The Detroit Lakes-area League of Women Voters will be holding an online forum between Sep. 16 to 18 with 2020 legislative, county, city and school board candidates from Becker County and the surrounding area.
The candidate forums are usually conducted in person with an audience, but, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has needed to make adjustments to account for the health and safety of the candidates and volunteers.
"As the summer went on, it was pretty apparent that (COVID-19) isn't going away soon," said Terry Kalil, president of the Detroit Lakes-area League of Women Voters.
Kalil said after the live-audience was eliminated in the planning of the forum, the group struggled to find a venue that was open to the public during COVID and large enough to host the candidates in a live event. However, once they found a venue, many of the group members, who tend to be older, were hesitant to be part of the event due to health concerns, which led the group to rely on an entirely virtual forum.
"I'm a little overwhelmed trying to pull it all together," she said. "If it doesn't work...in two years, we'll do (the forum) a different way."
Each candidate will be paired with a LWV facilitator and be given 15 minutes to answer prepared questions via Zoom. Additional questions will be asked from voters who submit their questions in advance through the Detroit Lakes-area LWV Facebook page, or email.
"Several of (our facilitators) have gone through the LWV moderator training program," said Kalil. "They know how to ask questions in a way that isn't leading."
Kalil also said the group's members will be screening questions based on their own guidelines and want to ask more open-ended questions that could lead to more thoughtful responses from the candidates.
The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan, political advocacy group, which encourages voter participation and promotes increased understanding of major public policy issues, according to the groups website. However, some candidates have questioned the group's neutrality.
"(The LWV) claim to be non-partisan," said Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids), who has represented Minnesota Senate District 2 since 2016. District 2 includes parts of six northern Minnesota counties, including Becker and Mahnomen. "I always say that nobody is nonpartisan because what rock did you crawl out from under. If you're paying attention, then you have to have an opinion."
He said, by reading the groups website and the issues they advocate for, they come down on one side or the other, which doesn't make them nonpartisan.
Utke serves as vice chairman of the Minnesota Senate Human Services Reform committee and also sits on the Senate's Commerce and Consumer Protection, and Jobs and Economic Growth committees for finance and policy.
His 2020 election opponent in District 2, DFL-endorsed candidate Alan Roy, said he respects the format the group chose and said he is grateful they are continuing with the forums because it gives voters a chance to hear from the candidates directly about the issues they most care about.
"I think the LWV have a long, long history of being a very balanced organization," Roy said. "In August, (the LWV) held an event in Detroit Lakes, and it was very balanced, and it was a respectable event with each of the candidates having an opportunity to say something about themselves and about their campaigns."
Roy, an Army veteran, was elected treasurer of the White Earth Nation in 2018 and said he hopes the government-to-government connections he's made at the local, state and national level gives him the experience he needs to serve in the Minnesota Senate.
Kalil said many of the group's issues have been a part of the League of Women Voters platform for 40 years. She said the issues they focus on must first be approved by the local chapter before being sent for approval at the state level. After the state level, the agenda item is sent to the national organization for approval, then, if it is passed, the issue is adopted into the advocacy portfolio.
"Our positions don't fall on one side or the other, and some are in the middle," Kalil said. "I think some candidates use that claim, that we have an agenda, as their excuse to not get in front of voters."
Kalil also said, in 2016, the LWV made the change to continue holding the forums, instead of cancelling them, even if the opposing candidate refused to participate. She said that participation in the candidate forums have increased 25 percent since the group made the change.
The candidates invited to participate in the 2020 online forums are:
Senate Dist. 2 — Alan Roy and Paul Utke
Senate Dist. 4 — Kent Eken and Mark Larson
House Dist. 2B — Steve Green and Dave Suby
House Dist. 4B — Brian Anderson and Paul Marquart
Becker County Commission
District 3 — Terry Mackner and John Okeson
District 4 — Don Skarie and Richard Vareberg
District 5 — Barry Nelson (unopposed)
Detroit Lakes Mayor/City Council
Mayor — Matt Brenk and Paul Murray
1st Ward — Ron Zeman (unopposed)
2nd Ward — Wendy Spry (unopposed)
3rd Ward (2 yr. term) — Jamie Marks Erickson and Richard Johnson
3rd Ward (4 yr. term) — Aaron Colby and Dan Josephson
At Large — Aaron Dallmann (unopposed)
Detroit Lakes School Board
3 at-large seats — Gary Coson, Amy Erickson, Courtney Henderson, Ron Sprafka, John Steffl and Ethan Walz