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Three candidates set in council's Second Ward primary election Tuesday: Steve Gardner

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Three candidates set in council's Second Ward primary election Tuesday: Steve Gardner
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- The three-way race in the city's Second Ward is defined at least in part by division over the Westwind Estates affordable housing development in that portion of the city.

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Councilman Steve Gardner, Tim Johnson and Bob Skor have all filed for the Second Ward seat.

Separate interviews with each of the three candidates touched on the Westwind development -- opposed by many residents of the neighborhood -- and the related question of land-use planning in general.

The Second Ward generally covers the southwest area of Willmar, located south of U.S. Highway 12 and west of Sixth Street Southwest, Seventh Street Southwest and 10th Street Southwest.

Voters in that ward will narrow the field of three candidates to two candidates in Tuesday's City Council primary election. The top two vote-getters will proceed to the Nov. 4 general election. The Second Ward is the only ward to have a City Council primary election this year.

The ward is divided into three precincts. Polling locations are: Precinct 1 -- St. Mary's Church; Precinct 2 -- Vinje Lutheran Church; and Precinct 3 -- Christian Reformed Church. Polling hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

City Clerk Kevin Halliday said write-in votes are not allowed in the primary election, but he said write-in votes are allowed in the general election.

Profiles of each of the three candidates follow.

Gardner acknowledges his chance of being re-elected to a second four-year term on the Willmar City Council is probably less than average based on constituent reaction to his support for the controversial Westwind Estates Third Addition affordable housing project.

Gardner said it's clear that affordable housing is a hot-button topic. But he said every council member should have done what he did: study and research land use. Gardner said his positions reflect what he's learned and what the law says.

"If 90 percent of the voters of Ward 2 wanted me to vote in favor of legalizing slavery, obviously no one would expect me to do that. But there is a very vocal group in the Second Ward that has wanted me to ignore local, state and federal law in fair housing,'' he said.

Gardner said the Westwind developer complied with city zoning. Those who wanted to defeat the project should have presented evidence, rather than opinion, to the Planning Commission showing that similar projects in other cities caused property values to decline, he said.

"That was never presented. You don't get to make decisions, especially in land use issues, just on what one group of people believes without having evidence to back it up,'' he said.

" ... Due to the lack of evidence presented, the Planning Commission made the right and proper decision. As a council, unless we were able to provide that evidence, not opinion, we had to vote the way we did.''

Gardner said his accomplishments include raising the level of debate, promoting the use of rules of order in council discussions and providing leadership whenever possible.

"I think doing things like leading discussion on land use issues, on rules of debate and ethics: those are two that I won't have any problem hanging my hat on,'' Gardner said. "I've given this job an exceptional amount of effort for a part-time job that I was elected to, that I'm proud to serve in.''

Gardner is chairman of the Labor Relations Committee. If re-elected, he favors a process to make good decisions on successors to senior staff members eligible for retirement.

"We as a city are at a crossroads. We have to decide if we want to be a progressive community or if we just want to fold our arms and shrivel up and die. There are any number of folks who don't like the direction of the city, that the world has to come to us,'' he said.

He said the city has planned well for the new wastewater treatment project. But he said solving street flooding issues will require a more intensive neighborhood development model, and he wants to require more of developers to control runoff.

"I believe 'no net effect' is not good enough anymore: that you don't make it worse,'' he said. "That's a losing proposition. We need to say find a way to improve the problem, not just sustain it.''

Johnson has been knocking on the doors of Second Ward residents and was "actually kind of surprised'' at the number of people who are unhappy with city government.

"I sense they feel like the government is exercising authority but without the commensurate responsibility that goes with that authority. I think they feel like they haven't been adequately represented,'' said Johnson.

Johnson recalls stating that perhaps he should run for City Council and later receiving calls of support for his candidacy.

"I don't think it's right to just sit around and criticize what somebody else does. Get involved and see if you do any better. ... I think there's a lot of stuff that should be looked at close and probably more closely than some people have time to look at or maybe to understand,'' he said.

Johnson said he never paid any attention to the R-2 zoning where the controversial Westwind housing project is being built. R-2 allows twin homes. Johnson said the land to the south of Westwind is zoned R-1, for single-family homes.

"You've got an enclave there surrounded, and it looks to me like maybe there wasn't very much foresight. ... It seemed like it slipped through,'' he said.

"I would look at that as part of what got us into that situation out there. With a little bit better planning, maybe somebody would have done something about that sooner. I'm interested in long-term solutions, not short-term.''

Johnson said he'll try to foster more openness and transparency whenever possible. He said the threatened Westwind lawsuit and the lawsuit filed by Warren and Jan Lee Jorgenson over flood damages to their home at 10th Street and Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest are important issues. Johnson questions why the issues were handled differently.

"What concerns me is it was a big deal to be sued on Westwind and it's just regular business to be sued by a homeowner who has serious water issues and blames the city for some of the problems, and maybe rightfully so, I don't know,'' he said.

Johnson said he supports economic development, being responsive to the people, common sense in government, and consolidation of government services whenever possible.

Johnson said the city is fortunate to have good law enforcement.

"You want to be safe on the streets. You want your kids to be able to ride their bikes all over town. I did when I was a kid. Times have changed a little bit, so we've got to be conscious of those changes,'' he said.

Also, Johnson supports accountability in government.

" ... With respect to this election, I think there is some disenchantment with the voters and I think they want a change. We'll see if they want a change, but I sense that they do,'' he said.

"I am sincere about pursuing this council seat and look forward to serving the people if they want me. I think I can do a good job.''

Skor says storm water flooding and the Westwind Estates Third Addition affordable housing project are the two issues that led him to file for the Second Ward seat.

"I've been following it close and just some of the comments that were made and the back-turning on the citizens of Ward 2 -- it just seemed like we were due for a change with some of the council members -- just prompted me to do something,'' he says.

Skor has been going door to door and handing out campaign literature. He said there is no doubt that most people do not support the Westwind project. The timing of the project, along with the storm water flooding that damaged the Warren and Jan Lee Jorgenson home in 2007, came to a crescendo, he said.

Skor said the people who have attended city meetings have done a lot of homework, but he's disappointed that they haven't always been listened to.

"I feel that anybody that goes to that amount of work to dig up some good, hard facts, they should be listened to and it seems like they haven't been. I am only one person. Can I make a change? I hope so. But, again, I'm only one person.''

A local native, Skor has spent most of his life in Willmar and lives in the neighborhood where he grew up. His last name was spelled "Score'' until it was returned to the original spelling of "Skor'' in 1986.

He describes himself as an average guy who can relate to the guy who works hard and is trying to make ends meet in this "fast-paced'' world.

Skor said he would like to get more citizen input and participation. He said he does not have a three-minute time limit for those who have an issue, referring to the time limit set for citizens who speak during the City Council's open forum. Skor says his door will always be open, that he'll return calls and he'll reply to e-mails.

Besides seeking more citizen involvement in Ward 2 and city-wide decisions, Skor wants to address deteriorating infrastructure issues and wants to bring spending under control. He knows that senior citizens are on a fixed budget.

"I don't want to see them get tapped any more,'' he said.

Also, Skor wants more open, honest and transparent city government, and he says city staff members need to be accountable to the taxpayers.

Skor says he is not owner of a business that will take time away from "digging'' into the issues or make him afraid that he might offend someone and lose a deal or clientele.

Skor says a vote for him is a vote for change and improvement.

"If I have a majority of the ward (that) wants me to do something for them, well that's what it's all about,'' he said. "As long as they have done their homework, I'll put my neck on the line for them.''

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