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Johnson, LeClaire offer viewpoints on Brainerd city government

Gabe Johnson and Emily LeClaire 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.

Gabe Johnson and Emily LeClaire seated at a table during a candidate forum
Gabe Johnson, left, and Emily LeClaire participate in a candidate forum Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, at the Brainerd Police Department. Incumbent Johnson and challenger LeClaire are seeking to represent Ward 4 on the Brainerd City Council.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — An incumbent and a challenger hoping to represent southeast Brainerd the next four years on the Brainerd City Council discussed issues affecting the city during a candidate forum Monday, Sept. 12.

Gabe Johnson and Emily LeClaire 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.

Johnson, who currently represents Ward 4, is seeking a third term. The husband and father of three who’s lived in southeast Brainerd for 18 years touted council accomplishments including improving the city’s housing stock, working with partners on the Destination Downtown Brainerd contest and bringing financial stability to the city budget.

“Throughout my life, even from a child, as a Cub Scout, to a young adult and as a member of Brainerd Jaycees and now the last eight years as a member of the City Council, I’ve kind of always worked to effect positive change in my life,” Johnson said.

Johnson said his top issue if reelected is the future of Highway 210/Washington Street, set to be reconstructed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2026.

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LeClaire, who placed second of three candidates in the August primary to earn her place on the November ballot, is a single mother of four children also boasting deep ties to the neighborhood and lifelong residency in the city. She said her experience lies in the field of early childhood education advocacy and she’s served on the Minnesota Head Start Association Board of Directors for three years.

LeClaire said she’s running to bring diversity and a different perspective to the City Council.

“My goal, if I’m elected, is to represent the voice of the citizens and to be a listening ear to the constituents and their needs and concerns,” LeClaire said.

Balancing services, taxes

Glynn asked candidates to explain their philosophies behind balancing high quality services and the tax dollars collected to support those services.

LeClaire said it’s important to listen to constituents about what they value while ensuring basic needs are met and both long-term and unforeseeable expenses are considered.

“As far as certain items go, I think just encouraging people to really step in and do their part where we can,” LeClaire said. “I’m sure a number of services could be provided by volunteers if we had a more bolstered volunteer program, and that's something that we could definitely work on in the future.”

Johnson said while most people would like to see the highest quality services and lowest possible taxes, that isn’t always possible. Long-term planning, however, can move the city closer to that goal, he said. The city’s capital equipment replacement plan, which helps space out large purchases like fire trucks, is one example of those planning efforts.

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“You have to know the expenses that are gonna come, not just next year — it’s not just a one-year budget. You have to look at what the expenses are going to be in 10 years, in 20 years,” Johnson said. “There are expenses we have out there that are coming in 60 years, and we have to have those on the radar.”

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Police department issues

Asked to identify the top issue facing the Brainerd Police Department and the role of the City Council in addressing it, Johnson’s view reflected those of other candidates in pointing to staffing shortages. He noted the city’s budget allows for 27 sworn officers, yet in Brainerd, the force typically consists of 23-24.

“That shortage of three to four officers that we don't have, it causes burnout in the current officers, which causes them to leave. We don't want that. We want to hire good quality candidates and we want to keep them here,” Johnson said.

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

Johnson said the city has a good working relationship with the local police union and agreed to raises during the most recent collective bargaining. He also pointed to what the city should seek in leadership of the department.

“Another thing that city can do is hire a good police chief and empower him to do the right training in his department, to make sure his officers have a good culture and are empowered to be promoted from within and our organization can continue to grow and serve,” he said.

LeClaire also pointed to staffing concerns, citing another source of potential burnout: the rise in mental health calls and the burden this places on officers. She said anyone placing a call to a mental health care provider after hours will likely hear a recording advising them to call 911, and without other options, that’s what those in crisis will do.

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“We really need to … work on partnering with other agencies across the county, and really work on bringing in more mental health care providers. We have a huge shortage of that,” LeClaire said. “And with that, the burden just falls more heavily on police officers and on the emergency room we have, and it's just something that we should be able to take care of.”

Differing opinions

A question from the audience Glynn asked candidates was to explain how they work with those who do not share their opinions.

LeClaire said she’s always carried a deep respect for people in general, and those with different opinions than her own deserve to be valued. She said disagreements on one issue doesn’t necessarily mean those sentiments will carry over to other issues — and it also doesn’t discount working together.

“I think we are living right now in a very divided-feeling nation, if you pay any attention at all to the media. But it doesn't mean that we can't be a united community, and I feel like that's what we need to strive for,” LeClaire said. “And I feel like, already — that's the way it feels to me — I don't feel a lot of divisiveness happening in this room. And I think that that is, you know, that's optimal. That’s what we want.”

Borrowing a line from former Brainerd City Council member Dave Pritschet, Johnson said it’s important to disagree without being disagreeable, especially in a public body. He said not everyone will agree on every issue, but respect must be maintained.

“I'm a bit of an expert at that because I am the sole ‘no’ vote on many, many items. I think I took the crown from (former council member) Mary Koep after she retired,” Johnson said to laughter, with Koep seated in the audience. “And I also think it's important to listen to people you disagree with. They'll teach you something. They're probably looking at it from an angle you hadn’t considered.”

What sets the candidates apart

Asked to differentiate themselves from one another, Johnson and LeClaire both acknowledged they’d only met for the first time Monday night.

Johnson said there were likely “a heck of a lot” more similarities than differences between the two, but one thing he knows for certain is the eight years of City Council experience sets him apart.

“I’ve been doing this for eight years. I really want to do this for four more years. And then I’ll be done, I promise,” Johnson said. “ … I’ve been in the trenches. It seems like people are satisfied with where the city is going, and I’d like to work for four more years to keep it going in the right direction.”

LeClaire lightened the mood by noting one thing she and Johnson shared was a need for glasses. She then said she felt like she shouldn’t actually be at the table, given her life experience.

“I’m a single mom, I have four children. You know, I’ve struggled financially most of my children’s lives, because children are expensive,” she said. “ … So I guess for me, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, and I want to be the person who other people in that situation can see and say, ‘Anybody should be able to do it, who wants to serve their community.’ And that’s why I want to be there serving our community.”

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

Related Topics: ELECTION 2022
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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