Johnston, Pearson trade jabs at forum

Gazette Photo by Erik Sandin
Lake Elmo mayoral candidates Nick Duffy, left, Dean Johnston and Mike Pearson share a light moment following their hour-long forum Thursday night at Lake Elmo City Hall.

LAKE ELMO — Nicholas Duffy was the forgotten man at times during Thursday’s Lake Elmo mayor’s race forum.

Duffy was a spectator when incumbent Mayor Dean Johnston and Councilman Mike Pearson traded criticism over each other’s handling of some city issues and claims each candidate made in their literature.

But when he got his chance to speak, Duffy tried to make the most of his opportunities, criticizing the current council for among other things, cutting ties with the county library system and not making more progress on the city’s comprehensive plan.

But much of the discussion during the Gazette-sponsored forum at Lake Elmo City Hall was between Johnston and Pearson. Moderator Marguerite Rheinberger allowed the three candidates to submit written questions to each other, which Johnston and Pearson took advantage of.

Johnston asked Pearson about wording in Pearson’s brochures that implies Pearson opposed bringing the Independent School District No. 834 Early Childhood Family Center to Lake Elmo when the mayor said Pearson voted for the proposal

“It clearly implied that he voted against something he supported,” Johnston said.

Pearson admitted supporting the ECFC idea at first, but said he changed his mind as the proposed agreement with ISD 834 kept changing.

“Dean, do you think my last vote precluded the ECFC from coming to town,” Pearson said. “I was for it. I was excited by. I was very concerned about the risk of it. It was a boondoggle.”

In turn, Pearson asked Johnston why the city has high employee turnover, citing four city administrators in eight years.

“That’s really a tough question. A lot of personnel issues can’t be discussed for legal reasons,” Johnston said. He admitted, however, that there have been past conflicts between the council and previous city administrators.

All three candidates had strong opinions about the city’s decision to leave the Washington County Library system and start a city-run library.

Both Duffy and Pearson said they want to see the city rejoin the WCL.

“I would love to see the city library re-affiliated with the county,” Duffy said.

Pearson also wants the city back in the WCL, but with the new city library staying in a building the city will own in two years.

“I would like to see us re-affiliate with the county library as soon as possible,” he said. “I was adamant that the building be paid off in two years. We will have the building paid off next year.”

Johnston supported the city’s library decision, saying the only way to keep a library in the city was adopting the models used by Stillwater and Bayport.

“I believe the library is the heart of downtown,” he said. “I think that is the proper situation for Lake Elmo.

The trio also discussed the idea of a single waste hauler serving the city.

“I’m against it. The biggest reason we shouldn’t do it is this will be a big problem for the city’s staff. I don’t think this is smart or prudent,” Pearson said.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Duffy added.

Johnston, however, said the city should study the idea to see if it saves residents’ money and prevents wear and tear on city streets.

“Unlike these two gentlemen, I haven’t made a decision,” he said. “I think we should look at this because it would be a significant savings.

One thing all three men agreed on was the city should not buy the Cimarron Mobile Home Park. The Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority recently took over the Landfall Mobile Home Park.

“I think the Cimarron Mobile Home Park is a private business, a successful business,” Johnston said. “I don’t think the city should be involved in private business.”

“Absolutely not. Frankly, that’s no business for our city. It should be a dead issue,” Pearson said.

“The city has no right to be involved in the mobile home park,” Duffy said.

Duffy was also critical of what he was the city’s slow response to its development plans along the Interstate 94 corridor.

“There hasn’t been much progress in this,” he said.

Pearson blamed what he said was the council’s “lack of focus.”

“Our big issue is setting the agenda,” he said. “The benefit of (being) mayor is you set the agenda. My idea as mayor is to focus. We’ve got really big issues in front of us.”

Despite future issues facing the city, all three men said they are confident Lake Elmo can retain it’s rural, large lot character while attracting more residential and commercial development.

“Lake Elmo is a hidden gem that I love to call home,” Duffy said.

“I’m hoping we have a thriving business park on I-94,” Pearson said.

“I’m excited by the future of all of Lake Elmo,” Johnston said. “I think Lake Elmo will be a place where you can live and work. We’ve just got a fabulous future.”