Betsey Buckheit

Candidate for City Council, Ward 2

buckheitI arrived in Northfield on the Defeat of Jesse James Days weekend in 1989. My husband had a one year position teaching at Carleton College so we didn’t think we’d still be in town for the next DJJD celebration.  Fortunately, we were wrong:

Since 1989, I’ve been active in the Northfield community.  My first community service was as a member of the Northfield Library Board, followed by 5 years on the Planning Commission.   Right now, I’m on the Charter Commission and the Northfield Soccer Association Board; I’ve recently completed a one year term on the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force. I’ve also been a Humphrey Institute Public Policy Fellow and a participant in the Blandin Community Leadership Program; I’ve volunteered at school and my church.  Trained as a lawyer, I’m not practicing law but homeschooling my daughter and volunteering.

I became interested in the policy-making, political side of Northfield government while serving on the Planning Commission. When I chaired the Commission, I attended Council meetings to follow up on Planning Commission actions. I thought “Northfield city government can do better.” In particular, Council decision making needed to be more closely linked to the long-term vision and policies of the City rather than each issue being considered separately.

In the current economic climate, strategic decision-making is even more important.  Northfield is considering building a new Safety Center and Liquor store, expanding the Library, and renovating City Hall in addition to the on-going costs of providing city services.

I like the word “sustainable” — sustainable economic development, sustainable land use, and sustaining Northfield’s distinctive characters and landscape.  We have good guiding policy in Northfield’s almost adopted Comprehensive Plan, Transportation Plan, and Parks and Open Space Plan; we need to use these tools consistently to prioritize projects and anticipate expenses.  We should foster partnerships with our colleges, businesses and the townships and county to share ideas, avoid duplication, and maximize resources.  We need innovative economic development initiatives to sustain existing businesses and attract new enterprise.

I have the experience and skills to be a strong advocate for Ward 2 and help the Mayor and Council move Northfield forward.  Ward 2 residents, please give me your support on November 4.

Return to Election 2008 page.

Responses to questions submitted by Northfield.org participants:

1. Have you had experience as a landlord of rental properties? What do you think about the current rental ordinance? Would you recommend changes? What enforcement mechanisms do you recommend?

I have no experience as a landlord except for renting my home during my husband’s sabbaticals.  I support the goals of the rental ordinance to preserve the character of historic neighborhoods, especially near the colleges.  The “student rental” situation when single family homes are rented to a group of college students can lead to parking problems, deterioration of the property, and nuisance issues in the neighborhood; this is obviously distressing to homeowners who have invested time and money in their homes and neighborhood.

The process of drafting and adopting the rental ordinance has not been smooth or swift; now it is finally adopted, I do not advocate changes at this time.  Rather, I would like to see clear and consistent enforcement of the ordinance for a period of time to assess its effectiveness and its impact on landlords and tenants.

I have larger policy concerns which have not been addressed:  

  • College expansion (including buying older homes) policies affect the neighborhood.  The City has not, even in its new Comp Plan, addressed how a college development zone can be successful given the lack of a clear boundary between College and town.
  • Council’s decisions in 2000-2002 to approve a great deal of market-rate residential development created a glut of new homes.  With so much new housing available, our older neighborhoods became less desirable for homebuyers and more likely to be sold for rental property.  Council needs to understand the context and possible impact of their decisions.

2. What will you do to help ensure the economic vitality of our downtown area? What vision do you have for what Northfield should be like in ten or twenty years?

There is no one solution to ensure the success of downtown, but many smaller steps which can and should be taken.  Here are a few, but I’ll be looking for more:

The new Comprehensive Plan specifically identifies downtown and historic Northfield as the model for development – compact, walkable with a mix of uses as well as a “sense of place.”  The Plan also notes that infill and redevelopment are preferred over growing at Northfield’s edges.  I will work to ensure the Comp Plan is implemented clearly and consistently.  Northfield also completed an Economic Development Plan in 2006; its recommendations should be considered and implemented.

Northfield should ensure that its ordinances and review process impose no obstacles for downtown businesses as they improve and expand, or as new business considers locating here.

Northfield should continue to support and work with the NDDC for shared strategies for downtown including one under discussion for reducing the state property tax for historic districts, continuing the revolving loan programs, and ensuring downtown businesses are informed about city projects to minimize their impact on business.

