The Dickinson City Commission candidate debate started Thursday night with a discussion of one of the most pressing questions of the times: Should town residents be allowed to keep chickens on their properties?
It was a light open, a question submitted by an interested member of the public for the third in a series of four weekly debates hosted by the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce, the last one to be held in City Hall in the lead-up to the June 14 election.
All three candidates -- Carson Steiner, the sole incumbent, Sarah Jennings, a recent graduate of Dickinson State University and a former aide to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and Jason Fridrich, a local home builder and businessman -- were present for the debate, which was moderated by Dickinson Press Publisher Harvey Brock.
When conversation eventually moved away from poultry, the candidates touched on wider issues affecting the town in a time of lingering oil impacts and greatly reduced oil revenues, such as public safety services, economic development and support for public projects of all stripes, as well as the prospect of an event center or the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
The candidates frequently made reference to their backgrounds while answering the questions fielded to them.
While all three mentioned the city’s budget -- which is in the process of being officially reforecasted due to projections of lower revenues -- while discussing their hypothetical top priority as a commissioner, Steiner pointed specifically to the alteration process and its ability so far to meet city financial goals without raising property taxes.
“We have been adjusting our budget, we do it on a weekly basis now and (City Administrator Shawn Kessel) does it on a daily basis now,” he said. “We keep eyes on it every day and we have been cutting hiring, frozen it actually, put off buying things. … There’s lots of ways we’ve been cutting our budget to meet our revenue.”
Later on, Steiner cited other city processes to address questions about the city’s relationship with neighboring communities and its $3 million funding commitment to the presidential library.
Jennings, 26, is the youngest and the sole female candidate for any position on the city ballot and spoke from a familiar point of view when discussing ways the city could act to help bring young families into the area.
She said quality-of-life improvements could positively impact the city in ways from helping DSU achieve higher enrollment to giving families a greater range of amenities and reasons to stay in town.
“Young families want a strong community that they can raise their children here,” Jennings said, adding she was interested in seeing how parks and recreation could be improved. “… As we look forward, we need to look at beautifying our community and making it something that families want to stay in.”
Fridrich, who sits on the town’s planning and zoning commission and owns Dickinson home construction firm Legend Homes and Liquid Assets bar, said he found issue with the city’s boundary expansions over the oil boom years.
He answered a question prompt that asked candidates which former commission decisions they didn’t agree with by pointing to entitlements made to land developers during the city’s low-density, outward growth that has left the city to “sit with a bunch of infill land that might not get touched for 20 years.”
“I struggle with some of the land that we pulled into the city and entitled that now sits barren and undeveloped five years later,” Fridrich said, adding he’d like to see a sunset clause on entitlements made to developers. “It really is going to put a strain on the future with people wanting to develop if these lands are all tied up.”
In many areas, the candidates expressed similar sentiments to approaching the town’s challenges and opportunities. All of them expressed optimism in their closing statements.
There are three total seats that will be filled in the upcoming election.
Along with Steiner, the terms of Commission President Gene Jackson and interim commission member Joe Frenzel are also coming to a close. Neither Jackson nor Frenzel chose to run for re-election.
Looking forward to next week, there will be a Dickinson Park Board debate at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 26, at Players Sports Bar & Grill. That debate will feature incumbent Howard Sharpe and newcomers K.C. Homiston and Daniel Duletski campaigning for two open seats and will conclude the Chamber debate series.