Candidates for the Bismarck Commission share their positions on important issues

Three candidates are seeking two positions on the Bismarck City Commission in this June’s election.

Each shared their thoughts with the Tribune on issues such as city spending and the future of Bismarck Event Center management.

Incumbent Commissioner Michael Connelly, a traveler with DTN Staffing who also works in independent home care, archaeologist Matthew Hull and retired railroad engineer John Risch III are vying for two vacancies on the commission. Incumbent Commissioner Steve Marquardt announced in April that he would not run for an additional term, citing work commitments.

Commissioners serve a four-year term with an annual salary of $17,612. The selected candidates will take office on July 1.

In addition, the nonprofit, nonpartisan North Dakota Kennedy Center at 1902 E. Divide Ave. will host a Bismarck City Commission candidate forum Monday at 7 p.m. that is free and open to the public. The evening starts with a short meet-and-greet and an informal conversation with the candidates. This will be followed by a series of formal questions for the candidates, followed by questions directly from the audience.

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The Tribune sent four questions to each candidate so they could comment in their own words on important issues facing the community ahead of the June 11 election. Some responses have been edited for brevity, with the candidate’s permission.

Stand: What qualifies you for the assignment, and what specific qualities and experiences would you bring?

Connelly: I am a Christian, representative (do this equally for all citizens), constitutionalist, volunteer, advocate, citizen, husband, and father of three teenagers (two adopted and one foster). These are the general words that give an idea about me, that I have on my mailer, and that I give out when I meet the wonderful people throughout Bismarck.

I don’t necessarily think the focus should be on me, so on the mailer I just add: 701-400-1839, call me about what’s important to you! I am a voice for the people and I do this in the context of what is in front of me. When people contact me, I follow up quickly. If I understand the answers, they get them, or I tell them I will find out and follow up, and we will both learn from it.

Hull: I have a lot of passion for the city of Bismarck. I believe it is important to listen to the people who live here and work with them as our community grows. I will maintain open lines of communication. I enjoy solving problems and am also knowledgeable about the workings of a city through my historical and archaeological work, as well as by following current events.

I also travel for work and pleasure. Wherever I go, I see both positive and negative lessons to be learned from what other cities have done.

Rich: I love Bismarck. My wife Kathi and I have lived in our home in South Bismarck for the past 35 years. Our children attended Bismarck public schools. I graduated from BSC (Bismarck State College) and have a bachelor’s degree from Antioch University. I am retired, but worked for 30 years as a railroad engineer and as a state and national union representative.

The city commission is a board of directors and I have served on many boards at the local and national levels. Chairman of the church council, the board of directors of insurance companies, our national railway union and others. I even had extensive board training.

Two years ago I visited the Bismarck Citizens Academy and visited many of the departments. It gave me a good overview of how the city functions and I met many dedicated and talented city employees. I am qualified to serve and promise to work hard if elected.

Stand: Do you believe the commission should try to reduce spending to reduce the city’s share of property taxes?

Connelly: That would be ideal and it should be a goal for everyone to lower cost expectations on behalf of citizens. Not directly related to property taxes, but I recently spoke at a planning and zoning meeting about a one-time $700 fee that large home-based businesses were required to pay under the ordinance and how little was collected relative to the number of businesses that had been home-based for quite some time .

I encouraged eliminating the fee because any additional costs charged by the city are passed on to the customer, and many are charged for the upkeep of their home and sometimes their home as well. Anything we can do to help people thrive through empowerment and not government interference will be good practice in Bismarck.

Hull: Although it would be good to reduce expenditure and therefore taxes, I think it is not so much about whether we should increase or decrease expenditure, but about whether we get value for money and the level of services offer that residents want. Currently, the city’s entire share of property taxes goes to emergency services: police, fire and CenCom/911.

A good example of the value I ask residents is whether they want a dollar in their pocket or another police officer on the street since it costs about the same. I feel like we’re getting a lot of value from current spending levels, so I don’t see where we can reduce overall tax revenue.

Rich: Like everyone else, I want my property taxes to be as low as possible. We can do that in several ways, such as keeping our tax base as broad as possible and working to find efficiencies in our city government. Stop giving tax money to people who don’t need it. Avoid making costly personnel mistakes. Work with the Legislature to provide more funding for our roads.

Stand: What do you think of the future of the Bismarck Event Center and its management?

Connelly: I feel like we are on the clock, because the city deserves a better product from the Event Center department than it has had in the last seventeen years. If it doesn’t appear that we can achieve growth into something better with internal staff, then perhaps we should seriously consider looking at the management company or group that will run it. In any case, the bar must be raised significantly in the future.

Hull: I believe the Event Center is an incredible asset to the community. I do not believe we should get rid of the current system where city employees manage and run the event center.

Rich: The special task force discovered many problems with the Event Center. Unsigned contracts, poor accounting practices and more. My inclination is to hire someone to oversee the Event Center that has been successful elsewhere.

We had six months of drama with the Event Center, something that should never have happened. When the head of the Event Center was fired by the city manager for cause last October, the city commission should have supported that decision. That would have been the end.

Instead, the committee voted 3-2 to reinstate him. Commissioner Connelly cast the deciding vote, wasting a lot of taxpayer money. It wasn’t just about the $325,000 severance package. The city paid for outside consultants and wasted a lot of staff time. If I had been on the committee, the taxpayer money would not have been wasted.

Fired city employees have the right to appeal to the Civil Service Commission. That did not happen and a double standard emerged with a department head receiving special treatment.

Stand: What is your opinion on the financing of public transport?

Connelly: More than a year before my appointment (to the city commission), I started going to meetings as a citizen. I heard that (Bis-Man Transit) was in financial trouble and that the drain on reserves was more than what any city department receives on an annual basis. Transit is not a city department, so I knew a new, alternative step had to be taken.

As a member of the city commission, transit became my portfolio. As discussions about ongoing financial concerns increased, members of the user group began contacting me. One caveat to all of this that is well known, but at the same time not emphasized much, is that the citizens of Bismarck have been subsidizing Mandan’s transit services for 37 years, and that needs to be corrected.

Two different subcommittees were formed, one in Bismarck and one in Mandan, for two initiative measures to address and right the Bismarck-subsidizing-Mandan mistake.

(In Mandan) the subcommittee turned in 745 and found that enough of them qualified. It is currently on the June 11 ballot as “City Measure 1.”

In Bismarck, the subcommittee had 1,100 signatures before the primary election deadline, which was not enough. The city commission ordered to continue gathering for the presidential election, with a deadline of mid-August.

If both measures are adopted, the amount earmarked for public transport would exceed what public transport drains from their reserves. If they meet the RFP requirements, they would have access to a resource that could save them as a provider.

The important thing to note is that it’s about protecting the ride and making public transportation an asset to Bismarck. If we do that, we can have serious conversations about how public transportation can be an engine for healthy economic growth and development.

Hull: I believe that public transportation is not only a feature of a city of a certain size, but that it is absolutely necessary for those who cannot drive for financial or medical reasons. Just because someone can’t drive doesn’t mean they can’t fully participate in society or take advantage of all that Bismarck has to offer.

Rich: Bis-Man Transit oversees our two modes of public transportation: Paratransit and Capital Area Transit, our fixed-route bus system. Paratransit provides essential transportation services for the elderly and people with disabilities. CAT is open to everyone.

Our current system is in deficit and relies on reserves to finance current activities. Bis-Man Transit has done a lot of analysis and developed several possible solutions to address the funding shortfalls. As a committee, we must work through this and find a cost-effective way to continue providing transit service.

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