Prospective voters got a belated final look at the seven candidates running for Yankton City Commission Wednesday.
The Interchange/Yankton Area Chamber of Commerce forum featured incumbents Nathan Johnson and Bridget Benson, former city commissioner and Mayor Curt Bernard and challengers Michael Grave, Stacey Nickels, Mike Villanueva and Thomas Bixler.
The candidates are vying for three open seats on the board.
The forum — conducted completely remotely via Zoom — had originally been intended to be streamed live on Facebook Tuesday evening. However, due to technical difficulties, the forum was instead recorded and published on the Chamber’s YouTube page early Wednesday morning.
The candidates were asked what they feel the three main duties of a city commissioner are.
Villanueva said one of the most important things is keeping the public’s desires in mind.
“One of the most important things you need to do is listen to your voters,” he said. “You have to take that input and when you make a decision based on what you plan on doing for the city and what direction we’re going to move — hopefully that’s always forward — you need to have that input. You need to be accessible. You need to be able to make a common-sense, level-headed decision and do it based on voter input.”
He added that it’s also important for commissioners to do their research on all options and keeping an eye on the future of Yankton.
Bernard said it’s a duty to be mindful of what’s going on in the world at any given time.
“You just have to remember that we’re living in a world that’s pretty upside down right now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to get a lot better. Some of the issues that are out there in the rest of the world will wash over on to our shores this next year. We have to be wise enough to research well, be critical thinkers, listen to the experts but don’t just roll over for the experts.”
He added keeping the voters’ input in mind and having a solid city manager are also important duties of the board.
Bixler said duty means treating the job of city commissioner as more than just a part-time gig.
“When you’re a public servant, being a public servant is a job which you have to put time in,” he said. “If you elect me, you’ll get a person who understands what the job is, but you’ll also get somebody who puts 24 hours per day, seven days per week into doing the job.”
He added that it’s important to listen to the voters and be able to make tough decisions.
Candidates were asked about their thoughts on the city’s utility rates and how they may be able to lower them.
Nickels said it’s time to put a halt to rate hikes.
“We are going to have to seek out alternative funding and going to have to really balance wants versus needs just like we do in our personal finances,” she said. “We are not going to be able to continue to spend money that we do not have because that’s what every business owner has to do. People, especially in this last year have been struggling financially because of everything that’s been going on this last year and we just can’t continue to raise those rates.”
However, Johnson said it’s not always as clear-cut issue.
“The commission has pretty unanimously agreed to the rate increases we’ve had in recent years,” he said. “A lot of it is, we are leveraging our rates against low-interest loans. Sometimes to qualify for other funding, you have to have your rates at a certain point, otherwise you’re not eligible. It would be easy, I think, to just say, ‘We’re not going to raise rates.’ And past commissions have done that. But what that does is, you’re just delaying the inevitable.”
With COVID-19 vaccinations well under way in Yankton, candidates were also asked for their opinion on the vaccinations. They were also given the option to state whether or not they had or planned to receive it.
Benson said that she has sought vaccination, but that it is definitely up to individuals.
“I am also a proponent of the vaccine,” she said. “It’s every individual’s right to make the choice for themselves. At the same time, I’m definitely encouraging it because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel knowing that this is an option that’s available.”
However, Grave said he believes the jury is still out.
“I would like to see where the vaccine is actually tested on animals and fully approved by the FDA before I’d even consider taking the vaccine,” he said. “I take my health very seriously. I want to protect my family and my health. Personally, for me, being an experiment is not something I’m signing up for.”
Additionally, candidates were asked about:
• Their views on the improvements made to Walnut St. over the last few years;
• How commissioners would choose which professionals to trust with advisory roles;
• Which community boards and organizations they are currently involved in.
The municipal election is set for Tuesday, April 13. Absentee ballots are available to be filled out at City Hall every weekday ahead of election day.
To view the Yankton Area Chamber of Commerce/Interchange forum, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW17k05O5oc.
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.