WILLMAR — Members of the Willmar City Council, who met in a special meeting on Tuesday, hope that the decision they made regarding the open city administrator position will build a firmer foundation that will help the city continue to grow in a positive direction.

In an unanimous 8-0 vote, the council approved beginning contract negotiations with Leslie Valiant, the current city administrator of Spicer.

"A unanimous vote, that is a very strong statement," said Marv Calvin, mayor of Willmar. Calvin also said Valiant has the local connections and experience the council had been looking for in a new administrator.

Valiant was interviewed by the council during the special meeting. She also had interviews with members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and city staff earlier in the day.

"I am very excited about the caliber of candidate she is," said Councilor Julie Asmus.

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Valiant was brought forward as a candidate after the city's first finalist, Dana Schoening, turned the city's offer down. Patty Heminover, from the search firm Baker Tilly, began recruiting other applicants for the position around the state.

The position had remained open even during the last round of interviews. It was made clear to any possible candidates that they would have to go through the same application and vetting process as earlier finalists.

Valiant has been the Spicer city administrator since April 2009. Before that she had worked as a finance technician for St. Joseph and a senior accounts clerk for Litchfield Public Utilities. All totaled, she has 39 years of experience working in and for Minnesota cities.

Valiant has a bachelor's in business administration and in accounting, an associate degree in accounting and a human resources certification, according to her resume.

"I brought you a very highly qualified candidate," Heminover said, adding all of Valiant's references highly recommended her.

The City Council members asked Valiant a range of questions at the interview about her leadership style, challenges in Willmar and how she would face them and how she would manage both the staff and the City Council.

Valiant often spoke of the importance of communication between the administrator and staff and with the council.

"I really am an open door person. I want to know if there are issues," Valiant said. "I want to talk to you."

There were some questions about Valiant's ability to go from a small city the size of Spicer, population under 1,200 people, to Willmar with its population nearing 20,000. Valiant said no matter the size of the city, many things are similar.

"State statutes don't change; they are the same for every community. (Tax increment financing) funding doesn't change for one city or another. Budgets don't change. It all comes down to what is the budget, what is the increase in the general tax levy, how are we going to keep it low enough for our constituents," Valiant said.

What will be different is the size of the city staff, but Valiant feels she will be able to work closely with city department heads.

"What I see is you have great department heads and working with them is going to be I think a really fun time," Valiant said.

The challenges Valiant sees facing Willmar include infrastructure and the long list of projects and ideas on the council table.

"I want to sit down and understand what the council priorities are, where do you see your priorities," Valiant said. "And how do department staffs work though those priorities to meet those objectives."

Following the interview with Valiant, the council deliberated for several minutes. Most on the council talked about the importance of hiring an administrator and then moving forward with hiring other needed staff, including an assistant administrator.

Valiant said she would need to give her current employer, the city of Spicer, three weeks' notice before taking over as the Willmar administrator. That means she could potentially be in place sometime in mid-July.

John Harren, interim city administrator who is also the general manager of Willmar Municipal Utilities, said he believes the Utilities Commission would agree to extend his short-term contract as interim administrator until Valiant arrives. The council approved extending his contract until July 12 and will act again if another extension is needed.

The team at Baker Tilly, along with the mayor and Councilors Vicki Davis and Michael O'Brien, will work on the contract negotiations. The contract will have to be accepted and approved by both Valiant and the City Council before the hiring is official.

Valiant said she is excited about the chance to become the next Willmar administrator.

'It is a great challenge, it really is, and a great opportunity," Valiant said.