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1 question, 3 views: Dysfunction issue surfaces at Ward 2 City Council candidate forum

WILLMAR — The issue of dysfunction on the Willmar City Council surfaced Tuesday night during an hour-long forum for three candidates running for the Ward 2 council seat in the Aug. 12 primary election.

The forum was hosted by the Willmar Area League of Women Voters at Vinje Lutheran Church and was attended by 38 people.

The three candidates were incumbent councilman Ron Christianson and challengers Steve Gardner and Rich Taylor.

The primary election ballot will tell Ward 2 voters to vote for one candidate. The top two votegetters will advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

The dysfunction issue was raised in a question asked by moderator Linda Heine of New Ulm who said that a hired consultant labeled the council as dysfunctional and asked the candidates if they agreed with the assessment.

Gardner said there was no question that any objective observer is going to see that the council is dysfunctional. Gardner said the consultant has done three different retreats with the council over the years and knows the city and council.

(The consultant used the term at the most recent retreat held last November).

“For him to say this council is dysfunctional you can pretty well take it to the bank that that man knows what he’s talking about,’’ said Gardner, adding that everyday people on the street see it.

Gardner said good policies have been ignored and he said people refuse to consider other viewpoints. Gardner said he lays a good share of that on the current council majority “led by Mr. Christianson.’’

Gardner said doing what’s best for the city at large and not for particular political viewpoints is what’s needed.

Taylor said dysfunction is a harsh word. But he said the council — not working together — “is what it is.’’ Taylor said the council works well with other citizens, but a majority of council members don’t.

“That should not happen,’’ he said. “I guess the best thing to do is change needs to occur for the better of Willmar and for the better of the citizens of Willmar.’’

Christianson said the council is well and alive and that with 5-3 votes, “the majority wins.’’

He said the dysfunction term was first hung on the council by a group of citizens calling themselves Moving Willmar Forward.

“Now, it appears to me that they have a pattern of social behavior that is undermining the stability of the City Council. I don’t think it’s the City Council’s fault,’’ Christianson said.

He said the consultant had probably a dozen meetings with the city administrator and one meeting with the mayor.

“I think he was just reusing a term that was hung on our necks,’’ he said. “How about the local Chamber president calling the City Council knuckleheads. Is that dysfunction?’’

In addition, Christianson said dysfunction was letters to the editor and a Tribune editorial about himself.

“They’re undermining a system that we have in place that’s working,’’ he said. “City Council isn’t dysfunctional.’’

Jessica Rohloff, Willmar League president, said about 30 questions were submitted in advance, but not all were asked due to time constraints.

Rohloff said Linda Heine is a trained League member who was brought in from outside Willmar due to the interest in the council race.

Christianson, a housing contractor, has served on the council since 1994 and is seeking reelection to another 4-year term. He is chair of the Public Works/Safety Committee and serves on the Labor Committee.

Christianson said he is seeking reelection because he still has a passion for wanting to be where the decisions that affect his neighborhood, Ward 2 and the city in general are made. Christianson said the last couple of years have had some controversy. But he said he can help Willmar be a better place tomorrow than it is today.

Gardner served on the council from 2005 to 2009 and is a document imaging sales specialist with Bennett Office Technologies.

Gardner said he is running because the city is at a crossroads. He said the city has had far too much chaos and controversy over the past number of years and he said it’s time to get back to moving policy forward and allowing city employees to help come up with the right answers as well as using information and energy that comes out of efforts such as Vision 2040.

“I believe that a lot of the issues surrounding this chaos revolve around the current council majority led by the incumbent in this seat, and what I want to see is a council that works,’’ he said.

“We need a council of people who are willing to set aside differences instead of putting forward specific and sometimes radical political positions. This is not a political is not a political job and nor should it be,’’ he said.

Taylor is quality assurance/infection control director at Willmar Surgery Center.

Taylor said he believes strongly in the city and wants to see it grow in a positive manner, and said he wants to be the voice for people that feel their voice goes unheard.

Taylor said he has seen positive outcomes that councils can have within their city. He said council members don’t always agree with one another. But he said they need to work together.

Heine asked the candidates what they think is going right in Willmar.

Gardner said there is tremendous energy primarily from people who are invested in where they want the city going, such as the Vision 2040 process. He said the city has a lot of resources, an incredible diversity and the ability to take the city into the 21st century.

He opined that some don’t want to see progress, diversity or growth of the city, and he encouraged everyone to see where they can assist the city in moving forward.

Taylor said the city is financially stable. He also said Vision 2040 is good vision to adhere to, and said he wants to focus on the future, put the past aside and do what’s in the best interest of Willmar and its citizens.

Christianson said what’s right in Willmar is what everyone takes for granted: timely response by the police department, fire department, and ambulance service, sewer and water that work; electricity; and a regional hospital.

He said the city is a partner with Kandiyohi County in the Economic Development Commission “and we need to continue to support them in their efforts to bring business to Willmar,’’ such as the MinnWest Technology Campus.

“All these things are what’s right with Willmar and what’s really right with Willmar is the City Council,’’ he said. Despite talk of arguing and 5-3 votes, Christianson said 96 percent of the votes are 8-0.

“What’s wrong with 5-3?’’ he asked. “Five members is the council as a whole. Five members can decide the direction of Willmar. We are not dysfunctional as we’ve been hung around our necks on this term dysfunctional.’’

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