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Harren chosen as permanent GM for Willmar utility

WILLMAR -- As the single finalist, the Willmar Municipal Utilities' interim general manager John Harren was chosen Monday to become the new permanent general manager by the Municipal Utilities Commission.

Shelby Lindrud / TribuneJohn Harren, current Willmar Municipal Utilities Director of Operations, was chosen as the new permanent general manager at Monday's meeting of the Municipal Utilities Commission. Harren, currently the interim general manger, was the lone finalist for the position.
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune John Harren, current Willmar Municipal Utilities Director of Operations, was chosen as the new permanent general manager at Monday's meeting of the Municipal Utilities Commission. Harren, currently the interim general manger, was the lone finalist for the position.

WILLMAR - As the single finalist, the Willmar Municipal Utilities' interim general manager John Harren was chosen Monday to become the new permanent general manager by the Municipal Utilities Commission.

"I would welcome the opportunity to serve as your general manager," Harren said.

This is the second time Harren has applied for the Willmar Utilities top job. While he was working in Melrose in 2012, Harren was a finalist for the general manager position along with Wes Hompe. Hompe was chosen for the general manager position. By the end of 2013, Harren had joined Willmar Utilities as the director of operations.

Harren also served as the utilities' interim chief financial officer earlier this year after the death of Tim Hunstad. When Hompe retired as general manager in July, Harren was named the interim general manager as the search began for Hompe's replacement.

"He has stepped up to the plate. I've seen him in action," Commission President Dan Holtz said.

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There were 17 applicants in total for the general manager position. Gary Weirs, representative of David Drown Associates who ran the search for candidates, said he reviewed all 17 applicants and conducted interviews of the top nine. The Utilities Commission's labor committee reviewed the top nine and narrowed the field down to four and then two. Before Monday's meeting, the second candidate withdrew from consideration, leaving only Harren.

Weirs said the committee decided to go forward with Harren's application because they felt he was a strong candidate.

Prior to coming to Willmar, Harren worked as the public works director for the city of Melrose from 2004 to 2013, along with serving as the city's co-city manager from 2009 to 2011. He was the city clerk-administrator for the city of Freeport from 1988 to 2000 and the public works director from 1982 to 1988.

Harren earned his associate degree in supervisory management from Alexandria Technical College.

As part of his interview Monday, Harren gave a 10-minute presentation on where he sees Willmar Municipal Utilities in 10 years. Within the next five years, Harren said the utilities will either have completed or be in the process of constructing the Priam substation, the northeast water treatment plant and a new facility for offices and other needs. He also foresees an increase in the utilities owning more transmission assets, changes in how rates are charged, and he expects the distribution system will be updated to accommodate resources such as renewables, distributed generation and storage.

In the near future, Harren said coal generation will be replaced with natural gas, nuclear and renewables and that the city will at some point have a solar project as well.

With regard to water, Harren said there will be continued conservation efforts, more interest in water reuse and reclamation and even higher standards for drinking water and treatment.

As technology and the utility business continues to change, Harren said the business will become more customer-centric. Willmar Utilities will become energy advocates, help customers understand their consumption, work with smart home technologies such as smart thermostats and appliances, as well as create applications to assist customers with billing and usage.

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Community involvement and communication is important to Harren and how the utility will move forward.

"We need to be out there. The community needs to know who we are," Harren said.

The commissioners asked Harren a number of questions regarding his management style, plans for the aging power plant, use of technology and his experience working with other government bodies. Harren said with over 20 years of experience with utilities and city management, he believes he has the skills to be a good utility manager for Willmar.

"I believe I am well-qualified. The learning curve is very short. I know what I need to know. I know where we need to go," Harren said.

Following the interview, the Utilities Commission voted unanimously to offer the position to Harren and instructed the labor committee and legal representation to begin the negotiation process.

"I am in favor of John," said Commissioner Carol Laumer, also the chairwoman of the labor committee.

The agreed upon contract will come back to the Utilities Commission for approval. The Willmar City Council will also need to approve the contract.

"That commission can't go wrong if they would consider myself. I would meet your expectations," Harren said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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