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Grand Forks mayoral race heats up in final stretch

Grand Forks is just one month away from primary elections, and both mayoral candidates said their campaigns are moving into high gear. "The campaign is starting to warm up, I guess," Mayor Mike Brown said. "(Y)ou place your billboards like a mont...

Grand Forks is just one month away from primary elections, and both mayoral candidates said their campaigns are moving into high gear.

“The campaign is starting to warm up, I guess,” Mayor Mike Brown said. “(Y)ou place your billboards like a month before the election, you do your newspaper ads. You have hotdogs in the park, where you can come pick up a yard sign. … It’s just a methodical battle plan, I guess.”

Brown’s challenger is City Council member Terry Bjerke, an outspoken advocate for what he calls government efficiency. He said he’s just as ready to move into the final push.

“As I like to phrase it, it’s on like Donkey Kong right now,” Bjerke said.

Voters will decide between the two June 14, alongside 10 other candidates vying for four spots on the City Council.


Both Brown and Bjerke are poised to spend thousands on their respective bids. Brown said his campaign will likely cost somewhere between $18,000 and $20,000. Though Bjerke wouldn’t say how much he expects to spend, he said it’s “in the same ballpark” as Brown’s expected expenditures, adding he thinks Grand Forks will be “surprised” to see the scope of his spending.

Campaign finance reports filed with the City Clerk’s office didn’t shine much light on the matter. Candidates are only required to disclose a running total of donations from sources that give more than $200 to their campaigns. Brown’s only indicated a $2,500 donation from Grand Forks attorney F. John Marshall.

Bjerke’s shows $1,600 in donations from three separate Grand Forks residents, $500 from the Fargo-based “Friends of Judy Estenson” and $1,000 from Badlands PAC, which is connectected to a P.O. box out of Alexandria, Va.

'Government watchdog'

Brown and Bjerke represent two very different visions for the future of Grand Forks. Bjerke has fashioned himself as a “government watchdog” on the City Council, basing his campaign on a more efficient government focused on city services and infrastructure, Brown has stood up for city investment in the arts and “vibrancy,” the kind of economic and artistic qualities that make a city appealing to potential residents.

But the way Bjerke sees it, there's plenty of government inefficiency to root out. He pointed out what he sees as low usage rates for Cities Area Transit, noted funds paid out for visiting Grand Forks' sister city in Japan and his concerns that the details of city employees' pension packages will grow to be an unsustainable burden on the budget.

"I'd be happy to include a debate (on employee pensions), but the answer to every question can't be 'the taxpayers have to pay more,'" Bjerke said.

A self-described conservative, Bjerkes' hopes for efficiency have led him to rethink the way the city approaches Grand Forks Air Force Base retention efforts. Though he said it's an important priority, one of the ways it could be made more effective is if city efforts on behalf of the matter were handled by the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp., he said. That doesn't mean the mayor won't ever go on trips on the effort's behalf, but he said the move would bring more cohesiveness to the effort.


"We have too many hands in the kitchen, in the pot," he said. "We have too many people involved."

Bjerke's philosophy extends to issues like property rights. He pointed to cautious scrutiny city leaders bring to building proposals-sometimes to keep excess traffic or an out-of-character building from a neighborhood-as examples of overbearing city government.

"My vision of Grand Forks is not raising taxes every year, not hassling developers when they try to put up projects in town and being both taxpayer- and business-friendly," he said.

His thoughts on Brown are pointed.

"Are our roads fixed? ... The answer to me is no. Then I'm not doing public art," Bjerke said. "(Brown) likes big, bloated government, and he wants to raise your taxes."

'If you're not growing, you're dying'

Brown said it's true that versions of his recently proposed budgets have called for more property tax revenue, which he said accounted for inflation. However, Brown noted such increases can be an important part of community investment, one checked by the power of the City Council. During the last two years, the council's adopted budget didn't change the average property tax rate, Brown said.

He noted he wouldn't be afraid to call for an increase to the city sales or property taxes to support an important community project.


Brown described a mayoral philosophy aimed decades into the future and set on creating a welcoming place for families. He said the wide array of community programs he supports-from the city's partnership with its Japanese sister city to Grand Forks' vibrancy committees-are all aimed at building a stronger community. He noted the city spends about $130,000 each year on arts and events funding, an amount he said he'd like to see increase.

"If you're not growing, you're dying," he said. "And as a community, you can't say, 'We're not going to do this, we're not going to do that.' You've lost the attractiveness you need to get people to want to come here. I'm not going to be proud that my property tax is 1 percent if you don't have a city that's enjoyable."

He had words for Bjerke, too.

"If you go back at the research and look at all the things Mr. Bjerke has been against,-from the Greenway to the Alerus (Center)-look at what our community would be like without those things," he said.

The campaign begins

Another marked difference between the two men-besides their vision for city-is in how they've planned their campaign.

Though both have discussed advertising elements to their campaigns, Bjerke, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, said he's all about hitting the pavement-personally visiting homes and businesses. He said he hopes to visit at least two-thirds of the homes and businesses in the city before election day, a number of personal visits that soars into the tens of thousands.

The strategy runs parallel to Bjerke's experience as a letter carrier. Though he works a shorter route now, he said he used to walk about a half-marathon or more each day.


"I tell people I'm a full-service candidate," he said. "I'll go to your door, I'll drop your sign off, I'll pick your sign up."

Though Brown said he and his campaign will go door-knocking, he said it won't be so extensive.

"I have great respect for that-I think it's admirable," Brown said. "I don't have the time. I'd rather have a fundraiser in the park and have 300 people come to that."

But despite their differences, both men described advertising campaigns set to run in a range of mediums. Bjerke said he's planning radio, newspaper and television advertising; Brown said he's running a similar level of saturation, plus three local billboards.

And, despite their differences, both men agree they're moving into the heart of the most visible parts of their campaign.

"Now we start," Brown said.

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