WILLMAR - Willmar City Council members and Mayor Frank Yanish were to have gathered all day Friday and Saturday morning at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center for a strategic planning retreat.
Not much planning was done, however, as community leadership consultant Carl Neu ended the session by declaring the council and the mayor were dysfunctional and incapable of setting a vision and goals due to deep-seated personality differences and beliefs.
Over time, said Neu, the council and some of its members have developed a very deep set of beliefs and practices which in the long run have contributed to the council becoming progressively dysfunctional in carrying out its role.
Neu said it’s gotten to the point that is it so deep, and was evident during the meeting with things that were said or implied that Neu said signaled to him that the dysfunctionality was irredeemable.
Saturday morning, Neu divided the eight-member council into two groups of four members each, with Yanish joining one group. The two groups were to list areas where they could agree.
“What tore the final curtain,’’ Neu explained later in an interview, was the personality debate that occurred between two members in one of the groups. Neu did not mention their names, but the Tribune observed the debate occurred between Ron Christianson and Audrey Nelsen. The tension between the two has surfaced at previous meetings.
Neu said the debate became intense, particularly because of the behavior of one individual. Neu did not identify the individual.
“The other team had some of that, but it didn’t shut it down,’’ he said.
One of the problems evident during discussion was the deteriorated relationship between Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens. During discussion, Yanish said that he does not talk to Stevens because he has been advised by City Attorney Robert Scott not to talk to Stevens.
“You will have to deal with the pathology’’ of the situation, said Neu, and Neu said he was not going to get into the details.
Other issues included some council members saying they are not receiving sufficient information, or their directives and requests for information are going unfulfilled. Stevens said she has provided information or directed staff to provide information.
“You have a serious breach in the relationship between the council and staff,’’ Neu said. “Maybe people are withholding information because they are fearful. You are suffering from a fatal self-inflicted disease and you are blaming everyone else.’’
Neu said he probably spent the better part of five or six days preparing for the retreat, which was more than he expected, and looked at council meeting videos and minutes and reading press accounts, particularly letters to the editor.
Neu said the community and region have caught on to the dysfunction and he said council members are ignoring the feedback.
Neu said he could admire the longevity of some council members, some having served between 10 and 20 years. But Neu said he was not sure all that longevity leads to maturity and capacity to lead as a council.
Neu said the ultimate resolvers of the problem will have to be the voters of the community.
“They are the head coach of this team,’’ he said. “And if the team is demonstrating some of the factors that I outlined here, this community’s going to have to decide who they select, why they select and whether or not they have confidence in that person and turn what they perceive to be these dysfunctionalities around in the council. It’s not going to happen within the council. I don’t think it’s capable of handling within the council.’’
Those whose terms will expire at the end of 2014 are Yanish, Christianson, Nelsen, Bruce DeBlieck and Rick Fagerlie.
An agenda prepared by Neu said the retreat’s purpose was to help prepare the council and city for a future based on leadership intent rather than fate.
A strategic leadership process, he said, positions a city council to be proactive rather than reactive in its performance. It also enables the city administrator and management team to create and implement the administrative tools to move the city forward into the future it desires.
Neu said he has worked with hundreds of councils and other boards and organizations during the past 40 years. He said Willmar was in the lowest 10 percent “and they just didn’t get there overnight. It’s been a time coming.’’ Another 10 percent work very well together and 80 percent are trying to get there, he said.
Neu hopes council members can work out their differences but he doesn’t have much faith it will occur due to the deep-seatedness of the issues. They could make progress, he said.
But with the election looming in 12 months, there could be new players or voters could reelect the same players “and it just reinforced their belief that they’re right.’’