VIDEO: Sartell mayoral candidates Ryan Fitzthum and David Peterson answered questions at a forum on Oct. 11 sponsored by the Sartell Senior Connection. Fitzthum and Peterson are both current City Council members.
by Dennis Dalman
One of two current Sartell City Council members – Ryan Fitzthum and David Peterson – will be elected as the city’s new mayor in the Nov. 6 general election.
Incumbent Mayor Sarah Jane Nicoll decided not to file for re-election.
The monthly salary paid to the Sartell mayor is $625, with no per-diems or pay for extra meetings.
The following are profiles of the two mayoral candidates as well as their responses to questions from the Sartell Newsleader.
A 15-year resident of Sartell, David Peterson, 47, has served on the city council for 12 years and has been a member of the Minnesota National Army Guard for 19 years for which he works as an attorney, having served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peterson has also been both a prosecutor and a private-practice attorney. He is currently an employee of the VA Health Care System in St. Cloud, working with its human resources department.
Born in Brainerd, Peteron grew up in Fargo, N.D. He earned degrees at Concordia College and the University of North Dakota School of Law. His post-college work experience includes assistant Renville County attorney, assistant attorney for Stearns County, an associate attorney with the Eller Law Office, St. Cloud, and his legal work for the Guard.
Among his many duties and achievements as a city council member from 2007 to the present are: Tri-Recreation Board, Public Works Commission, Sartell Recreation Center Board, Area Planning Organization, Sartell acting mayor (twice), St. Cloud Area Joint Planning Organization, Sartell Personnel Committee, Sartell-Le Sauk Joint Planning Commission, City-School Committee alternate and Area Planning Organization alternate.
Peterson and his wife Kristina have two children – Devin, a senior at Sartell High School, and Lauren, a high-school junior.
Ryan Fitzthum, 33, is branch manager at CH Robinson, a national third-party logistics company with a large office in Sartell.
Fitzthum was raised in Sartell and graduated from its high school. His father worked and coached in Sartell schools; his mother was an ICU nurse at St. Cloud Hospital. Fitzthum said his family was always active in the schools and the city.
“I can recall working side by side with my father and many other volunteers as we built the ice arena from the ground up,” he said. “Sartell was a great place to grow up. I’m running for mayor to keep that sense of community and ensure it remains the best place for my daughters to grow up.”
Fitzthum’s memberships, achievements and honors are many: captain on the Sartell Fire Department, board of Metro Transit, and a member of the Sartell-St. Stephen Education Foundation, United Way, Sartell-Le Sauk Township Joint Planning Commission, Mississippi River Partners Commission and Sartell school district Facilities Committee.
As part of his logistics job, he manages a complex supply chain throughout North America and is certified as a supply chain professional, project manager and as a Six Sigma Green Belt.
He and his wife received a “Friends of Police” award from the St. Cloud Optimist Club in 2016. They were nominated for that honor by the police department for creating a community police partnership.
Ryan and Cindy Fitzthum have three girls – Carly, 5; Rory, 2; and Elly, 9 months.
The following are both candidates’ responses to questions from the Newsleader:
Why are you qualified to be mayor?
Fitzthum: He said he and his family are totally dedicated to Sartell, the city where he was raised. As a council member, he has served willingly via appointments or volunteerism on many committees, thus gaining knowledge of every aspect of city governance. Living, working, playing in Sartell, he said, is what makes him want to make the city even better.
Peterson: Experience and leadership skills acquired during the past 12 years on the councils and from the many board and committee appointments he’s served have given him the knowledge and skills to lead the city at mayor.
What are the biggest challenges as Sartell continues to grow? Its biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Fitzthum: “Knowing one’s neighbor” and then growing a network of caring is vital to create a strong city, and that network must be emphasized and expanded. Keeping an eye on development and growth is also important.
“Without accurate planning and long-range vision, we might someday regret the choices we make today,” Fitzthum said.
