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Council candidates face off in LWV forum

NEW ULM — New Ulm’s political season got underway with a candidate forum for the New Ulm City Council Councilor-at-Large seat Wednesday. The event was hosted by The League of Women Voters.

This year the council president election is a three-way race between incumbent Charles Schmitz, Fourth Ward Councilor Larry Mack and Andrea Boettger. The candidates took turns answering questions from the league and citizens viewing from home.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was the focus of several questions. The first question was for each candidate to describe how they would lead New Ulm forward through the crisis.

Mack said he would continue to work with Brown County Health officials to have the most up to date information and follow guidelines put forth by Gov. Tim Walz and his health commission. Mack also wanted to listen to the community, to be flexible as the situation changes and work with establishments to find creative ways to succeed while following regulations. Mack supported loans and grant opportunities for businesses in need. He said the top priority was to keep New Ulm healthy for industry.

“We are a manufacturing community that provides world-class products and services around the world,” he said.

Boettger said everyone was impacted by the virus and wanted to make sure New Ulm was competing for state and federal relief funding and spending them wisely.

“Our community is counting on city leadership to source the solution and councilors to progress the solutions,” she said.

Schmitz said in the city has taken many steps to help businesses through grants. He said there is a possibility the state could be reimbursed for these efforts. Schmitz believed more relief might be needed because the economy has not come back. He warned that New Ulm was not a bubble. Many residents travel in and out of town for work every day. Schmitz believed New Ulm was fortunate to have low COVID case numbers, but he did not want the city to relax its guard. He hoped New Ulm would get businesses back up and running.

The candidates were asked to comment on the New Ulm City Council’s recent decision to approve the city hosting the State Amateur Baseball Tournament, despite warnings from local health officials and the community about the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Boettger said if she had been on the council, her vote would be against hosting the tournament in light of COVID. She understood the city had looked forward to hosting this event for over a decade and Johnson Park was renovated for this, but COVID changes the situation. She suggested looking to what other cities were doing about large sporting events, but based on health official recommendations she would need to vote no.

Schmitz did vote in favor of holding the tournament and was still leaning toward it. He said the Baseball Association met all the guidelines established by the governor to hold it and baseball games were already being held at the field.

“The only difference it would have made is it would bring in an additional 200 people for each game,” he said. “I don’t think that would have had a major impact based on the information we had.” Schmitz acknowledged the number of COVID cases had increased since then and he would decide whether or not to change his vote during a special city council meeting Friday that will discuss the subject.

Mack voted against the tournament. His no vote was based on the public outcry against it. He received many calls against it. “We can play baseball another day,” Mack said. “After talking to the public health director and our emergency management director I am concern about it spreading.”

Schmitz offered a rebuttal that a councilor needs to decide on the best interest of the city and cannot be based solely on public comments. Schmitz said as a councilor he has voted against his own opinion for what he believes is best for New Ulm.

Mack agreed a councilor should not make a decision solely on what the crowd wants but said he was making the decision based on the publics’ greater health.

The candidates were asked about recent hateful images painted at the Art Wall park and the city’s response. The question was how the city should respond.

Schmitz wanted a quiet response. “I don’t think we should give attention to the people doing it,” he said. By drawing attention to it, he believed things became worse. He supported painting over the hate speech but doing it without acknowledging it.

Mack suggested a community watch option to keep an eye on the location or put up trail cameras to catch those responsible. “It is very important to address any misuse quickly to send a strong message that we take pride in our community,” he said. “Hate speech and symbols and racism will not be tolerated in our community.”

Boettger said the city needs to provide more clarity on the space in terms of which places can be painted. She questioned if the access road needed to remain open for easier police patrol and artist use.

“I think it is great that artists have a public space to create artwork, however offensive content does not have a place in our community,” she said. Boettger did agree the city should avoid giving attention to those creating the hateful art, but wanted to see the city develop a plan for managing these problems as they occur.

The forum received a question to clarify what happens if Mack would win the Council President seat as he is currently the Fourth Ward Councilor.

Mack said if he became council president the whole city council would appoint a person to fill the last two years of his term on Ward 4. If he loses, he would serve out the remainder of his term.

Schmitz said that was the correct procedure, but added that if Mack became president the council seeks volunteers to fill the Fourth Ward seat and he believed Boettger, as a Ward 4 resident, should be considered. He believed her current interest in the council made her a suitable candidate.

“Thank you, Charlie,” Boettger responded.

On maintaining small businesses in New Ulm, Schmitz said the city has Economic Development positions to work on these issues. He believed the city council could and should provide any financial assistance possible as it has done during the COVID pandemic.

Mack said retaining businesses was important. He hoped businesses would alert the city if help was needed. He suggested finding incentives or loans to help with retention.

Boettger wanted the economic development groups are working together to build momentum. She wanted to educate businesses to use the resources already available through the city, like loans and marketing educations.

While waiting for additional questions for the public, Schmitz commented on the importance of daycare. He said it is a big thing the city has worked to improve for years. He believed the greatest obstacles were regulations and compensation for employees. He believed the COVID pandemic further complicated this issue. He was concerned about what would happen if kids do not return to school in the fall because the daycare crisis would increase. Schmitz acknowledged he had no solution to this problem but encourage everyone to bring ideas forward.

Mack said daycare was an ongoing concern since he joined the council. He suggested making daycare a priority of the Economic Development Authority (EDA). One option was to use the community center as daycare. An entrepreneur could use the space to start another business. Other daycares could be subsidized by the city using city spaces.

Boettger said she had friends seeking daycare but are unable to find it. She suggested expanding daycare facilities already in place and increasing pay for providers.

“They are taking care of our children and teaching our infants,” she said. She believed these people needed a better living wage. Boettger also wanted to attract other daycare centers to the area or even open daycares inside existing businesses.

The last question was to comment on the Reinvest in New Ulm (RENU) projects. All three candidates supported the projects. Boettger said she was originally inspired to run for the city council by lack of action taken on RENU. She believed the wait on the RENU project led the city to miss out on an opportunity with the projects.

Mack was on the RENU committee. He said the committee began with 24 projects and narrowed it down to seven based on economic needs. He said the stall on the project was related to funding the projects and cutting the unnecessary expense. He believed the city did a fine job delivering most of the projects originally promised.

Schmitz agreed with Mack. He said the wheels of government move slow to make sure it gets done right. Schmitz pointed out this was an extension of a 20-year sales tax project that they started working on early in 2014. He believed the city’s timing helped because the bids came in this year and saw cost savings.

“I think the RENU projects are great and will be a big benefit to the city,” Schmitz said.

In closing, the Mack thanked Ward Four for continued support and those who encouraged him to run for council president.

“Councilor-at-Large needs to listen, learn and lead. They need to be solution-minded, approachable and open to new ideas and being willing to say no when the numbers call for it,” Mack said.

Boettger said she was running with a vast understanding of the issues important to citizens and the business of New Ulm. She has been preparing for the race over the last two years by speaking with business owners and following actions put forward by the council.

“While it is important to address issues as they come to the council it is also important and more productive to plan for the city’s future,” she said. “I will vote on data based on information.”

Schmitz said he has served as council president for 12 years and he has learned a lot and enjoyed it. “What you had the past 12 years no doubt what you see for the next four if you vote for me.”

New Ulm voters will in the vote Aug. 11 in the primary to determine which two candidates proceed to the general election on Nov. 3.

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