Candidates face off before primary
Fifteen of the 16 local candidates facing elimination in Tuesday’s Primary Election participated in a candidate forum Monday in front of an audience that extended far beyond the actual confines of Cloquet City Hall.
While it’s impossible to know how many residents listened on WKLK radio or its online streaming service that night, or watched (and can still watch) the forum on CAT-7 TV or its YouTube channel, the Council Chamber was mostly full.
Stan Bednarek listened carefully from his spot in the back row. A resident of Ward 3, he was there to learn more about the three candidates in that race. Bednarek also wanted to hear how Mayor Dave Hallback explained the appointment of the new police chief last October. However, the most important reason he came was to find out what the candidates had to say about the closure of the Friends of Animals Humane Society and what they think the city should do.
Bednarek got the answers to most of his concerns, as moderator Pete Radosevich questioned the candidates in four different local races:
District 4 county commissioner — Michael Gay, Brenda Martini, Randy McCuskey, Mark Thell and Susan Zmyslony;
Cloquet City Council At Large — Lyz Jaakola, Les Riess, Lara Wilkinson and Barb Wyman;
Cloquet City Council Ward 3 — Richard Colsen, Randy Flynn and Dakota Koski; and
Cloquet mayor — Trevor Berg, Dave Hallbeck and Roger Maki.
The only candidate not there was mayoral candidate Andy Angell, who had previously told the Pine Journal he was not actively campaigning and who was arrested Aug. 2 and charged with with gross misdemeanor third-degree damage to property Aug. 3.
Radosevich gave each candidate time to answer issue questions and explain to voters why they should choose them over another candidate. While it wasn’t a debate, candidates still managed to distinguish themselves from one another. That was particularly true when it came down to discussing the issues each regarded as most important and, for the Cloquet candidates, when they talked about the council’s actions regarding the former police chief and the hiring process for his successor.
Mayor Hallback said the council had legal advice every step of the way and stated that the police department is “running smoother than it has in years.” Roger Maki said it was mishandled, pointing out he was the only councilor to vote against suspending the former police chief -- who was exonerated by an independent investigation -- and one of three who advocated opening up the search for a replacement. Trevor Berg said the process seemed rushed to him, with not enough information shared by the city. He also said he would have “cast a wider net” in the search for a new police chief.
All five At-Large candidates agreed the police chief hiring process should have been opened up to other candidates. No one criticized current Police Chief Jeff Palmer, just the way he was hired.
Ward 3 candidates -- all of them political newcomers -- said they didn’t have enough information about the investigation of the former police chief, but agreed the city should follow its own procedures when hiring.
Top issues for Cloquet candidates were transparency, the drug problem, housing, spending and taxes, economic development and restoring the community’s trust in its city government.
The County Board candidates all agreed that spending and taxes were two large issues facing the county.
Randy McCuskey said the jail was big issue, while Brenda Martini said the Enbridge Line 3 replacement and tax lawsuit was a big concern of hers. Michael Gay brings a financial background and said he would challenge department heads to hold to their budgets or even shrink them. Incumbent Susan Zmyslony touted her experience and said once the budget has been done she thinks the county should not change it unless there is an emergency. Mark Thell talked about the drug issue and suggested instead of making a bigger jail, the county should work with its two hospitals to tackle the issue of drug addiction at its source.
All of the candidates did their best to answer the questions and no one misbehaved on the stage or in the audience, Bednarek observed.
“Our community is lucky that all the candidates (except one) participate in these forums,” Radosevich said afterward. “It shows the candidates are serious about public service, and that the community is serious about its leaders.”
Sam Buytaert, age 14, was one of the youngest audience members at the forum.
“It was interesting,” he said. “Nice to see all the different people running and hear all the different viewpoints.”