Back to the Jul-Aug 2021 issue

My Year as ‘The Virtual President’

By Brad Wiersum

“President, League of Minnesota Cities.” That is a pretty cool title to stick after one’s name. It is a big honor. I thank the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) and its membership for entrusting that title to me for the past year. I hope that my year fulfilled the requirements and the responsibilities of that important role. It was a challenging year.

I am the first “Virtual President” the League has ever had. Hopefully, I am also its last. The year was unique and unprecedented. So, what was my year as the virtual president of the League really like?

Brad WiersumAs I reflect, I am proud of all that the League and its leadership accomplished in 2020-2021. The needs of members did not diminish in the face of the pandemic — they grew in new and unanticipated ways. Cities needed help, and the League had to dig deep, innovate, create, and do more than ever before to listen, support members, and find ways to help cities navigate.

I am an optimist, and I always believe that the cup is half full. My life is simply better that way. Over the past year, the League has been in the business of “turning lemons into lemonade” for its member cities. Two big issues dominated conversations: the COVID-19 pandemic and the calls for social justice following the tragic killing of George Floyd. I am proud to say that the League tackled both issues in an honest and forthright way.

The pandemic did not wait. Its impact grew; it affected all cities with serious consequences. Service delivery for the League and member cities changed dramatically. Goals and priorities changed quickly, and then essential services were rebooted.

The League (as well as our member cities) figured out how to get work done safely. LMC programs like the Annual Conference, Regional Meetings, Elected Leaders Institute, and Safety & Loss Control workshops became virtual experiences.

“The League of Minnesota Cities promotes excellence in local government through effective advocacy, expert analysis, and trusted guidance for all Minnesota cities.” That is the League’s mission statement. Said another way, the League helps cities to help their residents. It is about the people.

In my time as president and as an LMC Board member, I have most enjoyed meeting with all of you — city officials, League staff, representatives of affiliate organizations, newly elected city officials, legislators. It is the people that make organizations excellent and the work so rewarding.

I was so looking forward to the LMC Annual Conference and all the meetings where the president has a role and gets to meet many city officials and others. All that changed into a less-than-optimal version of “Hollywood Squares” (aka, Zoom meetings and other look-alikes).

One big innovation was the LMC “mini-meets.” These small, face-to-face, socially distanced member meetings were our way of maintaining some in-person connection safely through the pandemic.

These meetings were the highlight of the year for me. They involved a Board member traveling with LMC Executive Director Dave Unmacht or Deputy Director Luke Fischer, visiting city officials on their home turf, all around the state. LMC Member Engagement Coordinator Madison Hagenau handled the logistics efficiently and joined us for one of the trips. We learned so much.

Meetings in the fall focused on how cities were weathering the pandemic, what the biggest challenges were, and how the League could help. The biggest request was figuring out how to use CARES Act money and stay in compliance with the many rules of that program.

The spring meetings continued the pandemic conversation. In addition to asking how the city is doing, we asked how city operations will change coming out of the pandemic. We also asked about how cities are being affected by questions of social justice and equity. The answers were fascinating.

In total, I traveled the state from Grand Marais to Fulda and dozens of places in between. I personally attended 34 different meetings, involving 89 cities and 154 city officials. We talked about mental health issues, constraints on development due to sewer system capacities, financial constraints, community mental health, racial equity, diversity and inclusion, changing demographics, the importance of collaboration, local government aid, and so much more.

This is a people business, and it was the people who work so hard to make their cities better that made my virtual presidency worthwhile, memorable, and satisfying. The mini-meets drove home the reality that the League of Minnesota Cities represents and advocates for ALL Minnesota Cities. I thank you all.

Brad Wiersum is the mayor of Minnetonka. He has served on the League Board of Directors since 2015.