By Michael McAllister
As election day—November 7—nears, Grinnell’s League of Women Voters, in conjunction with the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce, sponsored a candidate forum at the United Presbyterian Church on the evening of October 25.
Candidates attending were Dan Agnew, running unopposed for mayor; Julie Hansen, running unopposed for First Ward city council representative; Rachel Bly, running unopposed for Third Ward city council representative; and John Clayton and Jim White, each running for at-large city council representative in the only contested race. White currently holds the office.
In the picture below, Terese Grant, Co-President of the League of Women Voters, visits with candidates just prior to the meeting. From left, Dan Agnew, Julie Hansen, Grant, John Clayton, and Jim White. Due to a work commitment, Rachel Bly had not arrived when the picture was taken but was on hand a few minutes later.
Approximately 60 people formed the audience.
First came opening remarks.
Dan Agnew stressed his Grinnell roots and called for a continuation of the collaboration that has developed among city entities in recent years. He mentioned the importance of prioritizing jobs when only so much money is available, and he stressed the significance of what he called “non-sexy things” such as water and sewer pipes—things we do not see and may not think about often but that are vital to a city’s success nonetheless. Agnew wants the citizens of the community to know what plans are in the works. Realistically, not all residents will agree with every decision that the mayor and city council make, but overall the question involves what people want Grinnell to be in five years and beyond.
Julie Hansen, completing her first term on the council as First Ward representative, has lived in Grinnell for over 30 years. She called the first four years on the council a learning experience and stated she looks forward to learning and serving more.
John Clayton stressed a progressive agenda and a conservationist approach. “Man-made climate change is a crisis,” he stated. He called for the city to convert to using renewable energy. Social and economic justice are core progressive values, he noted.
Jim White, long-time at-large representative, sees positive events on the horizon. White stressed his accessibility as one of the qualities he is most proud of, commenting on the importance of listening to the citizens of Grinnell. People can agree to disagree, he noted, but the process must involve sincere listening.
Rachel Bly, running for her third term on the council, called her experience in office thus far “the most incredible learning experience that I think I have ever had in my life.” She has come to appreciate “the complexities of running a city” and to be grateful for her colleagues in city administration.
“Now it’s your turn,” Terese Grant announced after the candidates’ introductory remarks, opening the forum to questions from the audience.
- The first questioner asked who can vote in the November 7 election. Jim White provided the answer that the determining factor is owing property within the corporate city limits of Grinnell. Since the coming election is a city election, only official city residents may vote.
- A second question asked whether candidates will be open to questions from the news media. All candidates responded affirmatively.
- The proposed tax levy, the Veterans Memorial Building, and the Prairie Star Artists-in-Residence proposal were the topic of the third discussion item. Candidates were asked to express their positions. Hansen called the Prairie Star proposal a “wonderful program” but noted that it is dependent on vote on November 7. Bly’s response was similar. Clayton supports levy, citing the emotional attachment that many people feel toward the building, and he also supports the efforts of the Veterans Memorial Commission. White noted that issues involving the VMB and the city council have led to some misunderstandings in the past, but November 7 “will tell us what the people really want, and then we go forward from there.” Agnew offered a similar comment: “It’s up to the voters now.” He stressed that the location will remain a veterans memorial area even if the levy should fail at the polls.
- “What steps would you take to welcome international persons to Grinnell?” came the next question. Bly mentioned helping people get settled in the community and making sure that social service agencies and programs are well funded and efficiently operated. Education is also an important factor. Clayton referred to the welcoming signs that are on display throughout the town. He also called for a city resolution that would welcome international people and the undocumented, stressing they are safe in Grinnell. The matter needs more discussion in community, Clayton concluded. White referred to his family’s experience of hosting over 35 international students. Grinnell is “a community of helping people,” he said, a “community of open arms.” Agnew stressed the importance of equality and feels that the city values individuals and reflects that attitude in the way that people are treated. Hansen suggested ways that council members and city staff can assist newcomers, such as meeting with them and providing lists of services and resources.
- Funding cuts to the Northeast Iowa Agency on Aging was the next matter raised. Poweshiek is one of 18 counties served by the organization. Candidates were asked if they would support the application of Campbell Funds to help the agency maintain programs such as congregate meals. Clayton stated he would support such a move. White cited his experience with congregate meals and noted that such a program is well within the guidelines of Campbell Fund requests. He detailed a wide range of ways that Campbell Funds have been used to help people, especially the elderly, adding that sometimes privacy must be maintained. Agnew, Hansen, and Bly each stated that they would also support Campbell Funds assisting the congregate meal program.
- The next item returned to the issue of the Veterans Memorial Building with the suggestion from a woman in the audience that, should the levy vote fail, city officials visit Newton and view “the beautiful memorial…in the city square.” Such a memorial would not be difficult to maintain and would fit effectively in Central Park. A vote in opposition to the levy is not a vote against veterans, she added. Clayton called the suggestion an option should the levy not pass, but he emphasized again his support for the levy. White agreed that the suggestion has merit. The City Council at present awaits “the will of the people” as established by the November vote. Whatever happens, White continued, “We will make something that will make the people proud.”
