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Candidate Profile: Gardner: Willmar is at a crossroads

WILLMAR — Willmar City Council candidate Steve Gardner says the city is at a crossroads.

Gardner is a candidate in the Aug. 12 primary election for the Ward 2 council seat held by Ron Christianson who is seeking re-election. Also running is Rich Taylor.

“We have had far too much chaos and controversy over the past number of years and it’s time to get the council back in the business of moving policy forward and allowing the people who work for the city to help us come up with the right answers for the city as well as utilizing some of the information and some of the energy that comes out of, for example, the Vision 2040 process,’’ he said.

“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. We need a council of people who are willing to set aside differences instead of putting forward specific and sometimes radical political positions.’’

Gardner said he fully supports the efforts of the Vision 2040 community effort to make some things happen within the city.

“Some folks think our best days are in the past. I think we’re just getting started, that it’s time to set aside politics as usual and let’s begin moving Willmar forward.’’

What’s right with Willmar?

There is tremendous energy, primarily from people who are invested in where they want the city going, such as the Vision 2040 process. The city has a lot of resources, an incredible diversity and the ability to take the city into the 21st century. Some don’t want to see progress, diversity or growth of the city, and he encourages everyone to see where they can assist the city in moving forward.

“What we need to do is stress how important it is that we have a city council that functions properly. It’s very clear that what is happening on the council now is not working when you have a consultant who comes in and this is the third time that you’ve brought the gentleman in and he declares you a dysfunctional council,’’ Gardner said.

“He kind of knows what he’s talking about, and I think the citizens of the Second Ward, and the city of Willmar in general, the response I’m getting is that they’re really sick and tired of all the fighting, all the disagreements.

“The inability to work together … doesn’t work doing it that way in Washington, it doesn’t work doing that way in St. Paul and it’s certainly bad for the city of Willmar. We need to get our council on the same page as the rest of the community. Other cities look to Willmar as a leader and we have not been that leader for the past several years. That’s the first order of business is to bring Willmar back to a leadership role in this region.’’

City’s role in encouraging economic development

He says funding future budgets will be important. He thinks the pace of economic development will pick up, now that the country is finally coming out of the Great Recession. He sees businesses moving in and out of Willmar all the time. But there’s much happening and potentially going on downtown and the work of the Downtown Development Commission will be key to that. He praised Tom Amberg for investing in and rehabbing his Building 330 for apartments, and cited The Barn Theatre remodeling and expansion of the proposed restaurant and brewpub going into the old Thrifty Drug Store space.  Also, tourism and agriculture will be important issues as well.

Changing culture

A Vision 2040 goal is attracting and retaining newcomers. A portion of that involves improving the immigrant experience and that goes both ways. The Somalis in Willmar are by and large not immigrants but refugees, brought here through treaty obligations through the State Department.

“We need to do what we did before in terms of working with the Latino community and lot of that is simply time. We need a generation or two. The first typically had the most difficulty assimilating. It’s the children and grandchildren who reap the benefits of their parents. We’ve had demographic change in our city for close to 30 years now.

“We should be getting used to it by now. What can city government do? We can be more forthcoming, more open and more accepting of those folks and help them understand what the processes in the city are. We need to come alongside of them instead of demonizing them.’’

Privatization of city services

Privatization has been a mixed bag, but he’s open to looking at it within reason. He does not want to fall into the blind mindset that city staff and government is inherently a bad thing.

He said city employees are good people working hard to make the city a better place. He objects to villainizing city staff.

Solution for street repairs

The city has a long-standing policy set up by the city engineer of grading streets according to condition and other factors that the city engineer is going to know.

“Unfortunately, this last time we didn’t do any overlay projects. I think that threw the entire policy to the wolves. I think it was a horrible decision and I wish Mr. Christianson would have voted to continue the policy that worked well for the better part of his term on the council to treat everyone fairly.’’

Low morale among city employees

He said the morale problem was identified in the process of working with one of the consultants, who along with staff identified as one of the main issues that they could not trust the City Council and that the City Council did not value them.

“This council has chosen to say that’s just too bad. People want to be respected and valued, and if we refuse to value the people that work for the city, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and this council needs to change the way they address and feel about their city staff.’’

The candidate’s comments are excerpted from appearances on KWLM’s Open Mic program and from the Willmar Area League of Women Voters Ward 2 Candidates Forum.

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