Willmar council debates viability of work sessions

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WILLMAR — With only seven regular City Council meetings ahead of him, retiring Willmar City Councilman Ron Christianson is still speaking out in support of the former committee structure, which he believes served the public and the council better than the current work sessions.

"The council isn't working and the public isn't being informed like it used to be," Christianson said at Monday's work session during a lengthy discussion about the council's meeting structure.

In Christianson's view, the work session structure now used by the council has reduced public engagement, broken down relationships between council and city staff and taken away leadership opportunities for council members.

"I see us running backwards. Our charter says strong council, weak mayor. It's been just the opposite for the past year and a half. Everything has been run by the mayor," Christianson said.

He added that he has nothing against Mayor Marv Calvin, and Calvin is a good mayor, but the city isn't supposed to work that way.

"What we are doing isn't working, from what I see. I hear it from the general public also," Christianson said. "I want us to serve the public. That is why we are here."

Prior to 2017, there were four separate committees, each made up of four council members, one from each ward. The committees covered finance, labor, community development and public works. The meetings were held during the second and fourth weeks of the month, opposite the weeks when full council meetings are held. It was during these committee meetings that upcoming projects, purchases, presentations and concerns would be heard. Any issue needing council action would then move to the next regular meeting of the full council.

The discussion about changing the committees began in early 2016, when concerns were raised about attendance and sharing of information on the council. The council scrapped the committee structure in January 2017 and instead began having work sessions involving the entire council membership prior to the regular council meetings twice a month.

In October 2017, the council amended the work session structure to create a stand-alone labor committee of the whole council, to meet as needed, though City Administrator Ike Holland said on Tuesday that no labor committee was formed. The October 2017 changes also included monthly finance reports and to use the fifth Monday of any month as a third work session.
Then in May the council again tweaked the meeting structure again to break up the work sessions into the original committee subjects. A single council person would lead each subject area. The hope was to create a hybrid of sorts, with part of the old committees built into the work session.

"I think it is a work in progress," Councilor Audrey Nelsen said.

Even with the changes, there are still concerns, with some councilors wanting to go back to the committees in some fashion.

"I don't think it is working very effectively," Councilor Shawn Mueske said. "I would love to see finance and labor go back to a committee structure."

When it comes to getting information to the council, some feel there has been a decrease in the amount of information shared. At the last two work sessions, there have been no reports from any of the four subject areas.

"I have a concern we are not getting reports," Nelsen said. "There are things that should be communicated from other departments."

Calvin directed city administration to work with staff to come up with a new committee structure for labor and finance, along with re-evaluating how information is shared with the council and public. The new ideas will be presented to the council at the Sept. 17 work session.

Even with the concerns, there is firm support for the work sessions from members on the council.

"I hear that people watch this. People see this interaction. What we are doing tonight is a committee meeting in front of the public, as far as I can see. We are not holding anything back," Councilor Fernando Alvarado said. "I firmly believe this is the way we should be doing it."