Other city seats up for election
by CHRIS ROGERS
Long-time Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander announced last week that she plans to run for mayor this fall. Including the mayorship, a majority of City Council seats are up for election. Half of the incumbents say they intend to run for re-election; Mayor Mark Peterson hasn’t announced his plans yet.
“The timing, for me, is right,” Alexander said when asked why she was running. She explained that serving 10 years on the council has prepared her for a larger role. “I want to have a bigger hand in how our city moves forward,” Alexander explained.
The volunteer and leader in the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce’s Main Street Program said she would like to continue the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown and make sure city rules don’t hold back business growth. Alexander described her goal for city ordinances: “Not making it so restrictive that it’s difficult for people to improve their properties or grow their businesses.”
Alexander voted in the minority against a recent City Council decision to deny a variance for a subdivision; she argued for permitting the subdivision to build homes and a road closer to a bluff than the city’s bluff protection ordinance normally allows. In a community that needs housing, she asked in an interview last week, “Why would we move toward stopping development of housing in an area where we already have infrastructure like Garvin Heights?”
The city has been encouraging the development of dense housing downtown, Alexander noted. “I don’t know that our community actually wants that,” she said, saying that many Winonans want the kind of less-dense housing that neighborhoods on the edge of the city offer. “I think we should allow investors, landlords, and developers to decide where to spend their money,” she stated.
Alexander works for her family’s business managing rental properties and has been volunteering to organize the city’s year-long celebration of its Polish heritage, the Kashubian Capital Centennial.
As a council member, Alexander has had an opportunity to steer the direction of the city, but there are some things — like helping set council agendas and working with city staff and other leaders before issues ever reach the council — that the mayor has more sway over, she explained. “The mayor has a lot more input and influence into of the behind-the-scenes things before the council ever gets involved,” Alexander stated.
Alexander spoke favorably of Mayor Peterson’s leadership style, but said she would handle things a bit more like former Mayor Jerry Miller. “He would let you sit in with him before an issue became public to understand where some of the voters that maybe he wasn’t meeting with were at … so some of the conflicts didn’t have to play out on a public stage,” Alexander said. She explained she supported the mayor engaging council members in one-on-one conversations about issues before meetings. “Sometimes I think information presented to us isn’t complete because they’re not polling the council ahead of time,” she added.
Under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, city councils are not allowed be polled outside of public meetings, and mayors and council members are not allowed to have a series of one-on-one meetings with a majority of the council. The principle of the state’s transparency law is that elected bodies should discuss government business and make decisions at public meetings, not in private.
Alexander said she believed there was a way to engage council members without running afoul of the Open Meeting Law, such as talking with just one or two other council members who had expertise on an upcoming issue. Years ago, when the City Council under Miller was preparing to vote about its definition of a “household,” Alexander said Miller contacted her to get her advice as a realtor, and she was able to alert the city attorney to legal issues with the definition.
The City Council’s more recent decision to narrow part of Broadway down from four lanes to three, with bicycle lanes, is one of the few occasions where council members were split. Alexander opposed the idea. “I have no problem with bikers, but I just think giving up 30-percent of the road for one percent of the users doesn’t really make sense to me,” she stated.
Alexander has voted with the rest of the council in support of recent tax increases and spending projects, but she has sometimes been a voice of fiscal restraint. “As a small business owner, I’m very sensitive to tax increases. The last couple years, I’ve been in favor of it only because our tax base was growing to meet that need, but moving forward, I’d be very careful about what we tax and what we spend,” she stated.
Asked if he plans to run for re-election, Mayor Peterson said, “I’ve pretty much made up my mind, and I will make an announcement at what I think is an appropriate time.” He noted, “We’re months from the filing date even. That’s a long way off.”
The filing period for candidates for local office begins in May. Al Thurley’s seat representing the First Ward (far western Winona) on the City Council is also up for election, as is Pam Eyden’s Third Ward (central Winona) position, and Paul Schollmeier’s at-large seat.
Eyden and Schollmeier said they plan to run for re-election.
“I’m leaning toward, but I haven’t made a full decision on it,” Thurley stated.