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Second Ward candidates answer questions at League forum

WILLMAR -- Close to two dozen people listened Wednesday night to responses from the three candidates running in next Tuesday's Second Ward Willmar City Council primary election. The top two vote-getters will proceed to the Nov. 4 general election for the four-year council seat.

Incumbent council member Steve Gardner and challengers Tim Johnson and Bob Skor responded to questions provided by citizens during the forum, sponsored by the Willmar League of Women Voters, at the Municipal Utilities Building.

For the first question, moderator Beth Johnston asked how the candidates would see themselves participating in an initiative called "Speak Your Peace Civility Project.'' Johnston said the purpose of the project is to urge members to communicate in a respectful and civil manner.

She said the initiative is not intended to end disagreements, but to remind each other of the very basic principle of respect for one another.

Skor said he did not know much about the project. He said respect has to be earned, and he said people have to speak to one another in a respectful manner. He said his two main issues are the Westwind housing project and storm water runoff problems.

Gardner said he was aware of the initiative. He said the initiative grew out of disagreements over discussion of the Westwind housing project. He said he supports rules and a process and rules for more civil discourse at council meetings.

Johnson said he was not afraid of disagreement. He said he would ask questions and would encourage dialogue and feedback from people.

Johnston asked the candidates for their definition of "conflict of interest'' and how they would suggest enforcing a "conflict of interest'' policy.

Gardner said such conflicts are difficult to avoid in a small town. He said he's had to abstain from voting on some issues to avoid a conflict, and he said the council needs a process to discuss the issue.

Johnson said anything that would be beneficial to a council member would be a conflict, and he said council members should excuse themselves in such cases. "You have to call it to people's attention,'' he said.

Skor said the issue is a matter of common sense. "You know what the boundaries are and you should back off if you know,'' he said. "If it benefits you, you shouldn't do it.''

The candidates were asked how they would represent those in their ward who don't support their position on issues.

Johnson said he would "ask for a lot of input'' and would analyze their position and his position.

Skor said his door will be open and he will return phone calls and e-mails with anyone who has a problem with the way he thinks. He said "talking it over'' is the answer.

Gardner said he has tried to listen to others and has always had an open door, but he said going along with the majority is not always an option "when you have a public trust'' and must abide by federal, state and local laws.

Johnston asked the candidates for their views about convening the Charter Commission.

Skor said he was not up-to-date on the issue.

Gardner said convening the Charter Commission won't be cheap or easy, but it is necessary and must be done right. He said people will be needed to work on the commission, as well as other boards and committees.

Johnson said he was not familiar with all the goals of calling the commission, but said he's looked at the charter on occasion to make sure things were being done according to the charter.

Among other things, the candidates were asked to tell people something about the Second Ward that they perhaps didn't already know.

Johnson said he has heard what other people do not like about city government but did not have an answer.

Skor said the ward is a great side of town to live in, with parks and schools.

Gardner said the ward has natural resources like the Ramblewood wetland. He said he's met some very nice people and he said folks can disagree while not being disagreeable.

Before the forum began, a League member told the Tribune that Skor refused to shake Gardner's hand as the two men met for the first time. The candidates sat next to one another during the hour-long forum, however, and were seen shaking hands at the conclusion of the forum.