The redevelopment of the Cannon River near the Water Street parking lot is a welcome improvement to the downtown landscape; continuing to improve our riverfront will help make downtown an attractive, pleasant place to be.

In 10 or 20 years, I would like to see Northfield continuing to be an independent city and not a bedroom community which has grown compactly and strategically.  The downtown will still be thriving and Northfield will have improved access to downtown from the West side of Highway 3 as well as bike and pedestrian safety in and through downtown.  The riverfront will be a continuous green and blue oasis through the center of town and a focal point for the city. 

3. What are the particular skills you bring to the council? What are the most important personal attributes a council member can bring to the table?

I can analyze and frame complex issues for productive discussion; I do my homework to understand the issue at hand as well as the larger context, and I know the Charter, ordinances and Plans of the City.  Every council member should act honestly and with integrity for the good of the city as a whole, as well as be accessible and responsive to residents. 

4. Can you identify an area where you will need further information or experience before you can be an effective council member?

I come with much experience regarding land use, development and financial matters; I have less knowledge of personnel matters and the details of providing services such as water, street maintenance, and waste water treatment.

My experience on the Planning Commission and following the Council shows me that there is always more to learn and I pride myself on doing my homework to understand as much as possible before making a decision.  I hope I can be effective immediately while recognizing there will be much work to do as individual items come before the Council.

5. What role does the city play in developing a sustainable energy supply for its citizens? What plans should be set in place?

The City should play a central role in more sustainable energy use and conservation, although its role in developing alternative energy supplies is more limited at this time. 

Good initiatives are already underway.  The City has almost adopted its new Comprehensive Plan which places a high priority on compact development and preserving the rural land at the city’s edges, and creating a more pedestrian friendly place; the Plan also contains policies to integrate sustainable practices into new development and redeveloped areas and protecting and enhancing the environment.  The city needs to implement the Comp Plan consistently and ensure that the land development regulations (currently being revised) help further its environmental goals. 

The Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force, on which I served during the past year, has been re-authorized for another year; the Task Force lead a coordinated city and school district group to write a successful planning grant from the Safe Routes to School program to study how to make bicycling and walking to school safer and more attractive.

The city accepted the report of the Northfield Energy Task Force in June 2008 which contains much data on the current state of the city as well as recommendations for the future; this document should be reviewed and revised regularly.

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority (with the Three Rivers Community Action, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation) is developing a “green” neighborhood in the southern part of Ward 2.  This is noteworthy not only because of its green status, but as a model of public/private collaboration which the city can emulate in the future.

In addition to headline projects, the city should consider the climate and environmental impact of all its decisions and review city law and policy to determine if they should be amended for greater conservation or efficiency.  As it builds new facilities, the City can model energy efficiency and green building practices.  My goal is that the city makes steady incremental improvements while looking for opportunities for larger change.

6. What is the state of relations between the city and its major employers, particularly the two colleges and Malt-o-Meal? How should these relationships be improved and sustained?

Overall, I believe these relationships are satisfactory.  Some targeted efforts have been made to improve relations among Carleton, the City and residents; these stakeholders have met to discuss development on the east side to mitigate the impacts on the neighborhoods and streets as Carleton grows and changes.  The new rental ordinance which attempts to address student rentals had input from both colleges.

More effort to maintaining ongoing dialogue and not just discussions over specific issues is needed.  The best way will be through the leadership of the city administrator, other key staff, and  mayor and council working to establish personal contacts and communication with large employers. 

7. As a candidate, what are your top two or three priorities for the next two years?

One, continue to improve our budgeting and capital improvement planning to help the Council make sustainable decisions about the City’s needs and resources.  Two, use the plans the city has developed (Comprehensive Plan, Transportation Plan, Park Plan, and more technical plans for stormwater, waste water, etc.) to make consistent, strategic decisions.  Three, continually strive to improve the process and transparency of city government to make it as accessible and user-friendly as possible.

8. What steps should be taken to ensure that the city employs talented and motivated public servants? 

The recent turmoil involving the Council, Mayor and City Administrator is not the climate which will attract and keep the best staff.  With the prospect of new council members, new Mayor and new administrator, we have the opportunity to recreate the leadership of the City to set the tone for a productive, dedicated staff.

