Antidote to political noise

OPH council hopefuls offer affable forum

Photo by: Avery Cropp
Oak Park Heights City Council Candidates Mike Runk, left, Chuck Dougherty and Mike Liljegren share a relaxed conversation before Monday night’s forum at Oak Park Heights’ City Hall.

OAK PARK HEIGHTS — The Oak Park Heights City Council forum Monday night might have been the antidote to the more vitriolic political campaigns in other area races.

The three candidates seeking two seats on the Oak Park Heights City Council race agreed with each other on many issues, but offered different ways of reaching the same results during the Gazette-sponsored forum at Oak Park Heights City Hall.

Incumbent Mike Runk took the floor with challengers Chuck Dougherty and Mike Liljegren, with the three addressing vairous issues that are of concern to city voters in the Nov. 6 election.

Now that the St. Croix River Crossing bridge is being built, the candidates said businesses can plan for their futures. The affable trio agreed that plans for economic development, road safety issues and a future of city bike trails can take center stage.  Liljegren added that the key to success in this project is continued open communication with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Despite the city’s sometimes frosty relationship with MnDOT, Liljegren believes communication is the best way to address future issues that could arise during the bridge project.

“I believe that we can work with MnDOT going forward,” he said. “And this was one of the biggest reasons that got me to run: Knowing and hearing about Oak Park Heights not being able to work with others. We need to make sure that’s a reputation that we don’t have in the future. We need to maintain open lines of communication going forward, one side can’t have everything and these issues need to be discussed.”

Runk agreed with Liljegren, but also offered some background.

“I think we can work with MnDOT. There have been clashes in the past on both sides. Our first meeting that I went to after I was elected four years ago, I was shocked, as a supporter of the bridge, to learn that MnDOT had an adversarial relationship with the counil,” Runk said. “Now we have personalities that work better together and we need to work with MnDOT not for MnDOT. We need to do what’s best for our residents but also work with MnDOT in a respectful and professional manner.”

Dougherty said now is the time to move forward.

“I think the agreement with MnDOT is a good package that we put together and now it’s time to sit down and work together,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned in my business experience is that it’s better to sit down and discuss our issues and work hand-in-hand instead of being adversarial, but still manage to get what residents need and want.

“We need to keep access and communication open to businesses and residents and then go through a process to find what works best. There will be an ebb and flow in this plan, like there are in any projects, and we need to keep the public in the know.” Dougherty added.

When the candidates were asked if property taxes would skyrocket due to the bridge, Runk was the first to respond.

“I don’t see a cause for taxes to skyrocket. We’re working on a redevelopment of business programs, we’ve stabilized the tax base and we were able to negotiate. We were able to get cooperation from the governor and we made sure to not unduly burden and absorb too much of the costs,” he said. “The city has done a good job putting the cities interest first and we’ve let them (MnDOT) know that we’re not going to take over the frontage road and storm water ponding. We’ve done a good job of holding down our costs and it will be good in the long run.”

Dougherty and Liljegren agreed with Runk. Dougherty praised the city for doing a great job of setting aside funds for projects, though Liljegren said that property taxes are something the city will have to keep an eye on going forward in the project.

To encourage community development in Oak Park Heights, Runk said using TIF district funds could be helpful and the city needs to continue doing the best job to provide services to businesses.

Dougherty agreed with the TIF idea and said that redevelopment and continued support of businesses is key.

Liljegren said the city needs to keep taxes low but also work to maintain a high quality of life in the area.

When asked how they would bring businesses to the area and invigorate the businesses already in the city, the trio said they wanted to work with businesses to benefit them. Dougherty believes that talking to business owners, realizing what the negative aspects were and addressing those issues to make the area more appealing would be a good idea.

Liljegren agreed with Dougherty and said increased signs and easier access to businesses can be part of the Minnesota Highway 36 upgrade.

Runk said increased opportunities for businesses at events such as “Party in the Park could be beneficial.

The candidates also agreed that joining with surrounding cities such as Bayport and Stillwater on shared services could benefit the communities financially.

“Who wouldn’t want to work on development and keep looking around for the best resolution. I think it’s a very good thing,” Liljegren said.

Dougherty said the evening held an interesting exchange of ideas. Deciding which ideas are best for Oak Park Heights is up to the voters.