Mayor's race is heated
In the four years since longtime Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren was defeated by challenger Dave Hallback, Cloquet has seen a lot of change.
In addition to several new faces in the Council Chambers, there's been staff turnover: a new administrator, police chief, human resources director and public works director.
The city also recently purchased the Members Cooperative Credit Union building, and will move City Hall and the police department into that building in January.
Although Cloquet has a weak mayoral system — the mayor is the presiding officer and a regular member of the council — the position does carry some additional responsibilities.
When a vote to appoint an interim at large councilor tied earlier this year, Mayor Hallback was allowed to make the appointment. As the official who runs the meetings, the mayor also has added influence.
A total of four candidates filed to run for mayor this year, including Hallback, Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki and political newcomers Trevor Berg and Andy Lee Angell.
Angell told the Pine Journal last week that he was not "actively" campaigning because he'd lost his job after filing for mayor, although he was leaving his name on the ballot. Angell was charged with with gross misdemeanor third-degree damage to property Aug. 3 and did not participate in the candidate forum Monday, Aug. 6.
The other three participated in candidate interviews with the Pine Journal.
Mayoral candidate: Trevor Berg
Berg moved to Cloquet when he was 7 years old and has mostly stayed, with short stints in the Twin Cities, Bemidji, Arizona and Portland for education and or employment. He previously worked as a car salesman, but now works part-time as an Uber and Lyft driver in Duluth. He has a son, 21, and a daughter, 7. His partner is Karen Tokarczyk.
Berg said he's running for mayor because he loves Cloquet and Minnesota, and because he believes he can bring a spirit of compromise and greater transparency to the council.
"What keeps me here is the people," he said. "I know a lot of people here; they're good people. And my family. It's a good city. I just feel it's veered off a little over past two years from what it should be."
Mayoral candidate: Dave Hallback
Hallback was elected first mayor in 2016, the same year he retired from the Cloquet Police Department after serving as a police officer there for 27 years.
Born and raised in Cloquet, Hallback said he's never wanted to leave. A 1982 Cloquet High School graduate, he and his wife, Kelley, have a family of five kids and one grandchild.
He works full-time in the Federal Building in Duluth as a courtroom security officer, a position that is contracted with the U.S. Marshals Service. He worked for the Marshals Service part time as a transport officer for 14 years before that.
"I'm looking for my second term," he said. "I've enjoyed my first term. I think we've done some good things in the city — myself and the council. My passion for Cloquet still runs pretty deep, pretty hard. I don't do it for the money. I like seeing where Cloquet is and having a voice."
Mayoral candidate: Roger Maki
After being elected as Ward 3 city councilor in 2010 and 2014, Maki decided to run for mayor late last year.
Maki works full time as a real estate broker at Re/MAX Cloquet. He's worked in the industry for 40 years, previously as owner and Realtor of Roger Maki Realty. He is married to Peggy; they have three grown children and three grandchildren.
Maki said he originally ran for the council because he's always had an interest in politics after majoring in social and political sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
He is running for mayor, however, because he believes residents have lost trust in city government.
"Having been an owner and a business manager and everything that goes along with that, I have a lot of experience with conflict resolution," Maki said. "I will work to be more of a mediator than a confrontational leader, allowing input from all sides."
Pine Journal: What do you think are the two biggest issues facing the city of Cloquet?
Maki: Job 1 is to restore trust in city government that's been lost, especially in the last year and a half. We need a fresh start. I'm hoping the election results will go a long way toward resolving some of the conflict we see on the council. I don't get upset about different ideas people have; you want that."
Otherwise, we obviously have things we need to work on that are important. Figuring out a way to work with Friends of Animals. It's not acceptable to me to do as the city administrator recommended and rescind the ordinance and just let the dogs run. I will work with FOA. Ideally, it will be a countywide solution.
Hallback: First and foremost, I still think there is a major drug problem in this area, not just in our town. I support the police and fire, helping curb that problem. The fire department is just as busy responding to the overdoses — the problems that drugs bring to this area.
Second, I'd say economic development. We're in direct competition with Duluth, Hermantown, Proctor, Esko. We've got good people working on it, but we haven't been able to sustain something. We've lost some businesses, Jardin's/Diamond Brands, Avenue C. We've had smaller businesses close. We want to see them thrive.
I think we've bit into the housing need with the 14th Street project and now the new middle school, which should make Cloquet more attractive to a business looking here. Right now, there's no place for them to come.
Berg: Crime and housing. To address the crime problem better, we need to get more accurate numbers of what and where it is going on. The drug problem is a leading source of crime that needs a multi-headed approach including health officials, city, law enforcement and the tribe to get together and work on a common plan on how to target this. We can't arrest our way out of this problem; we have to attack the underlying problem as well.
To tackle the lack of housing we need to try to find investors, rezone, build more apartments and single-family housing built to relieve some pressure. The middle school project was handled well, but that's an existing building. If other buildings can be changed, great. But we need to speed up. People want to move here, but it's too expensive and too difficult to find a place.
PJ: Do you think the City Council acted appropriately when it hired a new police chief without following the city's usual hiring process for department heads? Why or why not?
Hallback: I do. I supported it. I was one that recommended it. It wasn't outside usual protocol. Wade Lamirande was also appointed to police chief. The reason I supported doing it that way was I saw in Jeff Palmer maybe what others didn't see or were aware of and how things had turned around during the time he was (interim chief).
Morale was way up, sick leave was low. Jeff was asked to do it. He stepped up to the plate and did it and he deserved a chance. The way I looked at it was I saved the city some money (by not doing a search) and it was Jeff's to lose. Looking back a year later, though, I'm glad I did it. I didn't take the easy way out and the results speak for themselves.
Berg: No, I do not believe they acted appropriately. I have no issue with Chief Palmer, but I feel a wider net should have been thrown to see what kind of candidates we could have brought in. I think there could have been some very experienced chiefs we could have brought in. If there was not, then having Palmer brought up is just fine. But I still think should have cast a wider net, not just popped somebody right in there. I think for any city job, that should be the case. We want the best people.
Maki: We did not act appropriately. I was the first one to speak at the work session saying we should have a posting in-house in the department and also look outside to advertise the position because we have a city administrator and HR person. They could have handled a search without us hiring a consultant to do it. It was wrong to appoint someone who had not had any competition at all, or vetting.