Luther hosts local candidate forum


Kieran Benson ('22)

Brian Petersburg, Kerry Johnson, and Alecia Bucksa are three of the five school board candidates.

A local candidate forum featuring candidates running for Decorah’s school board and city council was held on Oct. 3 in Valders 206. The event was sponsored by the American Association of University Women, the Luther College Political Science and Social Work departments, and the Luther College Center for Ethics and Public Engagement.

The candidates running for school board who attended the forum were Alecia Bucksa, Kerry Johnson, and Brian Petersburg, three of the five candidates competing for three open seats. School board members serve a four year term on a five member board that ensures the school district is responsive to community priorities by creating goals and policies, as well as reviewing district data.

The school board candidates answered questions during the first half of the forum. The topics ranged from the sex education programs in Decorah schools, post-secondary education options in Decorah high school, and the possibility of a new location for John Cline Elementary School. The candidates agreed that the sex education and post-secondary education options were working well currently and that a downtown location would be best for the school.

Brian Petersburg also brought up issues of mental health and school safety in his closing remarks.

“School safety is a really big deal with all that’s going on in the world,” Petersburg said. “The whole district has worked really hard at that and that’s one thing we need to continue to be diligent about.”

The city council candidates answered questions during the second part of the forum. Kirk Johnson (‘82) and Gary Rustad are running for the At Large position while Dan Kirkeby and Emily Neal are running in Ward Two. The city council candidates are running for a four year term on a seven member board that has three seats open. Neal and Johnson are incumbent members running for reelection and Rustad has previously served on the city council for 21 years. Incumbent Steve Luse who is running unopposed in Decorah’s Ward Four did not attend the forum.

The first question the moderator asked the city council candidates was about how they will work in a nonpartisan way. The city council elections are meant to be nonpartisan, meaning that the candidates do not affiliate themselves with specific parties.

“I live in a ward that is probably three to one, one party versus the other, and unfortunately candidates seem to identify their views with one party or another even though it’s supposed to be nonpartisan,” Kirkeby said. “My plea to everybody in Ward Two is throw politics aside. You’re not a democrat, you’re not a republican, you’re a citizen of Decorah. Vote for what’s right for Decorah.”

The candidates also discussed the issues they predict will be most important for Decorah in the future. They each mentioned economic development and bringing more businesses to Decorah. Kirkeby mentioned that he supported the idea of bringing a Menards to Decorah. Neal emphasized that all the issues facing the city are connected and that it is difficult to discern which is most important.

“Too often we try to look at things in isolated buckets, but the truth is that so many things are linked together in a system,” Neal said. “We could say infrastructure, we could say flooding, we could say housing. They’re linked to economic development. So as I think  about what is it that we face and what we need to tackle, we really need to think about our vision, who we are, and what we want to be, so we can make decisions based on that.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Carly Foster said that the forum created an opportunity for constituents to ask questions and speak directly with the candidates. Foster said that it helps students get more involved in local politics.

“I think that students should be following politics – local politics and national politics,” Foster said. “They affect the rules that we all have to live our lives by and we have an opportunity to participate in that and participate in selecting the people that are going to make those rules.”

Foster said that the city council’s work can affect students’ lives even if they are only in Decorah for a few years because they have the ability to work with local government to make changes in their community.

“One example I can think of a few years ago is that some students worked with the city council to improve the lighting with the street lights between campus and downtown,” Foster said. “So that was something that they focused collectively on for public safety, and they were able to have an impact there.”

The forum gave students the opportunity to interact with candidates and to hear what topics Decorah citizens are concerned about. Tamar Tedla (‘20) attended the event for one of her social work classes.

“When doing social work, policies are really important,” Tedla said. “And with elections like this, with people that will be helping out in the policy creation process, it’s good to always keep in mind that people are affected by these policies.”

Neal found that the forum was helpful in her understanding of the local community. The question and answer format helped her learn more about her constituents.

“Candidate forums are valuable to me as a candidate because it gives you a chance to engage with your constituents,” Neal said. “You get questions, you hear what people are thinking, and you are able to better articulate how you’re thinking about the issue.”

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