Willmar City Council makes forward progress during retreat

SPICER -- The Willmar City Council and city staff took important steps toward the future during a two-day retreat, including the start of a strategic plan and project prioritization.

The Willmar City Council and city staff held a two-day retreat in Spicer to begin constructing a plan for the future. The retreat include candid discussions about council communication and trust. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune)

SPICER - The Willmar City Council and city staff took important steps toward the future during a two-day retreat, including the start of a strategic plan and project prioritization.

"I want to believe we all on the council want a better Willmar," said Councilor Fernando Alvarado.

Charles Weinstein and Martin Scheerer, both of the leadership consulting firm Ethical Leaders in Action, facilitated the retreat conducted Friday and Saturday at O'Neil's in Spicer.

"We're going to talk about how we can work more effectively as a team. Our goal here is to establish a living document that really does help you with your work, governing the city," Weinstein said.

Before work could begin on the future, however, the past needed to be discussed and evaluated. Trust and communication were concerns raised several times, as the council and staff separated to talk about building effective teams and what each team needed from the other to be successful.


"My goal is the council will work more collaboratively together. We need to re-establish trust," Mayor Marv Calvin said, adding his own actions have contributed to that erosion of trust.

The council shared feelings and thoughts on issues such as the importance of council seniority, the formation of voting blocs within the council and when and where information is shared between members.

"To me there is a major pronoun problem. There seems to be an us versus them. You were elected as an I, not a we. They want people to be an individual voice. Nobody wants to hear about the dysfunction of the council," Councilor Shawn Mueske said.

Both Scheerer and Weinstein spoke to the council about how they address issues and each other. People can disagree but still be respectful. People who don't like each other personally can still work as a successful team, Weinstein said.

"Be careful with the words you choose. Don't try to direct them at anyone," Scheerer said

To help with the communication issues, the council and staff will start to follow a set policy. If staff or council need to speak with each other on a topic, they will first go to the city administrator. This way the administrator is aware of what is being said and shared and can make sure the entire council receives needed information. It is hoped this will eliminate surprises at council meetings or people feeling ambushed.

"This is not an isolated 'city of Willmar' issue. It seems inefficient at times, but it clears up a lot of problems," Scheerer said.

The staff said they want to feel trusted and valued. When they do not share every detail about a certain project or person, it is likely because they either legally or ethically cannot share it. The staff is not holding information back from the council with malicious intent.


"They want a good working relationship with the council," Scheerer said.

Many of the staff and council wants things to run more consistently by city policy.

"When procedures are in place and the meeting is well-chaired, you can put some safeguards and mitigate ourselves," Councilor Andrew Plowman said. Plowman also said people need to be able to accept the outcomes of issues, even if they lost, and move on.

"This is politics. That is part of the process," Plowman said.

The hope had been to complete a strategic plan during the retreat, but time ran out before it was finished. However, the group was able to start on the plan.

"There needs to be an overall plan and the council needs to prioritize," Interim City Administrator Mike McGuire said.

While several plans have been completed and presented to the council, including a park plan, there isn't an overall strategy of what projects need to be done first and how to fund them.

"We did this a year ago and we got exactly to this and we couldn't move. We have had this inability to go off our plans and implement," Mueske said.


There were philosophical differences on the council over how to build Willmar. Councilor Ron Christianson said the city's business tax base needs to grow first, which will bring people to town who will help fund park projects and the like. Alvarado, on the other hand, said the city needs to have amenities available which will attract people and businesses to Willmar.

"It is the chicken and the egg thing," McGuire said.

Even with those differences, the retreat facilitators felt there was plenty to work with.

"I think we have a lot of common ideas here. Now it's how do you move forward," Scheerer said.

"This discussion was not chaotic," Weinstein added.

Staff, administration and council were given different tasks to complete a strategic plan. This includes putting together costs, reasons why a project should be completed and a timeline for major initiatives and projects.

"I see all the right ingredients, the catalyst is to see if we can find the right recipe," Plowman said.

While not all the work was completed over the two days, and several staff and council members admitted to some skepticism about the process, by the end of Saturday, many had good things to say.


"We've come out of it with better direction than we've had in the past," said Bruce Peterson, Planning and Development director.

"I think we took some measured steps in a direction. I think we're well on our way and further along than what is indicated on paper," said Sean Christensen, Public Works director.

There was also indication that the group would like to continue these types of meetings or retreats more than just once a year.

"I like the process you've drug us through. I appreciate hearing from everyone here," Christianson said.

What happens next, and whether the forward progress continues, will depend on the council and city staff.

"The city of Willmar depends on us," Calvin said.

Martin Scheerer, left, and Charles Weinstein from Ethical Leaders in Action facilitated the Willmar City Council retreat. Here they go through project and council priorities to be discussed and possibly added to the strategic plan. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune)

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 or direct 320-214-4373.

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