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Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish comments Monday during a meeting of the Willmar City Council. Yanish’s appointment of former State Sen. Joe Gimse to the Municipal Utilities Commission was approved Monday by the City Council. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Yanish rejects Baker for MUC spot, Council confirms Gimse appointment

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WILLMAR — Reminders of city charter changes intended to keep experienced members serving on commissions and boards and praise from council members and the mayor for leading the Municipal Utilities through difficult managerial times last year weren’t enough to reappoint utilities commission member Dave Baker to a third consecutive three-year term.

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The council voted 5-2 Monday night to approve Mayor Frank Yanish’s appointment of former State Sen. Joe Gimse to the utilities commission, replacing Baker, who had expressed interest in serving a third term as allowed by charter.

The vote came after Denis Anderson pulled Gimse’s appointment from the council’s consent items. Baker, who finished his second consecutive three-year term at the end of 2012, and others listened silently to the discussion during part of the 90-minute council meeting.

Anderson asked what Yanish was thinking. Anderson said Gimse was certainly a qualified individual, “but we had an individual that served two terms and was willing to serve a third. That person was not reappointed.’’

Yanish said the thinking was obvious, “that we’re very fortunate to have former Sen. Gimse with 17 years of experience at Northern Natural Gas Company. I just thought it was a better choice at this particular time to appoint the experience that we’ve had.’’

Anderson reminded the council that nearly a year ago the council couldn’t say enough good things about Baker.

“He led us through some very difficult times at the utilities. The utilities is functioning very well right now and I just don’t understand why we don’t want to go with that experience,’’ Anderson said.

He also reminded the council that it was only a few years ago that the council changed the charter to extend term limits, recognizing the learning curve that was required to be an effective utilities commission member.

“I don’t understand this and this is certainly nothing against Mr. Gimse. It’s just I would much rather see Mr. Baker reappointed,’’ Anderson said.

Gimse served six years in the Minnesota Senate and was not re-elected in November’s general election.

Yanish said Gimse “has contacts at the State Capitol yet that may help us along the road. I also discussed this at length with (Utilities General Manager) Wes Hompe and came to the agreement that this was the best opportunity that we could offer.’’

Utilities liaison Bruce DeBlieck agreed with Anderson.

“You said he has experience in the gas industry. We’re talking about an electric utility, not a gas utility. They burn gas, but not very much. The charter was changed just so we could keep experience on these commissions and boards over a long period of time and now the first opportunity you have to reappoint somebody under those conditions you want to bypass it.’’

Yanish said it’s the mayor’s appointment to make. Council member Jim Dokken asked City Attorney Robert Scott to clarify the mayor’s appointment authority. Scott said the act of placing a name in appointment is the mayor’s to make but requires five supporting council votes.

Steve Ahmann said he wants to see more people show interest in serving on boards and commissions. He said both Baker and Gimse were outstanding people and it didn’t make any difference to him.

Council member Ron Christianson moved to approve the appointment, but DeBlieck requested a roll call.

Voting in favor were Christianson, Ahmann, Dokken, Tim Johnson and Rick Fagerlie.

Voting against were Anderson and DeBlieck.

Yanish also explained his appointment during KWLM Radio’s Monday morning Open Mike program. He believed the appointment would be good, but said it has nothing to do with Baker’s membership in Moving Willmar Forward.

Moving Willmar Forward is a group of business owners who expressed concerns and suggestions in early December about council governance. Baker told the council at that time that he was a proud group member.

“I found someone that I thought was much more qualified to be on this commission. This is a very important commission,’’ said Yanish.

Baker, in a Tribune interview Monday morning, said he made his interest in a third term known Dec. 5 to Audrey Peterson, administrative assistant to City Administrator Charlene Stevens.

Baker said Yanish replied to Peterson, with copies to Stevens and Hompe, saying he had no intention of reappointing Baker.

Baker said he never heard directly from Yanish and wanted to know because the Dec. 24 commission meeting would be Baker’s last when his second term expired Jan. 1.

Baker emailed Yanish and Yanish replied he did not think he had enough votes to support Baker. Baker said he wondered how Yanish knew before the vote was taken that he would not have sufficient votes.

Baker said he received comments of appreciation from Yanish and council members for his efforts to bring concerns to the utility commission regarding Bruce Gomm’s management of the utility while Gomm was general manager.

Baker’s efforts led to an attorney’s investigation of Gomm and resulted in the commission — with council support — terminating Gomm as general manager in late February 2012.

“I kept getting a lot of very nice comments from the council, thank-yous from the mayor and he appreciated what I was doing,’’ said Baker. “In fact, the whole time the mayor was involved step-by-step with what was going on with Gomm. He was there when we made the decision as well that (Gomm) had to go. He was informed of everything.’’

The lack of support also puzzled Bob Bonawitz, former utility commission president and former Charter Commission chairman.

In an interview, Bonawitz said the utility commission and Rice Memorial Hospital Board asked the commission to recommend the council amend the charter to extend commission and board term limits. The council approved the extension in October 2009.

The whole point of the extension, he said, “was to keep people who have learned about utility interests and needs, and you slap people who have that knowledge out of there. It doesn’t make sense. That was the whole thing that all of us felt was really important.’’

Bonawitz is concerned the appointment process “becomes kind of a political thing’’ and said more thought should be given to capabilities and needs, such as an individual’s expertise in a certain area.

Bonawitz said Gimse is probably not a bad choice because Gimse had been exposed to many energy industry issues while he served in the Senate. Bonawitz said he was not speaking against Gimse.

“If you’re going to appoint somebody, he might be a good one because he has been exposed to a lot of the issues as part of his job at the state. He comes somewhat prepared. A lot of people don’t come very well prepared and that’s why it takes so long to educate them.’’

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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