At Large candidates bring diverse views
When former At Large Cloquet City Councilor Adam Bailey moved outside city limits and resigned from his position this spring, there was no problem finding residents willing to stop up and serve as interim councilor.
Six residents applied to serve for the remainder of the year. After a council vote tied, Mayor Dave Hallback appointed Barb Wyman to finish the rest of 2018
Now, four of those same six candidates are running in the special election to serve the last two years of Bailey's term.
Two of the four candidates were elected and served as At Large city councilors before: Wyman, from 2009-2012, and Lara Wilkinson, from 2013-2016. Les Riess was a family physician for 42 years in Cloquet before he retired. Elizabeth "Lyz" Jaakola has spent most of her career as a teacher.
At Large candidate: Lyz Jaakola
Jaakola brings the dual perspective of having Native American and Finnish heritage. She and her husband, Jackson Ripley, have three kids — ages 6, 11 and 18 — plus a "bonus son" who's 29.
She was born and raised in Cloquet, although she went to a college-prep boarding school from ages 12-15, when she graduated.
The Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College teacher, musician and activist decided it's important to be grounded by living here, but she also loves to travel the world and return to share what she's learned. She is running because she would like to see more viewpoints on the council.
"I think that we don't necessarily see all perspectives represented on the council currently," Jaakola said. "And I've been able to give back in many ways through teaching, or sitting on various Reservation committees, I feel time to step up in leadership in the city of Cloquet."
At Large candidate: Les Riess
Riess came to Cloquet when he was joined the Raiter Clinic in 1976. He and his wife, Sue, raised three children. His son, Paul, is the activities director at Cloquet High School.
Riess said they stay because it's a very stable town with good doctors and one that had the foresight to have a full-time fire and ambulance department.
He said he is running because he still cares about the people of Cloquet — people first, he promised, noting that he is beholden to no organization or group — and he also wants to give the voters an different option.
"I would like to be a source of common sense and saying 'why,' instead of knee-jerk reactions, which I see happening to some degree," he said. "And I'm not running with any agenda."
At Large candidate: Lara Wilkinson
Wilkinson and her husband, Nathaniel, have three children — ages 20, 16 and 15 — and a "bonus kid," age 20. They met at Cloquet High School, went away for college and lived in the Twin Cities for awhile before moving back to the Northland.
Wilkinson, the marketing director at Members Cooperative Credit Union, said she is running to give back, but also because she feels this may be one of the most important elections Cloquet has ever had.
"I feel like people are not feeling confident in local leadership," she said. "I feel local government needs to be really transparent and serve all of the citizens. We also need objective leadership. That's something that hasn't quite met the mark over the last couple years."
At Large candidate: Barb Wyman
Wyman also grew up in the area, near Wrenshall. She moved here from Duluth after her two children graduated, because she and her husband, Steve Sather, found a 10-acre place right outside of Cloquet. Between them, they have three grown children and nine grandchildren, including two honorary grandchildren.
Wyman retired in January after 17 years as a civil engineering technician for the city of Cloquet, and 35 years in construction and engineering. She is now working part time for a concrete company.
"I think people that are involved in the inner workings of an organization are the best ones to come back and try to get things to change because they know what's going on, they see things on a day-to-day basis," Wyman said. "And I know it's kind of cliche, but I want to make a difference."
The four At Large city council candidates met with the Pine Journal earlier this week. Following are highlights of two of those conversations.
PJ: What do you think are the two biggest issues facing the city of Cloquet? How would you work to resolve those?
Wyman: Obviously, the divide we have in the town is huge and needs to be resolved somehow. The anti-police and pro-police is really disturbing. ... I've always supported police departments. Just like I support any public safety. They're the ones that help us when we need it; why would you not give them your support?
The next biggest issue is to fill the empty businesses. Make economic development easier and more friendly for people to come here and establish a business. I think the red tape they have to go through now is ridiculous. Resolving those issues is a matter of looking at all the paperwork someone has to go through, figure out what we can get rid of and getting people on board willing to work with business owners rather than making it hard on them.
Riess: The biggest issue is the way the people see the council, on both sides. I would be sitting there, not on either side, essentially saying: 'Tell me why do it this way and have we double-checked?' I hate agenda items that are presented at a meeting and have to be acted on at the same meeting. Every decision should be contemplated and thought out and maybe open to the public to respond.
Second? I'm concerned that some people have been disenfranchised. Mostly the elderly. I saw many elderly people who had maybe $30 of discretionary income a month (so any tax increase really affects them). There are a lot of people in Cloquet who are just hanging on. I'd like to be their advocate. Or their sounding board. I would take second looks at things, ask, 'What does the town say?'
Wilkinson: I think one of biggest issues is simply the function of local government and the ability to instill trust with our citizens. I would like citizens to feel they are engaged in the process of making important decisions, that they can show up at a meeting and have a chance to speak and not feel uncomfortable.
Secondarily, under the large umbrella of raising the standard of living for everyone, housing is really important to me, and tied closely to economic development. We did a housing study a few years back and got a lot of useful data, so we were not just making anecdotal decisions. We know there's a very critical need still across the spectrum, everything from my 20-year-old who can't find an apartment, period, to older people who need transitional options.
Jaakola: Based on my initial research, from talking to people, going to council meetings and door-knocking, I think one of biggest issues is communication. There are people in the community that don't know a lot of things that are going on. There are those that when they find out, it's too late. Or they don't get enough information and have an emotional response when maybe that's not warranted.
If we get down to details of issues, following the process, our policies and our ordinances affects everyone but definitely the business owners and those who have a stake in what's going on in the community, the citizens. I think making sure the council and administration are doing what we're supposed to be doing according to our bylaws is important.
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?
Riess: Well, I'm not going to criticize either side. But I'm a great believer in precedence and engrained procedures. Other than the legality that says what you're supposed to do, I think there's a reason precedents are established and I think it should be followed.
Jaakola: From my perspective, it appeared as if they did not follow the usual hiring process. I think there are policies and procedures that are clearly spelled out how we are to do business. We need to follow those in order to be transparent and accountable to our own system. There may have been extenuating circumstances why it didn't happen that way ... but it did appear as if it was an improper process.
Wyman: That's a loaded question. I was on the outside of the whole deal, but I read the reports. I think (Chief Jeff Palmer) did an excellent job as interim police chief. ... The process could have been done a little bit better. They could have gone through the usual application process and hired him, it would have answered a lot of questions. But in hindsight, I think hiring him was a great thing to do because he's doing a great job.
Wilkinson: I think it's unfortunate we had very contentious situation with how the process was handled with the former chief of police. That really undermined the confidence of the community. At that point, it became so important that they handle anything from there on out in a really transparent, really objective, really open way that attended directly to what our policies are. Unfortunately, that wasn't the direction they chose. ... I disagreed with the process, absolutely.
When asked what they think was the best accomplishment the city has done over the past four years, all four candidates agreed it is the work on the parks, and the other beautification efforts that have made Cloquet a more welcoming place.
Editor's note: Find unedited versions of the interviews at pinejournal.com.