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Willmar Ward 2 challengers agree on many things

WILLMAR — Steve Gardner and Rich Taylor both believe there’s a need for change on Willmar’s City Council, and they weren’t shy about saying so at a candidate forum Friday.

The incumbent in the race was not at the forum to counter their views. The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the forum.

Incumbent Ron Christianson had contacted the chamber and said he would be out of town on Friday, according to emcee Nathan Streed. Organizers emailed questions to Christianson so that he could have the answers read at the forum, Streed said, but he did not respond.

Christianson, Gardner and Taylor are running in Willmar Ward 2, which covers the western portion of Willmar that is south of U.S. Highway 12. The Aug. 12 primary will narrow the field to two candidates who will face each other in the Nov. 4 general election.

Gardner and Taylor answered questions for about an hour at the Willmar Conference Center, touching on the city’s reputation and its future and on diversity.

In a short-answer round, audience members used remotes to register their own opinions of questions answered by the candidates. The two candidates agreed on all but one answer, and the audience agreed with them most of the time.

With Christianson missing, Gardner and Taylor generally agreed in their answers. Gardner, a former member of the City Council, often gave more lengthy, detailed answers than Taylor, who is running for office for the first time.

Both said they were running because they believe the City Council needs to change.

“I want to be a voice for the citizens of Willmar who feel their voice sometimes goes unheard,” Taylor said. “I will fight for the wants and needs of my ward.”

Gardner said he believes the council and community are at a “crossroads.” Public disagreements between members of the current council have harmed the council’s reputation and the city’s standing in the region and across the state, he said.

“Our good name we previously enjoyed has been damaged,” he said.

They called Willmar’s increasing diversity both a challenge and an opportunity for the community.

The increase in new residents shows that Willmar is an attractive community, Taylor said, and it’s a challenge because it requires people to reach into the unknown to get to know new people.

But learning to live with people from other cultures can make a person more tolerant, too, he added.

“We were recognized across the state, across the nation because of the way we were embracing diversity,” Gardner said. The challenge of adjusting to the newcomers is ongoing, he said, and the community has a new class of entrepreneurs among its new residents.

Both said they believe differences between longtime residents and newcomers will minimize over time, as they did for other immigrant groups in the past.

In the audience participation portion of the forum, candidates were asked to answer questions with yes or no, and then the audience weighed in.

Both said they believed the council should worry about the city’s reputation in the region and state, that special tax breaks should be available for new businesses, and that the council should try to reach consensus on decisions. The audience overwhelmingly agreed with them on that question.

Asked if they believed the City Council works collaboratively with others, Taylor said yes, and Gardner said no. The audience answers were 21 percent yes and 79 percent no.

Given a chance to expand on one of their quick answers, Taylor talked about the city’s reputation and Gardner talked about the council’s collaboration.

Taylor said he believed strongly that the City Council needed to pay attention to its image with the citizens.

Members don’t have to agree on everything, he said. “What is expected is the members can work together for the good of the city.”

Gardner said he wanted to clarify that the council’s current majority does not collaborate with others. He said he believes a political agenda has taken hold that is not appropriate for local government.

Taylor is quality assurance and infection control director at Willmar Surgery Center. Gardner is a document imaging sales specialist with Bennett Office Technologies and served on the council from 2005 to 2009. Christianson is co-owner of Christianson Brothers Construction of Willmar and has served on the council since 1994.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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