Obvious steps such as competitive salary and benefits will help attract employees.  Beyond that, the Council and administration need to present a unified message about the city and its vision, ensure that staff are treated with respect by Council members, and valued and acknowledge staff expertise upon which we rely. 

In the bigger picture, if Northfield is a thriving city with housing choices, successful businesses, excellent city services and retaining its distinct character, living and working here will be more desirable for city staff as well as others.

9. How do you think the council should go about hiring the permanent city administrator?

The typical process involves having the council develop a job description, then hiring a consulting search firm to assemble a pool of candidates who are interviewed by Council and others. 

I have two priorities.  First, I’d like the Council to be clear about what it wants and what it wants the administrator to do as it develops a job description. 

Second, I’d like to see the job description be broad enough to attract candidates beyond the small pool of professional city administrators.  Managing people, services and financial matters are skills shared by many fields; a talented administrator could learn the aspects of the job unique to public administration.

10. What will you do to try to recover the missing 2.3 million city dollars.

City staff have been cooperating fully with the FBI and other law enforcement investigations, but the forecast for recovery is not bright.  My priority is to ensure that our current and future investment policy minimizes risk to the city and prevents losses like this from ever occurring again.

Northfield should not give up on recovering some or all of the missing funds, but we must carefully weigh the costs of litigation or other strategy against the likelihood of a significant recovery. 

11. Northfield and Dundas share a sewer plant that may be approaching its capacity. In an effort to not find out in 2012 that we "broke the plant" in 2010, the Dundas planning commission and city council have in place a simple worksheet that is used to evaluate every platting request to see if it would make us exceed the capacity. This should keep us from finding out after the fact that we have overpromised this growth-limiting resource to developers. This simple analysis will also let us not have to go to taxpayers and have them subsidize other people's profits in an unjust way. As a city council person, are you willing to ask for and use this question of capacity BEFORE you consider and approve new growth?

YES.  I’m not only willing, I plan to demand such information.

I disagree that the Planning Commission has been “growth oriented;” rather I believe the Commission has been much more cautious than the Council in recent years.  As a Northfield Planning Commission member, I was concerned about how little information about the impact of proposed development was provided to the Commission and City Council.  In 2001-2002, we were reviewing the large residential developments at the south and north edges of town.  Questions from the Commission included the cost of providing city services, impact on schools from more families, traffic impact as well as sewer plant capacity.  Answers to these questions (which were not received) would help the city plan for expanding police and fire service, street improvements, and planning the pace of development.

As Northfield has recently approved annexing 530 acres in Greenvale township for industrial development, Northfield may be about to begin another large scale development.  I’ve been having conversations about finding out the costs of this development which have yet to be fully answered.

I’ve spoken with Bruce Morlan who developed the Dundas worksheet (and perhaps asked this question) and I applaud his work.  An easy to use tool like this would be a great benefit to staff and the Planning Commission as they make their recommendations to the Council.  Again, YES.

12. Given the fatal traffic accident that occurred at Jefferson Parkway and Division Street, if elected how would you prioritize the concern over the safety of this intersection against the other infrastructure plans?

I’ve been concerned about this intersection and traffic in this area since the Middle School was in the development phase.

Some background: The city and school district have known about possible safety issues at this intersection for years.  At the time the Middle School was approved and built, I chaired the Planning Commission.  The traffic impact report completed for the school district at the time indicated that the increased traffic concentrated at the school opening and closing times would be acceptable if “this situation does not create a hazardous condition.”  This study also recommended the installation of the median on Jefferson Parkway and indicated that a stop light might soon be warranted, but installation should wait until after the school opened.  The Commission asked about the safety of this intersection as well as the lack of connectivity with the neighborhood to the west and across Highway 246.  Concerns were noted, but the Council did not take any action at that time.     When the Middle School opened, the 4-way stop at this intersection was added and the start times of Bridgewater, the High School and Middle School were staggered to try to improve traffic flow and safety. 

Clearly, this has not been sufficient to make the intersection safe or pedestrian and bike friendly especially at school “rush hours.” 

