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Brainerd City Council candidates Czeczok, Grecula state views during forum

The forum — sponsored by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters and the Brainerd Dispatch — drew an in-person audience of about a dozen as well as online

Two Brainerd City Council candidates sit at a table
Jeff Czeczok, left, and Justin Grecula participate in a candidate forum Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, as both seek the at-large seat on the Brainerd City Council this November.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Two candidates wishing to represent the whole city of Brainerd as the at-large member of the City Council introduced themselves to voters Monday, Sept. 12, during a candidate forum at the Brainerd Police Department.

Jeff Czeczok and Justin Grecula answered questions about their motivations, priorities and philosophies posed by Tyler Glynn, moderator of the forum and executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. The forum — sponsored by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters and the Brainerd Dispatch — drew an in-person audience of about a dozen as well as online viewers of a Facebook livestream.

Czeczok said he decided to pursue the seat once he learned current council member Tad Erickson would not file for reelection and instead seek a position on the Crow Wing County Board. A resident since 1971, Czeczok touted his longtime involvement in city government through various committees, noting his 27 years of experience. He said he’s pleased with the direction of the council in recent years.

“I hope I can bring another voice of learning and teaching and instruction and that type of thing and my experiences over the years, and I’m looking forward to not only working with the City Council but the staff and area businesses and just trying to make our city a little better,” Czeczok said.

A married father of two teens, Grecula said he’s lived in the Brainerd lakes area the majority of his life. He said he’s running to help continue to make the city a safer place.

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“We’ve made some great strides with our zoning. I’d like to see some more work on our streets to help calm them and lower speeds,” Grecula said. “I really think I’m just an average guy. I think I bring just about everyone’s ideas to the council.”

Affordable housing

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Asked what, if anything, the City Council could do to increase the availability of affordable or multi-family housing, Grecula said recent changes to the city’s zoning code were a welcome change toward addressing this issue. But he said there could be more leniency in zoning to allow more things in more places and to encourage density.

“Downtown is kind of a block and you can’t develop multi-use outside of that block,” Grecula said. “That’s something we need to look at.”

Czeczok said struggles with housing aren’t unique to Brainerd and he doesn’t have an answer, although he said he feels the city did a good job paving the way for housing developments like Brainerd Oaks. Czeczok said the issue of affordability depends on each person’s definition of affordable.

“You want to bring in people who can afford housing? Well then they have to have jobs that can provide an income to buy that housing,” Czeczok said. “So we have to be careful about the housing we do develop and it’s affordable in respect to the wages we offer in this area.”

Revitalization

Glynn asked candidates what Brainerd should do to encourage further revitalization in the River to Rail corridor — the area between the Mississippi River and the Northern Pacific Center, and from Washington Street to Oak Street — and other areas of the city.

Czeczok said work in this area is one of the reasons he’s proud of the City Council, noting he supported reductions in sewer and water availability charges in the corridor as a way to attract businesses.

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“What a great way to help business. Lower the fees, lower the costs,” Czeczok said. “Government sometimes gets in the way too much, and by getting out of the way, SAC and WAC fees are huge. If you can eliminate those, you’re going to spawn business.”

Grecula said he agreed with others participating in the forum, stating the city should take a step back to allow development to naturally occur.

“There are businesses that are going to naturally occur around residential areas, we’re going to naturally have some commercial areas,” Grecula said. “Reducing fees is a great way to attract businesses, and having a population to support them is a great way to keep them open.”

Six candidates for Brainerd City Council sit together at a long table during a candidate forum
Brainerd City Council candidates Jeff Czeczok, left, Justin Grecula, Leonard Skillings, Kara Terry, Gabe Johnson and Emily LeClaire participate in a candidate forum Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Charter changes

Recent changes to the city charter involved removing the names of specific nonprofit organizations guaranteed to receive city funding to generalized language, opening the funds to more nonprofits by application. The move — affecting The Center, the Northland Arboretum and Brainerd Community Action specifically — proved controversial as advocates for these organizations unsuccessfully rallied supporters against the change.

