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Incumbents, challengers respond to criticism of Willmar, Minn., city council

Candidates in contested Willmar City Council races participate Tuesday in a forum hosted by the Willmar Area League of Women Voters at the municipal utilities auditorium. From left: moderator JP Cola, Jay Lawton, Jim Dokken, Andrew Bjur and Tim Johnson. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Two Willmar City Council incumbents and two challengers for those seats in the Nov. 6 general election responded to a question about the belief among some citizens that there is dysfunction on the council.

The candidates responded to that and other questions during a Willmar League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night at the Municipal Utilities Building Auditorium.

The hour-long forum was broadcast on radio station KWLM, moderated by station news director J.P. Cola and televised on WRAC-8.

Participants were Ward 4 incumbent Jim Dokken and challenger Jay Lawton and Ward 2 incumbent Tim Johnson and challenger Andrew Bjur.

Incumbents Denis Anderson in Ward 1 and Steve Ahmann in Ward 3 are unopposed for re-election and did not participate.

Questions were submitted by email or in writing by some of the handful of audience members.

Cola said some citizens feel the City Council is dysfunctional or divided and he asked what council members have done and what challengers would do to promote a positive working relationship among council members.

"We have to stop living in the past, do things differently through a policy that the council develops,'' said Dokken.

"Once that policy decision paper is established, it gives transparency to what we're doing, why we're doing it, what dollars are available now and is that policy affordable in the out-years. If the answers aren't positive to all of those, then we have to restudy the issue. The issue is dollars. We need to study more thoroughly what we're doing and why we're doing it and involve our citizens.''

Bjur said an image needs to be overcome. He said citizens want trust their council.

"For the most part I'd say the City Council does a good job,'' he said. "But what we really want to do instead of bicker is to develop leadership plans for the future.''

Bjur said he's interested in the Minnesota Green Steps Program in which cities develop energy conservation policies.

"If we want to find ways to cut money, the easiest, painless way is we should be looking at these concepts,'' Bjur said. "This is the future, the way to reduce cost and yet improve the health, safety and welfare of all the citizens of Willmar.''

Johnson said he thinks that issue is more of a perception than reality and he said the West Central Tribune "seems to be a little over-obsessed with it.''

As an example, Johnson pointed to the last Public Works/Safety Committee meeting when he sat in for an absent member. The committee discussed the proposed Lakeland Drive sewer and street project but did not recommend an engineering firm to design the project.

Johnson said the council thoroughly discussed the issue Monday night, the right points were brought out and it passed unanimously.

Johnson said there was no dysfunction. But he said the Tribune incorrectly reported the committee had delayed action, and Johnson said there was no delay.

"I think all this negativism is a perception of the paper. It is not reality,'' he said.

Lawton said he's a consensus builder and is not afraid to state his opinion and take the guff if someone disagrees with him.

"We need to have good communication, respect each other, even if opinions are different. I like to see people have good, open discussion, open communication, fair exchange of ideas, and all working for the same goal helps,'' he said.

Cola asked if the candidates support hiring an outside consultant to identify opportunities for organizational improvements, similar to studies done by the utilities and Kandiyohi County.

Bjur said there are times when it is appropriate. He said building consensus with staff is important.

Lawton agreed there are times when it's necessary to bring in an unbiased eye to see where improvements can be made.

Johnson said he has been has been incorrectly criticized by the Tribune and that reports of his position on an organizational study are "absolutely incorrect.'' He said he supported the concept but was a little leery of having Springsted Inc., the city's bonding agent, do the study.

He said Springsted has a substantial financial interest performing not only bonding services for the city but also entering into contracts for other services for the city.

"They make a lot of money,'' he said. "Anytime an organizational review should be objective when done and I don't think it should be clouded by a possible overriding financial interest,'' he said.

Dokken said he would support it once the problems are defined.

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