Newport candidates debate city's past vs. futurevNewport has faced its share of challenges over the past four years and come out stronger, three incumbent City Council members tried to pound home to voters in a forum Tuesday night.
Newport has faced its share of challenges over the past four years and come out stronger, three incumbent City Council members tried to pound home to voters in a forum Tuesday night.
Mayor Tim Geraghty and council members Tom Ingemann and Bill Sumner repeatedly echoed one another, asserting the council had stabilized the city’s finances and set Newport up for growth at the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters-Woodbury/Cottage Grove at Woodbury City Hall.
“We’re in much better shape,” said Mayor Tim Geraghty, in his second stint as the city’s top elected official and 29th year on the council. Newport has leveled off property tax levy increases, built a healthy fund balance and begun helping businesses with an economic development fund, he said. He urged voters to return himself, Ingemann and Sumner to Newport City Hall for another four years.
Steven Gallagher, a first-term council member seeking to oust Geraghty — by far Newport’s longest-serving current elected official — framed the 2012 election as a choice between old ideas and new, Newport’s past and the city’s future.
“The city is on the cusp of being the same old Newport going into the future,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher touted a vacant building registration program that he proposed and the council put in place last year aimed at improving the city’s image — a major issue, most candidates said.
The election, he said, is about, “’What are you going to do now for the city of Newport?’ Not, ‘“What have you done?’ What are you going to do now?”
Mayoral candidate Paul Hansen did not attend Tuesday’s forum and has not responded to Bulletin inquiries.
After sweeping three-fifths of the council out of office in a tumultuous 2008 election, the incumbent council members now find themselves on the opposite side of an election year debate in arguing that voters should grant them another term in office.
“Newport is on a much better path than it was four years ago,” said council member Bill Sumner, elected four years ago after previous, unsuccessful runs for local office. The city’s bond rating has improved while the federal government’s rating has fallen, he said, and business owners are telling him the current council is much more in-tune with the business community than past councils.
“This council has done a tremendous amount to fix Newport,” Sumner said.
Ingemann agreed, saying the city’s façade improvement program — using dollars from the city’s EDA fund that has been bolstered by a surplus in the 2012 budget — has begun tackling the necessary task of cleaning up blighted properties.
“You can’t turn an ocean liner in the middle of the ocean on a dime,” he said of correcting the problems facing Newport. But, Ingemann urged, the City Council is working together to improve the city and make it more attractive to potential new residents and businesses.
Predictably, the council’s challengers painted a different picture at the second candidate forum of the fall, saying Geraghty, Ingemann and Sumner are presiding over a city government devoid of new ideas and alienating potential commercial investment and community volunteers.
“Newport is broken,” said Dan Flood, a former Newport planning commissioner seeking to unseat Ingemann and Sumner. “It needs to be fixed.”
The city is falling behind its south Washington County neighbors and is increasingly divided, he says, by the City Council under Geraghty’s leadership.
“The key” in improving and growing the city, Flood said later in the forum, “is in welcoming any and all businesses with open arms.”
Flood referenced the council’s split decision this summer to deny a liquor license to a retail developer who had proposed to open a liquor store down the street from an existing liquor store. That business owner has sued the city in the Minnesota State Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the decision.
Katy McElwee-Stevens, a former District 833 School Board member, said the council has often been divisive and has not utilized the talents of many potential volunteers.
McElwee-Stevens said getting more volunteers involved in the city and improving Newport’s image are among the highest-priority issues facing the city’s elected officials. The city’s current leaders haven’t made enough progress in improving the city’s appearance, she said, and she would advocate for tighter enforcement of city property ordinances.
“It seems to me that after four years more should have been achieved” in cleaning up the city, she said.
Newport’s field of candidates is set to debate again in a forum hosted by the Bulletin on Tuesday, Oct. 2.