said the reason was because of how the St. Anthony Police Department was scrutinized and accused of racist practices by the public, following the killing of Castile. 

“That kind of hot and unfair criticism of our police department ... why would any public servant want to deal with that?” asked Fischer, who, along with the rest of the current council, for the past year has stood behind the St. Anthony Police Department.

 

Higher costs

The cost of Ramsey County police service will be around $1 million for 2018, up from $762,000 for St. Anthony service in 2018.

Fischer said the cost increase could have meant a 34 percent increase in property taxes, though the current council, which will finalize the contract with the sheriff’s office, is looking to keep the property tax increase to no more than 24 percent.

“It’s going to hurt” in the short term, Fischer said.

Other candidates were bullish on the change, despite the increase in costs.

“Ramsey County is a better trained group of officers,”  Miazga said, pointing out he thinks the department was improved under recently resigned Sheriff Matt Bostrom. Riffing on concerns about the cost, especially for older residents with fixed incomes, he added, “I’m not a senior but I still have student loans.”

Mielke, who frequently called on the council to end the contract with St. Anthony well before it started unraveling, said she’d met with current Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier, and walked away thinking there are “so many good things” about the sheriff’s department.

Though the property tax increase is significant, Mielke said the owner of a median-valued home in Falcon Heights will be paying “50 cents a day [more] for better policing.”

 

Other issues

Beyond policing, candidates said they would focus on other issues including city parks and environmental stewardship.

As a former member of the city Community Engagement Commission, Leehy said she’d focus on bringing residents together. Brace said he’d like to see the city work more closely with the Minnesota State Fair, which is located in Falcon Heights.

Wade, who along with Dixon, is a renter, said he’d address renters’ issues and parking. Dixon said he is also interested in renters’ issues, teaming up with a neighboring city like Roseville to set up an organics recycling program and designating Falcon Heights as a sanctuary city.

Dixon reiterated his call for a $15 minimum wage in the city, and the other six candidates were all asked if they would support such a change.

Many echoed Fischer, who asked, “Who can be against a living wage?” before saying such a change should first be made by Falcon Heights’ much larger neighbors, Minneapolis and St. Paul, or the state. Mielke, who is a small business owner, said it’s a tough issue.

Brace staked no clear claim on the minimum wage though he said he has no expectation that the state will move on it anytime soon. The only candidate who came out emphatically in favor of a $15 minimum wage, beyond Dixon, was Wade.

 

In closing

With seven candidates, the forum’s 90-minute runtime went quickly.

“We didn’t choose the tragedy of Philando Castile being killed by a police officer in our city but it presents opportunities,” Leehy said in her closing statement, adding she thinks through her work she’s gained the community’s trust. “Let’s dig in and do what’s needed in this city.”

Wade said everybody wants the same thing: home, family, security and health. “With Falcon Heights being so small,” he said, “we can start something bigger.”

Dixon said the city can tackle more than just basic issues like parks and policing, pointing out that he’d go beyond the “minimum issues” to look at tackling problems before they become serious.

“I’m listed in the phone book ... I’m interested in your issues and your beliefs,” Brace said. He also took a swipe at Harris, who is perhaps the most staunch defender of the St. Anthony Police Department on the council. “Thank you for the opening you leave,” Brace said. 

Miazga said the community must move forward together following the election, and reiterated his experience as a researcher who cares about doing the homework to be fully informed about issues.

Remembering how Falcon Heights came together after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mielke said she believes the city can overcome its current challenges. “This is again a time that we can pull together,” she said. “We have a lot of smart people.”

Election Day is Nov. 7.

 

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 


 

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