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Sparks fly at Grand Forks mayoral debate

Fireworks arrived in Grand Forks one month early. Wednesday night's mayoral debate, hosted by the Herald at the Empire Arts Center, pitted incumbent Mike Brown against his challenger, City Council member Terry Bjerke. Each was strident from the b...

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Mike Brown (left) and Terry Bjerke answer questions during Tuesday evenings mayoral debate at the Empire Arts Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Fireworks arrived in Grand Forks one month early.

Wednesday night's mayoral debate, hosted by the Herald at the Empire Arts Center, pitted incumbent Mike Brown against his challenger, City Council member Terry Bjerke. Each was strident from the beginning but increasingly scored points off the other in a battle for Grand Forks' highest office.

At one point, Brown suggested Bjerke might be the least effective council member in the history of the city. Following up on a question about Brown's lack of ever issuing a mayoral veto-and Brown's response that he builds consensus-Bjerke said "there's a lot of consensus in North Korea, Cuba and Iran also."

Related: VIDEO: Opening, closing statements from Mike Brown, Terry Bjerke at mayoral debate

Throughout the debate, the same clear philosophical differences that have characterized the campaign for City Hall kept bubbling to the surface. Brown stressed the importance of building a city that residents want to live in; Bjerke criticized wasteful spending and called for a more efficient approach to city government.

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A question on which three city governments the men admired might demonstrate the divide best. Brown selected Winnipeg, Fort Collins and Austin; Bjerke said he suspects governments are burdensome everywhere.

"My vision is where people wake up and do what they want to do," Bjerke said.

"A great city is where people wake up with things to do," Brown shot back.

"A great city is where people wake up and take care of themselves and are not takers..." Bjerke retorted.

The debate comes amid an increasingly active campaign as both men race towards Election Day on June 14. Both men have said their advertising is hitting full stride, from television ads and billboards to Bjerke's quest to knock on thousands upon thousands of doors in pursuit of the city's highest office.

 

Bjerke took time out of his opening statement to take issue with the suggestion that he's a consistent "no" vote. He said he went through City Council minutes and counted all of his consequential votes-tossing out procedural votes like approval of meeting minutes and the like-and said out of nearly 500 votes in 2015, he only cast a "no" vote in about 10 percent.

"If any of you in the audience are married, talk to your spouse and ask them: 'Do we agree 90 percent of the time?'" he said, later adding he's backed initiatives like a social detox center and led an effort to purchase better police cars.

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Brown characterized his administration-dating all the way back to 2000-as one that's overseen exciting developments in the city, building a place people "want to live, not leave."

"The hallmark of my administration has been transparency, accountability and common sense in city government," Brown said.

The two men differed on an array of issues throughout the evening. In a question on the city's biggest issues, Brown said the largest is the water treatment plant project. He said "tax is not a four-letter word. It's a tool," a difference between the two men that Bjerke seized upon throughout the night, suggesting the mayor's administration hasn't done enough to pursue funding from the state.

The debate was preceded by a candidate forum, to which 10 City Council candidates running for seats in four wards were invited. Nine candidates were present, and discussed their views for the city, touching on housing, the city's sales tax and even the nature of leadership. Jeff Manley, a Ward 3 candidate, was absent.

In the hour before the forum began, a crowd began to trickle into the Empire, with nearly 150 present throughout the evening, according to a count conducted by Empire officials. Plenty of guests were ready to share their views on the mayor's race before the evening began.

Jay Carlson said he's a fan of Bjerke, pointing out what he sees as a stronger dedication to addressing city issues.

"He goes over the budget," Carlson said. "He's on top of city operations all over. He's so opinionated."

Bonita Storbakken said she backs Brown, pointing out what she sees as big flaws with Bjerke's platform.

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"I don't agree with anything that Terry Bjerke says," she said. "I don't like any of his ideas. I think he's going to take Grand Forks back 50 years."

But not everyone was so committed. Before candidates took the stage, Mike Patridge said he wasn't ready to choose until he'd heard more.

"I think Bjerke is one way and Brown is the other way, and they're completely opposite ways," Patridge said. "In one sense, we need to cut down on taxes, and other things have been going good, as far as improvements after the flood. It's just tough."

Related Topics: MIKE BROWNELECTION 2016
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