Voters in our area all have important decisions to make on Tuesday, and the votes we cast will play a significant role in the future course of our communities, our state, and the country.
There is so much I could write about this week, given this is our last issue before Tuesday’s general election, but this year’s mayoral race in Tower is one of the contests I’ll be watching most closely, which is why I’ve decided to offer my thoughts on the race.
I first started reporting on the city of Tower way back in 1986, even before we started the Tower edition of the Timberjay in 1990. I’ve watched city councils and mayors come and go and, for the most part, have felt that the people of Tower were pretty lucky to have a dedicated city workforce and a city council that gave their best effort.
These days, city governance in Tower is frustrating, to put it kindly.
But at least voters in Tower will have a real choice this year— a choice between progress, chaos, or the entrenchment of what I know many see as an unproductive status quo.
Candidate Jeff Hill represents the chaos that most people in the community justifiably fear. Mr. Hill may have played a constructive role at times in the city’s past, and may have good intentions even now, but his current circumstances make him an inappropriate choice for mayor of Tower. His erratic behavior and willingness to post wild and unfounded accusations on social media undermine his good intentions. Electing him mayor would take a bad situation at city hall and likely make it much worse.
Candidate Steve Altenburg, to my mind, represents the status quo. For the last few years he has slowly assumed virtually every unelected position of significant authority in the city, from the head of the fire department and ambulance service, to chair of the city’s planning and zoning commission and harbor committee, to serving on the charter commission. As such, he can’t avoid accountability for at least some of the current dysfunction at city hall.
Altenburg, it has to be stated, has provided some valuable service to the city. And he is by all accounts an excellent EMT. Yet that is not necessarily the same set of skills that make for a good mayor.
A good mayor is a facilitator, who works to ensure that the city council has complete information from which to make sound decisions. A good mayor encourages public involvement in city decision-making and ensures that government operates in the open. A good mayor puts the city’s interests ahead of his or her own.
While I personally like Steve Altenburg, I’ve been troubled by some portions of his track record.
I was at the city council meeting in early 2017 when he presented his plan for a shift to paid-on-call ambulance staffing, including a budget that failed to account for obvious, significant expenses, including such basic costs as payroll taxes. Councils need all the facts, not cherry-picked numbers.
At last week’s candidates forum, Altenburg painted a rosy picture of the ambulance finances, even though he told members of the city council just two weeks earlier that the ambulance budget would look “very poor” at the end of 2018.
It’s certainly true that the ambulance department has long made money and that it has a substantial financial reserve. But Altenburg can’t really claim credit for that, since the reserve was built up mostly by past directors. The department’s budget surplus dipped modestly in Altenburg’s first year as director (in part because he demanded a doubling of the director’s salary in order to accept the job) and the budget could well be in the red by the time all the bills are accounted for in 2018. And if the ambulance fund is doing so well, why did Altenburg call on the council in October to approve a double-digit increase in ambulance rates for next year?
That’s not the only example of inconsistency. As chair of the harbor committee, Altenburg has taken any number of shifting positions on the harbor development and appears ready to abandon the plan for town homes just as the project finally has most of the pieces in place to be successful. He also failed to address the the committee’s repeated violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law.
Perhaps most troubling was Altenburg’s effort, earlier this year, to amend the city’s charter to allow him to simultaneously hold incompatible offices, including the office of mayor, ambulance director and fire chief, something that Minnesota attorneys general have repeatedly said is improper and is currently prohibited by city charter.
That Altenburg would attempt to alter the city’s “constitution” for his own self-interest is disturbing. When asked about the issue at last week’s forum, Altenburg offered a carefully-crafted answer, allowing that he would abide by the charter if elected. It sounded good, except for the fact that, as mayor, he could appoint political allies to the charter commission and achieve his apparent goal of putting the city almost entirely under his singular control. That should give voters pause. Tower needs a mayor, not a dictator.
While Altenburg, at times, can appear motivated by self-interest, candidate Orlyn Kringstad has already put self-interest aside by divesting himself completely from the harbor town home project in order to pursue a goal of revitalizing Tower’s economy and restoring confidence in city hall.
While he and his wife Marit have only lived in Tower for three years, they have already made a substantial mark on the community—returning an empty Main Street building into a productive storefront and reopening the Marjo Motel, which has long been an important asset to the city’s economy. Kringstad also acted as a key facilitator in the transfer of ownership at the Standing Bear Marina, which is now being improved and promises to play a key role in the overall development of the city’s harbor and riverfront.
And despite delays on the harbor project, Kringstad has proven to be a constructive partner with the city even as the harbor committee has tried to walk back its original promise to fund public infrastructure. Most developers would have walked away by now, but Kringstad has continued his good-faith efforts to bring the project to completion. While Kringstad may no longer have a financial stake in the project, as mayor I have no doubt he would work just as hard to see this project through.
Advancing the town home project should be the top priority for the next mayor, regardless of who is elected. For the city to walk away from a second private development plan at the harbor could well render the entire venture toxic. That’s especially true given the city’s inconsistency as a development partner. If this project fails to advance, the harbor is going to be populated by Canada geese and little else for years to come. By contrast, a successful development opens the door to a wide range of other worthwhile projects, including more affordable housing and additional retail development. It will also provide a desperately-needed expansion of the city’s tax base.
I know there are critics of town homes at the harbor. I was on the initial harbor committee more than a decade ago and have always preferred our original vision of first-floor commercial development with second-story apartments.
Kringstad doesn’t disagree.
What people forget is that the decision to build town homes was made by the city’s current harbor committee, including Steve Altenburg. Kringstad had nothing to do with the decision. He had simply responded to the city’s 2015 Request for Qualifications to provide architectural, planning, and construction services for what was supposed to be a city-led town home project. It was only later that the city changed the deal and asked Kringstad’s company to actually lead the project.
Finally, Tower could benefit greatly from Kringstad’s long list of contacts that he has made through decades in leadership positions at companies like Honeywell, at public institutions like the University of Minnesota, or through his extensive work in the non-profit sector, where he learned how to access the funds necessary to advance projects. The city has lacked that kind of experience for too long.
Ultimately, as voters head to the polls in Tower, they should ask themselves what kind of future they wish to see. People I hear from every day want to see the city succeed and they’re frustrated with the lack of progress on just about every front. They’re irritated that questionable decisions, like connecting the campground to the municipal sewer, may now hamstring the city’s future development prospects for the foreseeable future. We don’t need more of an unproductive status quo and we don’t need chaos. With sound and experienced leadership, Tower can do better. It has to do better.