Q&A with Joe Mertens who is running for mayor of Devils Lake

K. William Boyer and John B. Crane
Devils Lake Daily Journal

DEVILS LAKE — Joe Mertens was born and raised in Devils Lake graduating in the Class of 1974 from the Devils Lake School system. Now he wants to get your vote to serve as your city's next mayor. 

For 28 years Martens served the Four Winds High School as a teacher and held various administrative positions; even serving as a member of the Fort Totten Educators Association where on several occasions he served as the negotiator for the teachers.

Following retirement from Four Winds, he expanded my part-time business of lawn care and into a successful operation serving 200 customers in the Devils Lake area. Merten was elected to the Devils Lake Park Board in 1996 to 2012 serving as the President for many of those years.

Elections for this office will be on June 14.

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Mayor candidate Joe Mertens

Why did you decide to run for office?

Really, I am going to be straight up. I have a three-year-old grandson that has nothing to do in this town, and it’s time people start thinking about our youth and our teenagers and getting things back in town or creating things, so we have something to do with our kids, so my daughter isn’t running to Grand Forks or Minot, so they have something to do.

Do I know how we can do it? I think we need to get partnerships with businesses and withdrawing businesses to town that want to put something up, and I think the town itself needs to seriously figure out a way of building a rec center and running a rec center. We don’t have one, and every town our size has a rec facility that the kids can go to and the little kids can play in the winter. We have had individuals start things, and they are great but, they are small. There are 20 people and it’s full.

I think our town is sitting still not doing anything, and it’s time to move forward. Somebody has to take the bull on the reins and say, let’s get something for our kids.

What will be your main goal you wish to accomplish as mayor?

To be the voice of the people, and let’s see what the people want, and let’s see if we can get it done. 10 years ago…12 years when I was on the Park Board, we had a group of people that were going to build this rec facility, but nobody agreed on who was going to run it and how it was going to run. I’ll be honest, I can find money to build a facility. Now, how do we maintain the facility? That becomes an $80-100,000 plan in any kind of rec facility. We have to be able to, besides build it, we have to find a way to maintain and have one group in charge. We have to start getting partnerships. We have to start getting everybody involved, be it the high school, the college, the park board, the city, the county, the big banks, the L Center, the hospital. Everybody needs to pitch in some and get it done, because right now, our kids don’t have anything.

And then, the other part is we have to get some things back in our town that we have lost. Do I know how to do it? Not exactly, but I’d like to see a bowling alley of some sort back, a movie theatre, but that takes selling your town that is worth to invest that you can maybe, possibly, in a few years, make a profit bringing those things back because, in a town our size, it’s desperately needed. We need something for kids to do and adults to do. We need a bowling alley. We need a movie theatre.

How do we do that? I don’t know, but I want to keep exploring every avenue, if I am mayor, to get it done, because it’s time to quit saying, ‘yeah, yeah, we know we need it, but.’ Time to say, put the time and effort in it, let’s see if we can get it done. Say, if I am elected, and in four years, I don’t make it, at least I can say, ‘you know what, while I was there, we tried this, this [and] this.’ We didn’t just sit still, because, to me, if you are sitting still, you are truly going backwards because you obviously aren’t going forward.”

I want to be the voice of the people and say, what do you want? Because there are a lot of great ideas out there…and out being campaigning, a lot of people want a little bit. ‘I want this, I want this.’ I want to know what’s best for the town as a whole because I know it’s hitting a lot of people…middle school…college wanting the gym, doing a baseball renovation…there are so many things on people’s plates, but what can the city do to help get us active again, get us going? Not losing businesses, bring business down. I think you have to sell your town. This is a great town to live in. It’s a great town to raise kids in. The problem is, there is nothing for them to do, so parents take their money and go to Grand Forks or somewhere else. Movie theatre in New Rockford or Cando. That money is leaving our town. That money needs to stay here. We need that money in town. We need to help the local businesses stay afloat, and the way we do that is sell this town. This is a great town. We have great things. We need a few things to make it better, and when I leave office, if I get elected, I want to say at least I left the town when I took office.

What changes do you believe could be made in Devils Lake to make it better economically, and how as mayor would you work toward accomplishing those changes?

I think we have to let people know that we have a good educational program…our police department and sheriff’s department is pretty, on the most part, is pretty good. Low crime rate. We some issues that they are working on. Healthcare needs to be tweaked. We need to go to the healthcare providers and say how, as a town, can we help you? What can we do to make our healthcare in Devils Lake better? I think we have to find partnerships, and I think we have to help them get partnerships.

There is an issue with our healthcare. I understand that. But, I don’t know how much the city alone can do it…Our hospital and clinics are not terrible…I am afraid we are losing businesses, and our downtown is becoming…we have to fix the façade and get people to build downtown. I think our workforce is the main issue people are scared of. The only way you get a workforce is you have to get people that can come here and have the things that a Valley City or Jamestown or smaller towns have that we don’t have. What do they have? Why don’t they want to stay here?

My ultimate goal? My 3-year-old grandson, when he graduates from college, comes back with his friends and wants to live in Devils Lake instead of wanting to live somewhere else.  

How will your experience working/living in the community prepare you for a potential mayoral role?

For 28 years, I taught at Four Winds High School, and I have been a negotiator for the board. I have been the principal. I have been the leader for the teachers. I have done things and laced up the boots and we got things done. When I left Four Winds, I truly believe it was a better school when I left…Been on the Park Board for 16 years. Before, we didn’t have things. Now, the parks…we have more parks in our town. We have gotten people to buy in and we have added things. The park now is doing a great thing. They took over the golf course and it’s now a public course.

We’ve got things here, but you have to get people to work together. You have to become an active leader. You have to be proactive. You have to be out there and say, yes, how can we do it in a positive sense. Get the voice of the people and go positive. Quit being negative, and we have to be positive. You just have to be positive. I want to be positive. I want to be visible. I want the city to become transparent. I believe the city should tape their meetings, so people can see what goes on at a city commissioner’s meeting. I think it needs to become transparent.

What is your overall campaign message to voters?

All I can tell the people is that they vote for me. We are going to get some things done, I hope. I am going to work my hardest to improve and make Devils Lake better than it is now. It’s good, but let’s see if we can make it a better place and make it a place where people will want to move to, and I don’t think that’s happening right now. I don’t think people want to move to Devils Lake. We have to make people want to move here. We have jobs available. We have housing. But, we have to make the town attractive.

If there was one word that describes you, what would that one word be?

I think I am very involved in the community, and I will be involved.

John Crane is a sports/general assignment reporter for the Devils Lake Daily Journal. Feel free to contact John at jcrane@gannett.com or Twitter (@johncranesports) with any story ideas. K. William Boyer is Managing Editor of the Devils Lake Daily Journal, you may reach him at kboyer@gannett.com or at 701-662-2127 or 850-261-7476 with questions or concerns