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Willmar City Council expected to choose new city operations director at special meeting Friday

Two finalists for the new post of city operations director were introduced to the Willmar City Council on Monday, with a hiring decision expected Friday during a special meeting.

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Logo for the City of Willmar
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WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council is expected during a special meeting Friday to choose the city's first operations director.

The city contracted with Baker Tilly to conduct a search for a new position designed to serve as a deputy to the administrator. Two finalists, current Olivia City Administrator Dan Coughlin and current Marshall City Clerk Kyle Box, were presented to the council Monday.

"We ended up very, very, very pleased with the candidates that we received," Patty Heminover, of Baker Tilly, told the council, adding that more than 32 candidates submitted resumes to be considered for the city operations director position.

Four were initially interviewed by Baker Tilly, Willmar Human Resources Director LuAnn Sietsema and Willmar City Administrator Leslie Valiant.

Heminover said all four lived within two hours' drive time from Willmar, although it was a nationwide search.

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The council in December set a salary range between $102,000 and $132,600.

In an effort to reduce the workload of the city administrator, the city of Willmar is planning to hire a city operations director. The new position will act as the second-in-command to the administrator. At Monday's meeting, the Willmar City Council approved hiring Baker Tilly to conduct a nationwide search for candidates.

Dan Coughlin

Coughlin said he got into the public sector "kicking and screaming" after starting his career as a therapist in a locked psychiatric unit for adolescents. Most of the in-patient programs "evaporated" soon after, and he found himself searching for a new career path.

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Dan Coughlin, Olivia city administrator and candidate for Willmar operations director
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

He went into construction with a friend, and stayed in that career for 10 years helping to build a multimillion-dollar company still in business in the Twin Cities area.

A road project during his time with the construction company led Coughlin to organize a group of concerned citizens to approach the city council where the project was proposed, and they successfully pleaded their case. His show of leadership in organizing the group led to an appointment to a city commission to better engage the public on street projects.

From there, he ran for mayor of the city and won. While mayor, he became intrigued with city administration and attended Hamline University for city administration.

"The reason that this particular (Willmar) position really stood out, other than the fact that I'm a local — I go to church here, I doctor here, we buy most of our stuff here — hopefully nobody in Olivia is watching this ... whether I was in Richmond or here, Willmar was always the center of gravity. This is home," Coughlin said of why he was interested in becoming Willmar's city operations director. "This entire region rises and falls based on based on the success or lack thereof of this community."

Coughlin interviewed and was offered the Wadena city administrator position in early April but did not take the position.

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Kyle Box

Box told the council his career has developed greatly during the last five years.

Kyle Box
Kyle Box, city clerk in Marshall, Minnesota, and candidate for Willmar city operations director
Contributed / LinkedIn.com

"I've had the opportunity to be a part of a growing organization — be a part of an organization that is progressive and forward-thinking," he said. "It's really given me the opportunity to grow into what I want to do, what I want to continue to be as a professional, and that is city government administration."

He explained his professional goals have led him to his current position.

"When this job was posted and I had an opportunity to look at the brochure, I mentioned that all these things that were listed on the brochure are things that I am already doing or things that I know I can do," he said.

He told the council he wants to provide his resources, knowledge and determination to the city of Willmar. "I'm looking forward to this opportunity," he added.

Fox was a finalist in 2020 for the Aitkin city administrator position in Aitkin.

Questions for the candidates

The two candidates on Monday were asked about internet technology, their ability to manage a project such as building a new city hall, and what they think is the biggest challenge Willmar faces going into the future and how to solve it.

Coughlin and Box each talked about their comfort with technology based on their experience, and both of them have recent experience with city hall projects in their respective cities.

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The two candidates also shared the belief that one of the biggest challenges facing Willmar is its rapid population increase and its diversity.

Coughlin said a solution is to recognize and celebrate diversity.

"Recognizing that we are all cousins, if we go back far enough, so that we get past our superficial differences and pull together as a community, and that requires communication. You'll hear that as a theme — most everything gets solved by good, open, honest communication," he added.

Box said ensuring everyone in the community has an opportunity to be heard is a solution.

"You can't have diversity without equity, and the analogy that (a presenter at equity training) used was you can invite everybody to the table or you can invite everybody to the party, but are you giving everybody the chance to dance?" he said, noting the need for opportunities for everybody to have a voice, be heard, and have their needs met.

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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