A “great school system” is one of the city’s biggest strengths, he said. One of his emphases as a council member, he noted, was to encourage work with the schools to diminish duplications and to enhance efficiencies to benefit both, with joint contracts and being able to leverage each other’s buying power.
Another strength, he said, is the public-safety system (police and fire) made possible by the “high-quality” police officers and volunteer firefighters. The new Public Safety Facility will be a big boost for the work they do, he said.
A city weakness is the aging roads, which he said are not the fault of the excellent public- works teams. The soil in Sartell has wreaked havoc on roadways, causing significant repair issues within 10 years rather than the expected 30-year normal lifespan of a road. A more permanent solution must be found now rather than repeating patch-job repairs constantly over and over.
Peterson: The biggest challenge is careful and responsible growth. Greatest strengths are school system, safe community, city workers and volunteers.
“We continue to have one of the best school systems in the entire state,” Peterson said. “We can continue to work cooperatively with the schools to provide resources where we can avoid duplication of services, such as outdoor fields.”
One weakness to the growth is the danger of growing without a thoughtful, responsible plan.
“The greatest weakness for Sartell is citizen concerns of not being heard and not being addressed by the council,” he said.”I want to be a mayor who is accessible to the citizens for any concerns or questions.”
Are you happy with how the Sartell Community Center turned out and its location? Which, if any, amenities should be added to it?
Fitzthum: He is “extremely happy” with the community center.
“We have beaten our financial projections each year,” he said. “It is a success story similar to what Bernick’s Arena was when it first opened.”
Fitzthum said he is happy about how businesses’ support enhances the center, including the Country Financial Light Festival at and near the center, which Fitzthum said is “one of the best winter festivals around.” Country Financial, he added, is considering a summer-concert series at the center. He also praised the Great River Regional Library system’s library service at the center. Fitzthum, his wife and daughters often go to the center, as well as his parents who enjoy activities in its Senior Connection or using the elevated walking track.
“I couldn’t be prouder of what we have built,” he said.
Peterson: “I am disappointed and voted against the current location. However, it is a nice building and we, as a community, need to do what is necessary to make the center a success. I believe we should follow the process of having the park commission make recommendations as to which amenities would best fit this location.”
Are taxes in Sartell too high, too low or just about right? If too high, how could they be reduced?
Fitzthum: He said taxes have long concerned him, even if the taxes don’t increase dramatically each year. After spending many hours with city staff reviewing taxes, Fitzthum said he came to realize Sartell is as efficient a city as it can be with what it has to spend. He also noted,independent auditors for years have praised Sartell for its wise management of finances.
“Sartell taxes are fair for the services they provide,” he said. “The key area of focus for me is growing our tax base rather than growing our tax rate.”
Peterson: I believe the city portion of taxes is about right. I have prided myself for the past 12 years on the city council as advocating for a responsible tax growth by keeping a lean budget without cutting into the services the citizens of Sartell expect and deserve.”
Are there ways to further enhance the Mississippi River at Sartell as a recreational and aesthetic shoreline resource for both residents and visitors?
Fitzthum: “Yes!” he said. “Our greatest opportunity for this is the old paper-mill site.” It could be done perhaps with help from the state of Minnesota and federal redevelopment programs.
“I was there as a firefighter the days and weeks following after the explosion and fire and would love nothing more than being part of the team who helps rebuild it into a regional attraction,” he said.
Peterson: The fishing pier was a good start, though it is under-used. If elected, Peterson said he would advocate for such things as parks, allowing businesses to have patios on the river or allowing for water recreation to develop along the city portion of the river.
If you could wave a wand and make a wish happen, what would you like to see developed on the site of the former paper mill?
Fitzthum: He said at the paper-mill site he can envision shops, housing and recreation at the site, as well as a train stop for Northstar Commuter Rail. That would be a good way for Sartell residents to go to the Twin Cities for a sporting event or social gathering, as well as a way for Sartell’s hospitality industry to grow, Fitzthum said. Stillwater has achieved successes of that kind, he noted.
