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Candidate Q&A: Lara Wilkinson, At Large Cloquet City Council candidate

Pine Journal: Why are you running for office?

Lara Wilkinson: Because I love this community. We chose this community, we want to be here. I think it’s important to work hard for and support the place you chose to plant your roots. I felt I had a good experience growing up here. I got great education, wonderful experiences. I had a community that supported its kids and I want to be able to give back.

I really feel this election is one of the most important elections Cloquet has ever had. I’m door knocking and I’m hearing a lot of concern. People are not feeling confident in local leadership. Having been on the council before, I place a lot of importance on people being able to come to their elected officials and have conversations with them and feel respected and feel heard.

I feel local government needs to be really transparent and it needs to serve all of the citizens.

We need objective leadership, that’s something that hasn’t quite met the mark over the last couple years. As a citizen that’s engaged I just can’t sit back and not be involved when I think we have a lot of opportunity to move in a more positive direction

What do you think are the two biggest issues facing the city of Cloquet? If elected, how would you work to resolve those?

Wilkinson: I think one of biggest issues is simply the function of local government and the ability to instill trust with our citizens and to bring them into the some of the conversations that we’re having. I would like to rebuild some bridges there; I would like for the citizens to feel they have a voice and that they are engaged in the process of making important decisions about the community, and that they can show up at a meeting and have a chance to speak and not feel uncomfortable doing so even if difficult conversations.

Secondarily, more process oriented -- under the large umbrella of raising 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’re 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, affordable or otherwise, to older people who need transitional options or assisted living or memory care.

We’ve seen some development there but there’s still not enough.

I’ve had friends whose parents needed a different level of care and waited for months because isn’t anything available. We have a lot of aging residents, but also in between. There is a need for workforce housing for everyday citizens like we were, looking for a place we could afford that was not half our income. We also need more step-up housing, for second-time homebuyers.

My Mom needed to downsize after my dad died a couple years ago; they had a big beautiful huge yard but it was too much. Someone in that situation may need a smaller one-level place.

With aging housing stock we know there’s a huge need there.

There is no simple answer to resolve housing. It has to be something we are proactive about, where we are looking at all the tools we have. Whether that’s grants that we’ve had historically that are available to help people improve homes when they share investment …. Or development of new facilities. The Council and Planning Commission have wrestled with how to the old middle school. The HRA project will fill a need … but when look at needs, we realize we have to be doing responsible development that will bring in additional units.

We need to look at the building code too, frankly, I think there are changes that could … make it easier for people who are developing on a smaller scale to navigate it. We need to have standards, but we also need to make it reasonably accessible when people want to invest in our community. Truthfully, they’re not beating down doors to be here. If we make too hard for investors they will build somewhere else.

What’s the best thing the city has done over the past year or two?

Wilkinson: I was on the Council a couple of those years and off a couple. I think the most visible thing has been the parks projects. I think a lot of people are enjoying those. I know we’re pretty much done with the half cent sales tax specific to those projects but I’ve seen so many people enjoying the parks, me too with my kids. I think they were really important investments that the community can be really proud of and will enjoy for years to come.

I’m appreciative of all the work that went into that process. As a former councilor I was fortunate to come in after the half-cent sales tax passed. All the work that led up to that point was really substantial. You has a mayor that lobbied the state legislature to get the ability to to take a referendum to the community, then the community rallied and supported it.

A ton of stakeholders were involved in the parks: Parks Commission, the task force, all the citizens who came shared their additional information, the Waterfront Charrette, visioning sessions. So the community had a lot of input on that. Then we got to the point where we were able to start actually implementing on the basis of the plans that were provided by the consultant based on the feedback from the community.

It’s been exciting to see it happen and we owe the community a debt of thanks for their support -- it’s always hard to vote to raise your own taxes.

Name three character traits of yours that you think will make you a good public official.

Wilkinson: I have experience. I can come to the job with the context on a lot of issues. I know what happened before this, what’s currently going on and I can see down the road as well.

At this particular point in time with what’s going on in the city, I think that important

Secondarily, I have a strong approach to leadership. I definitely enjoy discourse.

In my time on the council I probably disagreed with every councilor about something … but that never was a personal issue … I was able to have good dialogues with people and we still respected each other and appreciated the discourse. I also have the type of personality where I’m definitely not going to be steamrolled by anyone either. Strong leadership is something that’s needed now, as well.

Third, I try hard to be a good listener. I think it’s so important to listen to citizens, your  friends, neighbors, anyone with a question or concern.

One of the things that’s difficult about being an elected official is oftentimes you feel like you only hear from people who angry.

You have to realize where that frustration is coming from. If you’re willing to recognize the legitimacy of that frustration, and just listen to the story the person wants to tell you, you often get a lot more insight into the issue of concern.

Even though local politics are not as glamorous or exciting like up-ticket races might be, they’re

really really important to people’s lives. The decisions we make locally impact people. We have to listen to folks. We have to respect everyone’s experience in life and in our community to be good representatives. My intention and what I bring to the table is I’m absolutely willing to listen.

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?

Wilkinson: My understanding is that it violated personnel policy. If that’s the case, I think it’s really important that we are consistent about how apply policies we created as a city.

I think it’s unfortunate we had very contentious situation with what happened -- how the process was handled with the former chief of police --nand that really undermined the confidence of the community a lot. I feel like at that point, it was important for our leaders to recognize that our

citizens weren’t comfortable with how things were going on. 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. …because we couldn’t afford to cast additional doubt on the decisions the mayor and the council were making at that time.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the direction they chose.

I think when you make a very high level hire for the city, department heads or others,  it’s really critical that you bring a lot of stakeholders to the table and make really informed decision. It was unfortunate there was a split vote, because that further undermined people’s confidence in the process.

The current chief might be the best chief in the world, he might do a fantastic job, but unfortunately his work is always going to be undermined by the fact that people have a perception -- accurate or not -- that the hiring process that brought him to that leadership role wasn’t what it should have been. That just serves to further undermine people’s trust in local government. I think it’s a disservice to Chief Palmer in that sense, but also definitely a disservice to the community when we don’t follow that process.

I disagreed with the process, absolutely.

What do you see as the role of the mayor/city council?

Wilkinson: The City Council first and foremost is representing our residents. They represent their interest in every issue that comes before the council. I’ve always said those seats don’t belong to those who fill them, those who are elected -- they belong to the citizens. They can give them and take them back with elections.

The council’s role is to represent the will of the citizens. Of course, on any issue, you can’t expect everyone would agree even within the community. Our job is to listen, be thoughtful, follow a process with integrity and make a decision on the basis of facts that represents the will and the best interests of the citizens.

What if you only hear from the angry mob?

Wilkinson: One thing you do -- I’m door knocking now. Door knocking is great, because you’re not operating in an echo chamber  It’s really informative. It cues you in to what people concerned about, if they open up you get a a lot of information, a lot of perspective.

It’s also important for people to read the newspaper and be informed about issues. Otherwise decisions happen in a vacuum or potentially only when people get information that directly impacts them they show up. You don’t get full representation.

I think you need to be out in the community, being involved in commissions, being at public events, talking to people, getting outside your own social circles, getting some perspective from other people in the community.

There’s also an onus on citizens to contact their representatives and let them know what they think. Some are too nervous to show up. That’s OK. You can email or call your councilor or mayor. I often heard from people who more supportive by phone or email, than at meeting.

You have to make sure you’re open, approachable and accessible and make sure you’re not only talking to your friends.