Asked if they supported the change, both Grecula and Czeczok said they did. Grecula said the city needs to be in a position to choose the best option for extending its funds.

“Having three nonprofits, while they’re good at what they do, they may not have the best solution,” Grecula said. “Grant programs would be an alternative. There’s other ways of funding what we need.”

Czeczok, who serves as the chair of the Charter Commission and was a member who voted in favor of making the charter change recommendation to the council, said the city shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers. He said a request for proposals process allows others to come in and say what they would do with the money.

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“I don’t think there’s anyone out there who says these organizations don’t do a good job. That was never the intent to think that we’re trying to label them as not productive enterprises. We’d like to keep them,” Czeczok said. “I don’t hear a lot about their side of the losing funding and how they plan to raise more funds. I hope they work on that.”

Balancing needs of residents, businesses

After prepared questions, Glynn posed queries from audience members. One question noted the city isn’t only made up of businesses and asked candidates to explain how they would balance the needs of residents and the business community.

Czeczok said the council’s job is to consider a blend of both interests and they intertwine. He noted when residents have issues in their neighborhoods — such as a bothersome north Brainerd fence, as was recently discussed by the council — the council seeks to make a decision to do what’s fair to each neighbor.

“The needs of the resident community are simple. I mean, people want their water to run, they want their electric to turn on, they want their streets plowed. So we maintain all that, we give people good parks and we promote business,” Czeczok said. “ … What’s going to affect one side of town affects the other. So you try to balance that and business and resident can be a blend, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job now.”

Grecula said he agreed with other candidates that it’s a balancing act.

“I think the main thing would be understanding their end goals, what they want to get out of whatever’s happening, and helping each other understand where they’re coming from and finding a solution that works for the majority,” Grecula said.

Washington Street reconstruction

Another audience question asked participants to share concerns they may have with the 2026 planned reconstruction of Highway 210/Washington Street, feedback on which the Minnesota Department of Transportation is currently seeking from community members.

Grecula said pedestrian use is a huge concern for him on the high-volume street and he wanted to ensure business access remains.

“We need to have safe crossings for them to do so, enough time to do so,” Grecula said. “We need access to those businesses. It will redefine Brainerd, there is no doubt about that. That’s a major thoroughfare. We need to work with MnDOT and businesses and residents to make sure that we get it right, because we can’t change it.”

Czeczok said the project must be done right and people need to make their voices heard to ensure MnDOT hears from Brainerd, including how important safe crossings are.

“Government cannot make your life safe. You have to take personal responsibility,” Czeczok said. “But when we’re putting volumes of traffic and people crossing streets, you have to have some sort of a mechanism in place that there’s plenty of time and people at least have the feeling of being safe. But again, you’re only as safe as the next person texting while they’re driving and not paying attention. But still, I think it’s important.”

Closing statements

Each candidate received 30 seconds to provide closing statements.

Czeczok used his time to note he’s worked hard for the public and has a lot of experience with city government. He then held up a mailer postcard promoting his candidacy, asking people not to throw it away and to use the contact information to ask him questions.

This last action appeared to defy the expectations of the event, as sent by email to participants by Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. In the email, the chamber stated display props were not allowed and campaign literature must not be brought into the room. While the email stated a table would be provided outside the room for campaign literature, the table was instead placed near the entrance inside the meeting room at the police station Monday night.

Kilian clarified Czeczok asked permission to bring his mailer to the front of the room and Kilian granted it. He noted he believed the display props rule was intended to refer to items such as charts or graphs and likened Czeczok's brief display to other candidates providing social media sites or contact information.

"Moving forward, we need to clarify these rules and if necessary, communicate them more explicitly to the candidates," Kilian wrote in an email. "Ultimately, I’m taking responsibility for this misstep."

Grecula said he hoped the forum provided people the opportunity to see candidates’ differences and that he’d convinced some to vote for him.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

UPDATE: This story was updated with comments from Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian concerning candidate Jeff Czeczok's display of a campaign mailer during the forum.
Kilian said he granted Czeczok permission to bring the mailer to the front of the room with him.
The Dispatch regrets the error.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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