WILLMAR - The three incumbents and the three challengers for the three of the four seats open on the Willmar City Council did not agree with the perception that crime is a growing problem, especially in the downtown area.

The question of whether crime is a problem was posed during a 90-minute candidate forum sponsored Tuesday night by the Willmar Chapter of the League of Women Voters at the Municipal Utilities auditorium. A total of 44 people attended the forum.

Candidates attending the forum were Ward 1 incumbent Bruce DeBlieck, 61, radio maintenance supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Transportation who has served on the council since being elected in 1990; and challenger Andrew Plowman, 31, who is employed in a family-owned Prinsburg business.

Ward 2 incumbent Ron Christianson, 64, is co-owner of a Willmar housing construction company and is seeking his sixth four-year term to the council. His challenger, Steve Gardner, 55, is a document imaging sales specialist in Willmar, who has previously served one four-year term on the City Council from 2005 to 2009.

In Ward 3, councilman Rick Fagerlie, 61, is challenged by Bob Enos, 60. Fagerlie has served Ward 3 since 1998 and had previously represented Ward 4. A local business owner, Fagerlie is president of his appraisal company. Enos moved to Willmar in 2008 following a city management career in Providence, R.I., and in private business consulting work.

In Ward 4, Audrey Nelsen, 63, is running unopposed. Nelsen was elected in February 2013 to fulfill the unexpired term of Doug Reese, who was elected to the Kandiyohi County Board in November 2012. Nelsen is employed by Peterson Brothers Funeral Home.

Voters will select the winners in the Nov. 4 general election.

Forum moderator Bev Benson of the Plymouth-Wayzata League of Women Voters, asked if the crime perception was accurate.

Fagerlie said he does not believe the city has a high crime rate. Fagerlie said the city has a strong police force, which is almost at full strength and is getting a K-9 unit along with the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office. “I have always supported and will continue to support a strong police force,’’ he said.

Gardner said overall Willmar is a safe city, although the perception is that certain areas are not and is most acutely pointed at downtown, which is not accurate. Gardner said he looked at the police department’s crime mapping tool on the city’s website and found that for the past six months downtown is no more likely to have more crime than anywhere in the city. He said Ward 2 is exceptionally safe. The West Wind Townhome project, which was the subject of some concern six years ago, is one of the safest areas of town today, he said.

Christianson said Willmar is a safe community to live in and said police records indicate very few service calls downtown. He said the police department has an active drug task force with the county. Christianson noted that he lives two blocks from West Wind and said police calls totaled 11 per month during the first year and are down to five or six per month now.

Plowman said Willmar is safe. He said the Vision 2040 effort looked at the hard data. In comparison with other cities Willmar’s size, Willmar was average, which he said was a good thing.

DeBlieck also cited the low crime rate, the drug task force and the K-9 unit. “We all want a safe place,’’ he said, adding that downtown is one of the safest areas of town.

Enos said he suspects the perception resulted in people, especially white people, avoiding downtown at night. “So we can’t very well have crime if there’s nobody there,’’ he said.

Among the host of questions, Benson asked the candidates if they have spoken to Somali and Hispanic residents and business owners, and if not why not, and if so what conversations did they have.

Christianson said he has not. Christianson said he lives in Ward 2 where 60 percent of the residents are retired, elderly people. “I know I would be here to represent the entire city. But for Nov. 4, I need to convince the people of Ward 2 to re-elect me so I can represent them and the city,’’ he said.

Gardner said the majority culture “needs to talk and come to an understanding of the other cultures around us, have them comfortable with our culture as well, because we all have to work together for a city that actually works for everybody.’’

Fagerlie said he probably has not done as good of a job as he would like, adding he has done some, but probably not enough.

Enos said he has lived in cities nearly all his adult life and are always large and quite diverse. “It is nothing new to me,’’ he said. As he talked to people around his ward and especially downtown, he said it was clear to him there is much disinformation and urban legend. He said the Somali population in America is unique as one of the only political refugee populations to emigrate to this country in last 20 years.

“When governments and churches organized this emigration, no one spoke to us about this,’’ he said.

DeBlieck said Ward 1 has Somali and Hispanic residents who told him while he campaigned that they “pretty much want the same thing as other residents of Willmar: to live here, raise their family, feel safe and have good government and a well-run city.’’

Plowman said political correctness “is killing us. This is a dialogue that has to take place and it is something that should be open and easy, but we haven’t done it.’’

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