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Council candidates name their top priorities

The River Falls American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the River Falls Optimists Club hosted a River Falls City Council candidate forum last week, which was moderated by Rita Kozak Monday, March 12.

The forum included two mayoral candidates: incumbent Dan Toland and Aaron Taylor; four candidates for two alderperson-at-large positions: incumbent Jeff Bjork, incumbent Scott Morrissette, Judie Foster-Babcock, and Michael Page; and two candidates for district four alderperson: incumbent Todd Bjerstedt, and Ben Plunkett.

Opening statements

All candidates, except Aaron Taylor, thanked the AAUW and Optimist Club for holding the forum, and many thanked the audience (live and televised) for tuning in.

Aaron Taylor said he is running for mayor because he'd like a younger voice helping guide the city.

"A new generation of voices," he said. "(I) went to college here, I've lived here for 12 years and I really love this area so I want to stay here for as long as I can and I want to help guide its future and thank the older generation for putting us in such a great state we're in right now."

Dan Toland and his wife have lived in River Falls for 40 years.

"I've had the honor of being your mayor of the last six years and I'd like to continue to be your mayor," he said. "I enjoy working with the community and enjoy helping citizens with any issues or problems they have. I'd like to keep us going down the same path we're going now, constantly looking to the future for all the decisions we make now."

Jeff Bjork grew up in River Falls.

"It's been a part of my family's history for about 150 years and I want to continue htat," Bjork said. "Part of the reason when I moved back to River Falls — I was in California for about 12-14 years — is this is my town, this is my community and I want to keep River Falls a community base too and part of that is listening to people and getting involved in it and since I've came back, those have been major missions whether I'm in the council or not, is to have community involvement."

Judie Foster-Babcock is also a River Falls native.

"I decided to run for the alderperson-at-large position after conversations with these council members, former council members, and others in the community whose opinion I value," she said. "They encouraged me to consider getting on the ballot, which I did."

Scott Morrissette said he's contributed to the council in many ways.

"Over the time that I've been on the council I think I contributed in many ways, one of them being finance," he said. "I work at a bank in my day job, and the the business community, Ive been involved in Rotary as the president, the Chamber of Commerce and I'm currently on the Sunshine fund board.

"In addition to the city committees that I've served on, I currently serve as president of the council, I've served as comptroller, I serve on the Plan Commission, I have served on the Historic Preservation and the Boundary committees for town of Troy and town of Kinnickinnic.

Michael Page is a lifelong River Falls resident.

"I was born on the west side of town and I now live about three blocks away from that house that I grew up in with my wife Emily, our three children Isla, Theron and Ellis, who are now 6, 5, and 2 years old."

Page is a 1998 River Falls High School graduate. He holds a Bachelors in philosophy from UW-Madison and a dental degree from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

He's a Major in the Minnesota Army National Guard, president of the Friends of the Kinni, first past president of the River Falls Lions Club, American Legion Post 151 member, and joined Page Family Dentistry with his father about seven years ago.

"I'm running for City Council alderperson-at-large because I want to serve our community in this exciting time of change."

Todd Bjerstedt has been on the council for the past two years.

"It's a great group of people. We've accomplished some good things over the last couple years. We have a lot of things in front of us yet, but we have done well I believe in the past and I think we can continue with that.

"I live here in River Falls. We own and operate the laundromat here at the south end of town but I also work in the Twin Cities in the residential construction industry, which I've been doing now for the last 32 years and so I have a lot of experience with housing, land development and those sorts of things, so again just happy to be a part of the process here and I've been very thankful for the support and all of the teaching that these folks up here have given me over the last couple of years.

Ben Plunkett said River Falls is connected to the surrounding communities.

"As we look at the challenges that will be facing River Falls in the coming years, River Falls is not an island separate from what is happening around us.

"We have a major metropolitan area that is influencing our success as a community as well as two universities, essentially, two major institutes of higher education that play a very important role in our community.

"And I look forward to talking tonight about the role of those in maintaining and building a better future for River Falls in our region as a whole."

Candidates were asked: If elected what is your priority for the city for the next two years?

Page said he'd plan to speed up the dam removal process.

"My main priority will be ensuring that the Kinni Corridor planning process moves forward," he said, "with removal of the two dams from the Kinnickinnic River much sooner than the currently-planned two-decade time frame."

Page said the chance to remove the dams is "the greatest opportunity for transformation that our community has ever seen." He said delaying comes at a substantial financial and ecological cost. Page said the best option would be license surrender, which has not "been adequately considered."

Todd Bjerstedt said he felt the council's decision regarding the Kinni Corridor had been well-informed.

"Our job is to manage a number of things, it's not just one topic. We've got the fire hall, the EMS, the police department," Bjerstedt said. "We've got a number of other projects that are just as important to everyone as the Kinni project is to some of the people here and so we have to balance all of that and we're not ignoring it by any means."

Ben Plunkett said he'd like to make the city a better place.

"My primary goal over two years would be to leave the City of River Falls better than I found it when coming in as a council person," he said.

He said he's more specifically focused on zoning, planning and reducing costs in areas including roads, improvements as far as affordable housing and electoral participation from residents.

Aaron Taylor said his goal is to lower property taxes.

"This is kind of a big generall goal that I have for the next two years is keeping the city's portion of property taxes as low as they can be while still maintaining our quality services that the city has," Taylor said.

He said this could be done by keeping the transient college-going population in River Falls. He suggested more housing developments and other sources of income.

Dan Toland said he's looking to the future..

"I guess my biggest priorities would be just to continue to keep looking to the future," he said "I mean, as a city we've been doing a great job of that. We've got to make sure everything we do now aligns with where we want to be in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the road."

He wants to make sure the city's infrastructure growth keeps pace with city growth and continue to work with potential new businesses. He wants to stay focused on the big picture.

Jeff Bjork said his priority would be "responsible growth."

He said with the university and the city's proximity to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area "we're going to have opportunities come to us whether we want them to or not.

"We have to make sure we go through and select the right ones, the ones that make sense for us as a community," he said.

Bjork would like to make the quality of life better for residents, which means being concerned about all of the issues in the city, not just one.

Judie Foster-Babcock said she felt coming in with "your own agenda" was not the right approach.

"It is important to have an understanding of what's going on in the city, but I think that in order to look ahead as Mayor Toland said, we would rely on the comprehensive plan and be informed by the strategic planning the city's already done and look at those things as new opportunities for a growing western Wisconsin community ... and be able to respond to them."

Scott Morrissette said he's concerned with the "health, safety and welfare of the citizens."

He also mentioned several ongoing and upcoming projects in the city such as: Glen Park renovations in 2019, a jug handle project set for the Highway 65/Division Street intersection possibly in 2020— which he said is related to safety issues — working with the DOT on speed limits on South Main Street, and work on the north sewer interceptor, which has equipment that need replacing.

Morrissette also mentioned economic development in the industrial and corporate parks, and other projects like the movie theater.

"We don't just go for big businesses, we also look for small businesses," he said.

You can see the entire forum on the city's YouTube channel.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(651) 301-7849