Peterson: He said he’d like the Northstar Commuter Rail service to connect at that property. There is an existing rail system, a great building and existing parking lot, he pointed out. Also the site, he added, is very close to Hwys. 10 and 15 and Interstate 94. Since the site is privately owned, the city would have to work with owners on any potential development, he added.
“I believe having Northstar there would also bring more economic development to Sartell,” Peterson said.
There are citizen efforts underway to find or build a history museum in Sartell. Do you agree with those efforts? What kind of facility (new? repurposed?) would you favor?
Fitzthum: He said he is a strong supporter of preserving Sartell history, noting that many artifacts are now stored in homes and garages. He praised efforts of the Sartell Historical Society to preserve artifacts and historical memories and had special praise for high-school students who interviewed older residents and captured their thoughts for posterity.
Fitzthum said a museum could be located in a current or future building because constructing a building just for that purpose could be costly, including ongoing operational costs.
Peterson: “I absolutely support a history museum . . . I think preserving your history is a great gift to the future generations.” He said the city should consider existing buildings, at least to get a museum started with minimal impact on taxpayers.
How much – maximum – should the city spend to landscape a roundabout?
Fitzthum: It all depends, he said. Some roundabouts, due to location, need nothing more than grass on them while others in more strategic locations should be more decorative with flowers and a welcome sign. Thus, each roundabout landscaping must be considered one by one.
“I am fiscally conservative and regardless of the project, I do not want to spend a dime more than what is needed to achieve the goal!,” Fitzthum said.
Peterson: It should be a minimal cost, he said. Planting native prairie grass would be fine since the grass wouldn’t need mowing and take little or no water and not require replanting, he added.
“I do not believe people come to a city to view roundabouts as a main attraction,” Peterson said. “Too many different plants could also be a dangerous distraction to drivers. Roundabouts are supposed to be functional traffic-control systems, not a highlight of a city.”
Are the police and fire departments in Sartell adequately funded for optimal public safety? If not, what are the current needs and how can the city help them realize those needs or lack of equipment into the future?
Fitzthum: As a captain on the Sartell Fire Department and someone who is very close to many of the Sartell police officers, he said, “I am confident our funding levels are appropriate. Sartell has always taken pride public safety, and I am confident we will continue to do so for many years to come.”
Peterson: Safety, he said, has always been a top priority of his as a council member. He also said he is a strong believer in the community-policing concept.
“The more positive interaction the police and fire departments have with the citizens, the better our city will be,” Peterson said. “I also believe a critical piece of safety for the city is to have a police officer within the schools. I have and will continue to advocate for police officers within the school system, allowing them to interact and build trusting relations with our children.”
Please feel free to share ideas on any aspect of life in Sartell and how best to maximize quality of life for its residents.
Fitzthum: “I am excited for the day when my girls looks back on their childhood and recognize that Sartell was a great place to live,” he said.
His goal is to continue to be active and engage as a Sartell leader.
“I have a strong internal drive to be active, rather than just show up at a meeting and cast a vote,” he said.
Peterson: He and his family moved to Sartell 15 years ago and lived, until recently, on the east side. Peterson said he is proud in helping develop a number of improvements, such as upgraded park shelter, fencing an irrigation system for baseball fields, as well as sidewalks and trails on the east side. He said he is proud to have served on the council for many years, and he is proud to see so many people every day use the city’s trail systems.
“That shows a vibrant city in which the citizens feel safe to be out and about within all parts of Sartell at all hours of the morning and evening,” he said. “Sartell is a great city, and I look forward to serving the citizens of Sartell for another four years as the mayor.”
Fitzthum’s campaign website is www.facebook.com/VoteRyanFitzthum
Peterson’s campaign website is “David Peterson for Sartell Mayor” on Facebook.
For exclusive video from the mayoral candidate forum on Oct. 11, visit the web version of this story at thenewsleaders.com.