If elected, I’d put this intersection at the top of the list for infrastructure improvements.  I’ll have good support for this position, too.  The City’s new Transportation Plan (now being reviewed by the Planning Commission for consistency with the Comprehensive Plan) targets this intersection (plus the Woodley/Division and 2nd St/Washington intersections) as a short term (next 5 years) need for improvement.  Also, the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force, (of which I was a member and served as the Task Force’s liaison to the Transportation Plan Technical Advisory Committee), wrote a successful planning grant (with the school district) under the Safe Routes to School program to study pedestrian safety near our schools, including this intersection.  Safe Routes to School also awards infrastructure grants which, if we were to receive one, could help fund improvements to this intersection.

I’ll work for safety improvements at this intersection, but citizen support and pressure is still needed.  Help me keep this on the Council’s agenda.

13. What is your plan for integrating the working poor into the economic growth potential of our community?

My plan is “many small steps.” 

Economic development needs to be a high priority for Northfield and it must be a shared goal of both city government and the private sector.  Attention has focused on big projects such as developing a new business park to attract new business which, if pursued, may provide jobs. 

The city should also facilitate smaller, more local, more entrepreneurial development through partnerships with the Northfield Enterprise Center, NDDC, Chamber of Commerce, and Rural Enterprise Center

Northfield should try to remove obstacles to small local enterprise.  I’ve long supported making city development and permit processes as predictable and easy to navigate as possible; new land development regulations should take a big step toward this goal.  The EDA and Economic Development director should help facilitate working with the city as well as be a clearinghouse for information and resources.

Northfield could consider how it could incorporate “buy local” thinking into its operation.

Other more indirect ways the city can help support the working poor include

  • fully supporting our Public Library which is a resource for materials in English and Spanish, internet access and computer assistance for those who cannot afford home computers, early literacy and children’s programming to support families, and business and job research materials. 
  • Ensuring affordable housing is available.  See my answers to other questions for more about Northfield’s HRA projects.
  • Considering expanding transit services to help working people reach their jobs and other commitments.

14. Do you have plans or goals for the City of Northfield regarding the health, welfare, and wellbeing of children in the community? Specifically, I see on the City of Northfield's website that the City Council has pledged its commitment to the 2001-2010 International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World. I would like to know how you plan on supporting this effort.

I’ve noticed the logo for the Int’l Decade on the city’s website and a plaque on the wall of the Council Chambers; this question prompted me to read the UN materials about the Int’l Decade observance to see how its programs fit into Northfield’s efforts to ensure the health and wellbeing of our youth.

The UN decade calls for actions to (1) promote sustainable economic and social development, (2) foster democratic participation , (3) Actions to advance understanding, tolerance and solidarity, (4) support participatory communication and the free flow of information and knowledge.

Our new Comprehensive Plan promotes sustainable development through land use which conserves land, natural resources and financial resources.  The Plan’s emphasizes creating walkable neighborhoods which facilitate community building, integrating multiple housing types within neighborhoods, and creating great public gathering spaces.  This type of development can provide safe spaces to walk, bike and play as well as supporting multi-generational community– I have supported the Plan and will work to implement its recommendations fully.

Another sustainable development project now underway is the HRA’s green and healthy neighborhood of affordable housing.  This project in the south part of the city is a partnership of the city’s HRA, Three Rivers Community Action and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation; the city needs to ensure this project is completed.

The Northfield Public Library is a key part of helping young people in Northfield by providing early literacy programs, computer access, materials in Spanish for our Latino community as well as books, movies and other materials.  The Library is a direct link to democratic participation, too.  Copies of all Council agendas, minutes, reports and other materials are provided here, voter registration materials and tax information are also available at the library.  Booker the Book Bus takes the library out to neighborhoods where access to the library may be harder.  I just read today on northfield.org that librarians will be answering questions by Instant Messaging – another way Youth might like to access the library.  Northfield is now asking when and how it can expand its Library to better serve the community; I support this effort.

Safety on our streets, especially near schools, is another priority of mine.  My answer to a previous question about the Jefferson Parkway/Highway 246 intersection says more about my concerns about safety for children and youth.  Providing additional transit services could also serve youth in Northfield.

Northfield should also continue to develop partnerships with other organizations which serve children including the Community Action Center, Union of Youth/Key, YMCA, youth sports organizations, and the school district; working together we can avoid duplicating efforts while maximizing resources.