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St. Cloud City Council changes may reopen refugee resettlement debate

The divisive debate over a federal refugee program will likely resurface next year in St. Cloud as two new members elected Nov. 6 join the City Council.

The divisive debate over a federal refugee program will likely resurface next year in St. Cloud as two new members elected Nov. 6 join the City Council.

Paul Brandmire and Mike Conway will be sworn in Jan. 7 for four-year terms, and both say they will push city leaders for more information about city costs of refugee resettlement.

Their election comes a year after Council Member Jeff Johnson proposed a moratorium on refugee resettlement that the City Council rejected 6-1. Instead, the council voted 5-1 for a resolution that stated St. Cloud is a welcoming community.

Brandmire, a semi driver, unseated Council Member John Libert, who was critical of Johnson’s proposed moratorium. Brandmire wants to know who is paying the public share of refugee resettlement. Even if it’s not a city cost, Brandmire said, taxpayers still bear county costs.

“That’s going to be a hot topic,” added Conway, a salesman. “Any time you bring a large percentage of any population … there’s going to be a change. The previous council really didn’t think that would be an issue.”

The push to “pause” refugee resettlement in Minnesota also emerged in the statewide election this year. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson (no relation to the council member) and Senate candidate Jim Newberger each raised the issue in their failed campaigns.

Brandmire and Conway said that while they don’t plan to propose a moratorium again, they will keep pushing for details on city costs.

“It’s to gain an understanding of where the city’s resources are being spent,” said Conway. He’s replacing Johnson, who didn’t run for re-election.

Since 2008, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the only organization that oversees refugee resettlement in St. Cloud, has helped move about 1,500 refugees to the city of 66,000 residents. Most refugees are East African — mostly from Somalia. The changing demographics in the Mississippi River city about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis have divided the community, spurring some anti-Muslim events and incidents, but also unity rallies and signs welcoming refugees and people of different faiths.

City Council incumbents Dave Masters and Steve Laraway narrowly defeated two challengers who supported a moratorium on refugee resettlement: John Palmer, who started a group called C-Cubed, or Concerned Community Citizens, and Liz Baklaich, another member. They distributed red “Make St. Cloud Great Again” hats modeled after President Donald Trump’s Make America Great hats.

“This one group [C-Cubed] doesn’t speak for all residents,” said Masters, a teacher. “I think we need to come together to work together to make St. Cloud a better place.”

The council members who weren’t up for election — Jeff Goerger, George Hontos and Carol Lewis — also voted against the moratorium and for the welcoming resolution.

Refugee resettlement is a state and federal issue, not a city issue, Masters and Laraway said. Laraway, who runs a financial advising company, added that the top issue he heard from voters was fixing potholes in city streets.

Aside from refugee issues, Conway and Brandmire said they will also oppose raising the tobacco sales age to 21 if that comes up again. The Council voted for an ordinance to do so in 2017, but Mayor Dave Kleis vetoed it.

Brandmire and Conway agree with Masters and Laraway on one thing: Refugee resettlement won’t be the top issue for the City Council in 2019. They cited more pressing issues, such as redevelopment of the old Tech High School and Herberger’s department store.

“It’s my hope that the ‘C-Cubed’ [in 2019] is collaboration, communication and compromise,” Laraway said. “If we all work together, we can do great things.”

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