The city of Willmar is dominated by business insiders, special interest groups, and non-profit organizations. The unelected Willmar 15. The worst-kept secret in Willmar.
Willmar’s city council members are neither professional politicians nor government administrators, nor do they claim to be. They are simply private citizens with businesses and jobs, who essentially volunteer their time for their respective wards.
What has occurred in Willmar, for many reasons, is that the city council has gradually relinquished nearly all of its executive decision-making authority to the city bureaucracy. This is especially dangerous when it comes to spending and taxes. Bureaucracies are hard-wired to spend and grow, it’s how they’re built.
Perhaps council members have lacked the knowledge, skills, and confidence necessary to exercise lawful authority, but that is precisely what leadership requires. Anything less should be unacceptable.
Now more than ever, true leadership skills are required of the Willmar city council. I believe the job of an elected leader is NOT to be an authoritarian or a dictator. The leader’s job is to see a destination on the horizon, make a plan, and then serve as guide, cheerleader, and motivator. When the plan veers off course, or becomes unproductive, the leader steps in; advises; recalibrates; and the plan proceeds. That’s not micro-management. It’s leadership. It is NOT a legitimate role for an unelected bureaucrat. Elected leaders should inspire and inform policy. Non-elected bureaucrats are their instruments.
While it is entirely appropriate for special interest groups to advocate on their members’ behalf, it is NOT appropriate for groups to ruthlessly undermine the elected leadership. When this occurs, it is an affront to representative, democratic government.
A government that lacks authority cannot govern. Willmar needs a return to legitimate government authority. Its elected officials must re-dedicate themselves to earning the public’s trust and respect. The Willmar city charter should be examined with the goal of encouraging more inclusive participation in elected office. Council members must reacquaint themselves with their responsibilities to first represent their wards, and then represent the city. That is why we have ward representation in the first place. Modern technology and social media must be embraced and fully exploited, so that people can become re-connected with the government process through direct democracy at the ward level. Willmar needs elected officials who talk to constituents where THEY live, when it’s convenient for constituents first, and public servants second. A return to traditional ward politics means a return to old-fashion neighborhood meetings and town halls, and not just at election time, but all year long. Local elected officials have to begin learning how to be politicians again; which is to say, learning how to negotiate and compromise, even with people they don’t like! And Willmar needs to have safe venues for discussion and debate, where people feel safe to express their views without fear of ridicule, reprisals, and animosity.
What is at stake if a transformation of Willmar city government is unsuccessful? Further erosion of public trust, more resentment, less productivity, undermining of civic pride. Willmar will continue to find itself on a dead-end road to a future that was not of the public’s choosing. Meanwhile, the insiders and their friends, having concluded that this is as good as it gets for Willmar, will pick the bones clean before they leave for Arizona. More middle-class Willmarites will exit the city, and those who are left behind will be those who stay because they’re too poor to move.
This is not a prescription for a healthy city.
But … I have a plan.