Grand Forks' mayoral candidates met in their first true debate on Thursday night in a virtual event hosted by the Grand Forks Herald. And while they'd met earlier — in a forum hosted by the Grand Forks Young Professionals — Thursday’s questions waded into new territory on their plans for City Hall, the local economy and coronavirus.
For the viewers hoping for sharp elbows, it didn't disappoint. Candidates barely disguised their barbs for their rivals, either promising to work harder, questioning the confidence of an opponent or wondering why others wouldn't take more time to learn from local residents.
Challengers Brandon Bochenski and Robin David, along with incumbent Mike Brown, met in the debate, hosted in a live broadcast by Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel from the newspaper's downtown office. The candidates joined from their own homes, fielding questions on the coronavirus, the local economy, housing and more.
One of the sharpest questions of the night probed the city's handling of the local coronavirus outbreak — especially how leaders, and Brown, handled the significant set of cases at the LM Wind Power facility. The city has been roundly criticized for running its response to early employee concerns through a local economic official rather than through official city channels. After those early complaints, the outbreak grew significantly worse.
Wenzel asked: Has the city’s, and the mayor’s, response been adequate and appropriate during the coronavirus pandemic, including the outbreak at LM Wind Power?
Brown took the question first. He argued that both the governor and the local city attorney have sketched out limited legal powers for him to tell LM Wind how to manage its business — but that the city has sprung into action elsewhere.
“We communicated to them that there was an employee concern,” he said. “The governor said the mayor didn’t have power there because (LM) is a homeland security (partner), the city attorney said the mayor didn’t have power there, because it’s not our purview to send in public health or enforce the guidelines, and the director of public health said it wasn’t our place to be there. And workplace safety is an OSHA issue. At public health, you can close restaurants for public safety. You can't close businesses."
His rivals pounced.
"We need to acknowledge that (the) system failed," said David, a city workforce and immigration staffer. "(And) … when a system fails, we need to go back to the table and figure out, what do we need to do to make this not happen this next time? That's what I have not seen."
Bochenski, a real estate developer, offered similar thoughts.
"Accountability-wise, nobody has been willing to take accountability for that," he said. "Not even to ask LM to take accountability. I don't know if we're afraid they're going to leave town or if we're just scared … (but) we need to have a strong leader, we need to have someone who's there full-time."
Brown, in his rebuttal, pointed out that the city sent an economic official to warn LM Wind Power about the outbreak because city leaders thought he'd be effective.
"They had a relationship with management," he said. "And they knew it would get to the top of the chain and it would be acted on."
This year's mayoral election is nominally June 9, but because coronavirus has voters across the state casting ballots by mail, those votes are expected to arrive at the county clerk's office weeks sooner than normal. So instead of the majority of votes coming from crowded polling places on Election Day, voters are believed to be watching and voting right now — raising the stakes for a mid-May debate.
Brown, throughout the night, often threw counterpunches of his own, quick to hold up notes and charts to his home computer's camera that showed business investment in the community or favorable property tax mill rates. He has staked his campaign on his reputation as a local visionary-in-chief, and consistently referred to a 20-year record opponents must overcome to be successful.
But Bochenski, who has framed himself above all else as a man of action, was often quick to argue that his plans are the bold steps necessary for the city. Among his plans are a 2.5 percent cap on local property tax increases, which Brown — and some city staff — have questioned as legally unworkable.
“I think (that response) shows the small-mindedness of our government instead of figuring out how to make something happen, we’re figuring out why there’s a roadblock,” said Bochenski, who has previously proposed working with state legislators to find a solution. “And that’s the same way we’ve done it with businesses and we’re doing it now. This is a way to build confidence with people that they’re not going to have their taxes go through the roof next year.”
David, too, has her own unique style, as a consensus-builder who promises to work closely with and listen to constituents. To her, the idea of blazing ahead — without that input — is far too hasty. Work with legislators, she said, but make sure you’re working with the community, too.
“If we somehow do not have time to spend a few weeks or a month or six weeks listening to people as we make decisions,” she said, “then I’m not sure how we have time to spend years working on statewide proposals to come up with solutions.”