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Willmar Community Assembly begins

Shelby Lindrud / Tribune The Willmar Community Assembly, lead by the Jefferson Center and Hamline University, brings 35 residents of Willmar together for three weekends to learn about local government, recommend ways to make it better and increase opportunities for community involvement. 1 / 3
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune The Willmar Community Assembly, lead by the Jefferson Center and Hamline University, brings 35 residents of Willmar together for three weekends to learn about local government, recommend ways to make it better and increase opportunities for community involvement. 2 / 3
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Kyle Bozentko of the Jefferson Center3 / 3

SPICER — Thirty-five Willmar residents, of different ages, gender, races and backgrounds gathered at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center Friday to begin the Willmar Community Assembly process, lead by Hamline University and the Jefferson Center.

Willmar was one of the three cities in Minnesota chosen to host a Community Assembly, with the main goal to educate residents about its local government and assist them in making recommendations on how to make it better and more efficient.

"We feel everyone has the wisdom and opinions to make informed decisions," said Kyle Bozentko with the Jefferson Center. The center is responsible for designing and implementing civic engagement events and will be running the Willmar Community Assembly for its three weekends.

By the end of the assembly, the residents will have a draft report in hand full of their recommendations.

The participants were chosen through a multi-step process, Bozentko said. First, a mailing was sent out to all residents in Willmar. Those interested in participating were asked to fill out a questionnaire, which included queries about their background. A panel analyzed those questionnaires and picked people they felt represented Willmar.

"It reflects Willmar's demographics at a number of levels," Bozentko said.

Friday's opening session gave this cross-section of Willmar a chance to get to know each other and learn about their views and ideas.

"People are getting comfortable working with each other. There is a buzz in the room that is always a good thing," Bozentko said.

The first weekend also taught the participants about local government, specifically how Willmar's is put together. The group discussed the qualities of Willmar's government they like and where there could be opportunity for changes.

The second weekend is scheduled for Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at the Oaks in Willmar. That session's focus will be on different types of local governments and case studies of those various options.

"It is learning there are other ways," Bozentko said.

The group will also discuss whether any of those other ways could be used in Willmar.

"See if you can strengthen the qualities of Willmar," Bozentko said.

The final weekend, Oct. 13-15 at the Oaks, will include drafting the report of recommendations on potential changes to Willmar's governmental process.

"Our goal is for the community members to say these are the things we have to pursue," Bozentko said.

While the report will just be recommendations, Bozentko said the hope is those in local government will read the report and see if there is any interest in implementing any or all of those recommendations. The report can also be used as a starting point for increased community dialogue between the government and its citizens.

For those chosen to take part in the Willmar Assembly, the process gives them a chance to both learn more about their local government and allow them to be more involved in it.

"It's been really interesting and I've learned a lot of new things," Beth Ervin said.

For David Kuehl, it gave him a chance to share his life-long interest in debating and government.

"Maybe I could share my ideas and learn something new. I think it's going to be an enjoyable process," Kuehl said.

The Willmar Assembly will also give participants ideas and information to share with others. Jeanette Oehler, who works with children in the Latino community, wants them to be involved themselves. She wants to give them the tools to be advocates for what they feel is important.

"They, too, will be invested in this community," Oehler said.

Increasing public engagement is one of the top aims of the Community Assembly project, in Willmar and the other two cities of Red Wing and Brooklyn Park.

"Our goal is people will learn about this and get involved in ways that are meaningful to them," Bozentko said.

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