Gardner: Willmar is at a crossroads
WILLMAR -- Steve Gardner said he is running again to represent Ward 2 on the Willmar City Council because the city is at a crossroads. Gardner, who served on the council from 2005 to 2009, said people inside and outside of the city use words such...
WILLMAR - Steve Gardner said he is running again to represent Ward 2 on the Willmar City Council because the city is at a crossroads.
Gardner, who served on the council from 2005 to 2009, said people inside and outside of the city use words such as angry, chaotic, disrespectful and dysfunctional to describe the actions of the council majority over the last several years.
“That’s what the people out in the community are saying. When I go out of town, people ask me what is going on with Willmar. You used to be the city we wanted to become and that’s no longer the case. People are absolutely flabbergasted that we could have gone from an All-America City to one that can’t even figure out how to fix its streets,’’ Gardner said.
“So I wanted to run to try to be part of a solution that takes responsibility for the state of the city now and what it could be and what it should be in the future, instead of a council that simply passes the buck now, kicks the can down the road and then blames everybody else including the dog for their own shortcomings. It’s time for responsible people to act responsibly and that’s why we need a change on the council.’’
Gardner said he learned a lot of great lessons during his four years on the council. But the lessons he learned most effectively were “failure and defeat.’’ He said not being re-elected was a blessing because he could step back, re-involve himself in the community and find out what people really want their community to be.
“People have to want to live here and they want to have things to do, places to go, and they have to be excited about the community that they live in, and I want to bring that excitement back,’’ Gardner said.
“When we became an All-America City, people who live in Willmar and surrounding towns were so excited that we were finally recognized for the good work that we were doing. And over the past five or six years that work has been summarily dismantled,’’ he said.
Gardner said the council needs to tell citizens that the council has been on the wrong track.
“I think they need to own up to that, take ownership of that, be responsible for that, and then move forward. We can’t continue doing what we’ve been doing over and over again, expecting different results. And it doesn’t make any sense to have the same processes in place that have worked and then throw your city staff under the bus because you’ve refused to implement those strategies,’’ Gardner said.
He said the city has a perfectly good street reconstruction, repair, sealcoating and crack sealing plan, but hasn’t done enough of it. Gardner said the only reason he can determine why the council dropped street overlays this year is because 2014 is an election year.
“In the meantime, my opponent bears responsibility here, regardless of whether or not he will accept it. But he’s chaired the Public Works/Safety Committee for many years now and in his tenure streets have gotten demonstrably worse, not better,’’ Gardner said.
“They essentially say as much at committee. But when it comes time to take responsibility for it, it’s staff fault or the fault of others. There’s always a scapegoat somewhere. The City Council needs to own up to its mistakes.’’
Gardner said the council needs to work with staff again in a proper, respectful manner, and stop micromanaging. He said the council’s job is to set good policy and let staff implement it.
Also, Gardner said he wants to rebuild relationships with the community at large and the business community.
“To have blamed the business community for the dysfunction that’s on the council is absolutely ludicrous,’’ he said.
Gardner said a suggested $250,000 increase in the 2015 property tax levy is a good start to finding street repair revenue. Another possible solution is placing a local option sales tax on the ballot in 2016 and dedicating a portion toward infrastructure.
“We have to find some revenue and it’s fair that folks who come here help us out a little bit,’’ he said. “They’ve done it in the past with the library and industrial park. I think the vast majority of people want good streets, parks. They want the public infrastructure taken care of and I think they are willing to do their fair share. We can’t cut our way to good streets.’’
When asked what’s right with Willmar, Gardner cited the Vision 2040 effort - an offshoot of Vision 2020, which resulted in the YMCA, the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center - and the Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center, which has helped create 114-117 jobs. He also cited Jennie-O Turkey Store, a Fortune 500 company that he said other towns would want.
He also said the city has the potential for a great downtown, and for parks, recreation and things to do.
“But we have to be willing to grow, willing to be open to new ideas, new cultures, new people, while retaining the best of what we loved about Willmar in the first place,’’ he said.
The Tribune asked if Gardner agrees with a consultant that the council is dysfunctional.
He said not every member is dysfunctional. But the current council majority has behaved in a dysfunctional manner.
“You don’t make staff the enemy, the scapegoat, if you want them to help you figure out solutions to problems,’’ he said. “Others were blamed for hanging the label on the council. The current majority believes it’s everybody else’s fault. It’s time for a change.’’
The Tribune asked how council members should balance the advice of staff vs. being a voice for citizens.
“It’s one thing to represent your constituents. Your oath is to the city. But you’re elected by the voters in your ward. You need to balance the good of everybody vs. the concerns of some. You can be a voice for citizens. But you have to make sure you do no harm, that you are upholding your oath and third you are doing the most possible good for the most people,’’ he said.
“You’re never going to please everybody. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree and move forward because there’s always the next election. But there’s also the next issue. It comes down to having a plan, having a process and executing it. Right now there is no planning, there is no process, and there is no execution.’’