These Minnesota mayors, and others like them, are breaking out of city hall to hear what residents really think.
By Danielle Cabot
The old guard is changing in the City of North Oaks, and Mayor Michael Egelston knows it is time to start having a broader conversation about the future of city services and development in this Minnesota city of 4,700 people.
When Mayor Del Rae Williams ran for office in the City of Moorhead, she heard a need to make residents feel more connected, particularly now that the city is booming with younger families.
Serving as a liaison between residents and city staff is what Mayor Kathi Hemken of New Hope is all about. Her mission is to be a visible presence in the community and reach out to residents who would not otherwise come to her. In the City of Becker, Mayor Jerome “Lefty” Kleis creates a friendly roundtable experience each month where people can feel heard. In addition to residents, other civic figures may stop by to join the conversation.
These mayors, and many others throughout Minnesota, are seeing the need to reach out to all residents, and they’ve created routines to help them hear from those who aren’t as vocal or involved.
Old and new in North Oaks
In North Oaks, the journey toward engaging citizens has only begun.
“People who moved in the ’50s are now starting to leave, and we have a fairly significant population coming in,” says Egelston. “They’re going to overwhelm in total numbers of people what is ‘old North Oaks.’”
But defining how to market and preserve the older housing stock, while addressing the needs and vision of residents in the newer neighborhoods beyond old North Oaks, will require a lot more than the occasional public hearing.
To do that, Egelston has spurred the Council and staff to host community discussions in each of the North Oaks neighbor-hoods—with pizza and pop to help entice residents to walk over and connect. This has been a new venture for the city government, which in the past has quietly gone about its business.
“We want to be able to reach out to them and simply say, we’re your city. We’re here to provide services, to think about the future, to make sure the city is cared for in terms of infrastructure as well as the needs of the community,” says Egelston. By visiting residents on their own turf, Egelston also hopes to make City Hall less intimidating when issues do call for more public participation.
Mayor Hemken of New Hope (population 21,000) is a regular staple at the local farmers market, open Saturdays during the growing season. She sets up by the information booth with a notebook and a listening ear. In addition, she brings donated books to distribute to kids. As many as 40 visitors will stop by to talk, says Hemken. Sometimes a child will be drawn to Hemken’s free books, which then draws the parents over to say hello.
“We don’t really have complaints; we have concerns,” Hemken says. By listening and responding to these concerns, potential problems can be diffused before they fully develop, she adds.
Hemken writes down the ideas and information she gathers from residents, and then passes these notes on to city staff. While staff are “glad to get the constituent feedback,” Hemken emphasizes that she never commits to an action on behalf of the city when speaking with residents.
“The city is run by really smart people who know what they’re doing. I don’t micromanage,” she says. “I let the city staff do what they’re best at: running the city. They don’t always have time to attend events— that’s my job.”
In addition to the farmers market, Hemken visits local classrooms as well as senior centers when the weather turns cooler. She also attends meetings with groups from the local Liberian community.
‘People are really excited’
Mayor Williams wheels a cart of coffee and sweet treats over to some comfy couches and chairs in the Moorhead Center Mall on the third Wednesday of every month. She sets up at 10 a.m., then again at 7 p.m. Even though Moorhead City Hall is located on the third floor of the mall, Williams has found that these regular coffee hours bring in residents who are turned off by the idea of attending a City Council meeting.
Williams can sometimes see people circling on the periphery, deciding whether to stop over or continue on. By inviting them over for coffee, she says she can overcome that barrier in a way that could never happen at a City Council meeting. She also maintains an active Facebook page, where she shares community events and information with over 1,700 followers.
Moorhead’s population is nearly 40,000 and growing. And with an average age of just 29, according to the Amer¬ ican Community Survey, that means lots of Generation X and Millennial families are now filling Moorhead’s streets and schools, but are not necessarily engaging in the city’s decision-making process.
“Especially in a community that is changing, you need to be in tune with what your community is feeling—what’s important to them,” Williams says. “The only way to do that is to have some direct contact with people in a way that they feel comfortable.”
She says you might be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. “People think I get a lot of complaints, but I don’t. People are really excited about what’s happening, and they just want to be a part of it,” Williams says.
Just listen, Lefty
Becker Mayor “Lefty” Kleis hosts a “Coffee with the Mayor” event one Saturday a month at various local businesses, and is now expanding his visits into local parks. Residents of this community of 4,700 attend for the roundtable introductions and to talk about whatever is on their minds— from train whistles to the city levy. “I took after my cousin Dave up in St. Cloud,” says Kleis, referring to St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who celebrated his 500th weekly town hall meeting last spring. “He loves it. He says [these casual meetings are] the best thing you can do for your city.”
Usually representatives from local nonprofits will attend Kleis’ gatherings in Becker to give updates on upcoming events and projects. Have a problem in Becker? There’s a good chance someone in Kleis’ coffee circle will have an idea to help.
In addition to Kleis, Becker’s state representative, a county commissioner, and occasionally other councilmembers will attend. The meetings are scheduled by Kleis, but official notice is given to avoid any issues with the Open Meeting Law.
Kleis has found that the most valuable opportunity presented by these gatherings is the opportunity to make people feel heard. His job, as he sees it, is not to jump in with ideas, explanations, or counterpoints, but just to listen. “It’s one of the hardest things to do,” Kleis says, “but it’s the most important.”
Worth the time
The result of their efforts? These mayors say the results include more inclusive decision-making, less “us versus them” thinking by residents, and city officials who are more in tune with their communities than ever before. In the words of Egelston: “It’s important. It’s significant. It’s what government ought to be.”
Danielle Cabot is communications coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1233.
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