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Inside the city of Willmar's 'broken culture'

WILLMAR — A consultant’s preliminary report of an organizational assessment of city government finds employees and staff are feeling a significant amount of stress, confusion and anxiety related to their work.

The council contracted with Brimeyer Fursman of Maplewood in March to conduct the study. Interviews of staff, elected officials and citizens and business people in the community were conducted, both one-on-one and in small groups.

Tribune readers can access the report here: Preliminary report - City of Willmar Organization Review

Interviews, along with a survey of council members and employees, from March through May revealed a lack of clarity around overall organizational values, vision or strategic direction.

Individual departments believe that their values are clear and adhered to. But there is an overwhelming perception that the organization as a whole does not have a clearly defined set of values.

This perception contributes to a culture of mistrust, “silos,’’ and entitlement, often described by the interview participants as a “broken culture.’’

The findings say seven factors contribute to the sense of broken culture: no long-term vision or strategy for the future of the city or organization; employee discomfort with leadership; employees wanting to feel valued by elected officials; low employee morale; undermining of management authority; negative impression on customers; and disconnect between administrator and elected officials.

The findings say the overwhelming majority of employees indicate the lack of long-term vision and strategy is creating confusion and produces disjointed efforts contributing to an overall lower organizational performance.

Employees sense they are under constant scrutiny and feel attacked. Various employees and community participants perceive leadership as dysfunctional, and lack of council decorum is perceived as undermining the organization’s capacity and good will.

A majority of employees said morale is very low even though their commitment to the city, their fellow workers and jobs remains high. The statement “this study will do nothing to change things as long as the council will not accept’’ was a common comment.

The council is viewed by a majority of staff as interfering with the role of the city administrator.

Also, the study says the relationship between Mayor Frank Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens is doing great harm to the city’s organization and reputation. “The rift is obvious to all the community members we spoke with and most of the staff,’’ the study said.

There is also a trust gap with some council members and the administrator.

“This broken bond places all recommendations made by the administrator and staff in doubt as to the authenticity of both intent and accuracy of the items presented. This doubt has led to project slowdowns, inefficiency and compounds morale problems,’’ the findings say.

Every individual and group viewed the council as having a strained relationship. There is disagreement as to why the situation exists and “who started it,’’ but everyone agrees that it is hurting the community.

All citizens concur that a vision or direction for the city does not exist, but is desperately needed and the council has the ability to do it.

The city receives high marks for overall service delivery. But there are areas where the staff should concentrate on repairing its reputation with businesses and developers especially. In some cases, the city is seen as heavy handed and not open to ideas.

The council may be divided, but the commitment to citizens was expressed by all. The elected individuals have all made a significant time commitment to the city with the reward being the satisfaction of serving the community.

The city is fortunate to have a number of long-tenured, very committed workers who are dedicated to providing quality work. Their commitment to the city during good times and bad has been consistent.

Areas of cooperation serve the public well where the coordination of work between departments is strong. The wastewater treatment plant and Public Works personnel are especially well-coordinated.

Engineering has worked well with these divisions but is now in limbo because the vacant public works director position has not been filled pending the outcome of the study and coordination is suffering.

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