- The need for good quality affordable housing was the next item raised. Agnew stated that item is on his list of priorities, citing the speed with which Spaulding Lofts became occupied as a firm indicator of need. During his years with Grinnell Mutual, he noted, “over half the people … did not have a 50112 zip code.” Other major employers deal with the same situation today. “If people are coming every day to work here, why can’t we get more of them to live here?” he asked. Hansen noted that the city council continues to revisit the issue and that currently the rental inspection program is under review, adding, “We are trying to build more housing.” Bly called the housing need “something that we have been working on for years and will continue to work on.” She also mentioned the rental inspection program as part of the council’s strategic plan. In addition, she raised the matter of nuisance and abandoned properties and expressed the idea that the city has been efficient in taking care of such matters. Clayton expressed concern about dilapidated houses; he acknowledged, however, that work might be in progress but that someone outside the city council might not be aware of such efforts. White brought up the fact of conflict with property owners and what is seen by them as city government interference, but he emphasized the importance of safety. The city has a responsibility, he feels, to assure that a property is safe. Some people, he noted, will take advantage of other people, and there are times when the city must intervene.
- A questioner next asked candidates to address their short- and long-term goals. Agnew emphasized the importance of planning. “If we want certain things in five years, we need to start planning today.” He raised the issue of the drivers license station closing. He stressed the need for young people to be involved in city planning. “Where are they?” he asked. Hansen mentioned improving sidewalks in the community as one of her priorities when she joined the council four years ago. She is pleased that the item is now “at the top of the list,” but she is disappointed that “another four or five years” will pass before the entire community is addressed. She cited downtown revitalization as both a short- and long-term goal, and the waste water treatment plant as longer term. “But we’ve already started working on that, she added.” Rachel Bly referred to the established process of monitoring goals on the council, working toward economic development, and raising the city’s population. Clayton praised the people of Grinnell. He called for street curbs specifically and improved infrastructure. A town’s appearance, he noted, can affect business and development. In this context, he suggested a new water tower on the south side of town. White reviewed city improvements over the past several years. “We worked hard at making our front door your front door.” As evidence of progress, he referred to the library, the Public Safety Building, the aquatic center, parks, and downtown—especially downtown.
- The next question was phrased in two different ways. Current council members were asked what accomplishment they are most proud of. Those seeking first-time office were asked what they hope to be most proud of at the end of their terms. Hansen pointed to the good working relationship between the council and city officials. White also mentioned the spirit of cooperation in Grinnell and in particular on the council. He referred to times in the past when cooperation was not so apparent. “Now I’m proud to say I’m from Grinnell.” He added, “Our secret is the people of Grinnell; they are good people.” Clayton, taking the perspective of what he would like to see in four years, called for a renovated Veterans Memorial Building hosting the Prairie Star Residency, new sidewalks around town, and curb ramps on “every single curb” that connects to a sidewalk. He also said that his intent is to serve but one term on the council, so finding a progressive candidate to replace him is another of Clayton’s visions. Agnew named the “waste water treatment upgrade and elevated water storage.” Completing these projects would free up funds that could go elsewhere. Another item calling for attention is the Zone of Confluence, the aim being a “seamless area” prepared for through discussion in the community and partnership between the city and Grinnell College.
- The next questioner addressed John Clayton specifically and all candidates in general on the topic of energy conservation. Clayton called for solar panels on city buildings when and where feasible; pay-as-you-go programs for energy-efficient property improvements sponsored by power companies with encouragement by the city; a food composter for restaurants, the hospital, schools, and so on; and a gradual transition to electric cars. Climate change, he repeated, is a crisis. White noted improvements already made to city facilities to enhance energy conservation. Solar panels have been cost prohibitive in the past but could be investigated again. Julie Hansen concurred.
- “What is an appropriate relationship between city government and Grinnell College?” Agnew stressed collaboration between all city entities—the city, the college, the business community, the schools, and so on. But he returned to the city and the college specifically, stressing their mutual dependence upon one another. He called for a tighter relationship, saying “Highway 6 is kind of a moat.” He wants to see college students more involved with the town and Grinnell residents more involved with the college. Hansen spoke favorably of the help that has come to the city from the college—referral and financial assistance. Bly also mentioned the importance of the city-college relationship, particularly with the college as a major town employer. Having served on a college task force, she emphasized the importance of a welcoming and inviting appearance for both the college and the town. John Clayton raised the theme of collaboration, feeling that it is well established and in effect, but he also introduced the issue of taxation as it applies to Grinnell College. Whether the college pays its fair share of taxes is an appropriate question, he noted. Clarification came from Jim White who explained that the college does pay taxes on all property not specifically directed toward education. In addition, Grinnell College is a frequent contributor to community fundraising projects.
- The last question involved the matter of mental health and the lack of a psychiatrist at the college or the hospital. Is city funding available? Clayton did not feel knowledgeable to fully address the question but called for Campbell Funds as a possible financial source. He also mentioned the significant issue of opioid addiction. White cited programs that have been in place in the past and also discussed opioid addiction and mental health problems. Agnew provided some history of an earlier mental health program involving Poweshiek County, Grinnell College, and Grinnell Regional Medical Center. Funding cuts forced the near demise of the program that now falls under the authority of Capstone. Agnew stressed the seriousness of the mental health issue in the country and added that Capstone is the best answer locally at present. Hansen and Bly both agreed with the pressing nature of the problem but pointed out the difficulty of making progress at the town or county level with no significant support at the state level. They called for forming partnerships where possible, for the application of Campbell Funds, and for continued efforts.
As the program ended, Terese Grant announced that on Tuesday, October 31, another open forum is scheduled at 7:00 p.m. at the United Presbyterian Church to discuss the levy issue on the November 7 ballot. A handout had been prepared listing questions that League members had compiled concerning the Veterans Memorial Building and the levy proposal, including responses from City Manager Russ Behrens. The October 31 forum will not include a panel but will be an opportunity for people to offer suggestions and express opinions.