WILLMAR, Minn. – On a recent evening, two dozen residents fanned out across the southwest ward of this city, carrying clipboards and wearing red T-shirts that declared: “Recall Ron Christianson.”
“Hi there,” Julie Asmus called as a man opened his front door. “Are you familiar with what’s going on with the City Council?”
The council is out of control, this group says, dismissing residents’ opinions and bypassing the rules. In March, with little explanation, the City Council got rid of city administrator Charlene Stevens, approving a pricey separation agreement with her.
That split decision, made before a crowd that spilled outside the council chambers, fueled a campaign to recall Christianson, a veteran member of the eight-person council, who was re-elected in 2014 for a sixth term.
“He is at the heart of the dysfunction,” said Asmus, 54, the recall committee’s vice chair and a retired police officer.
The group must collect the signatures of a quarter of registered voters in his Ward 2, about 750 people, by mid-August to get a special election.
By e-mail, Christianson said the effort to get rid of him is “strictly political” and predicted it will come up short. Even if the group nabs enough signatures, Christianson said he’s “confident our city attorney will conclude that the petition is invalid,” because it doesn’t state sufficient legal grounds for a recall. “Their political ambitions have totally clouded their judgment, if they had any to begin with,” he said.
The approval of Stevens’ separation agreement — which included a $50,000 settlement and lump-sum payment worth six months’ salary — “will likely continue the trend of bad publicity statewide for the City Council and the city of Willmar,” the local newspaper’s editorial board wrote at the time. “Minnesotans must look at Willmar and think: Wow, there are more birdbrains than just turkeys in that town.”
A few years back, people from the Willmar Area League of Women Voters began attending council meetings to “encourage and promote civility,” said Jessica Rohloff, president of the chapter. It was an uncivil time, she said.
A leadership consultant ended a strategic planning retreat in 2013 “by declaring the council and the mayor were dysfunctional and incapable of setting a vision and goals due to deep-seated personality differences and beliefs,” the West Central Tribune reported.
But it was the forced separation agreement with Stevens that “got a lot of people’s attention,” Rohloff said. At the March meeting, Stevens said that although she was asked to prepare the agreement, she didn’t want to step down. “It is my preference to continue to work for the city of Willmar,” she said. Stevens did not return a request for comment.
The three council members who voted against the agreement begged the majority (which included Christianson) to share their reasoning, but the five said little, citing the need to protect private personnel data.
Council Member Audrey Nelsen said in March that Stevens’ removal “is totally unnecessary. This is tearing the city apart.”
By e-mail, Christianson pointed out that the separation agreement was voluntary. “That procedure was perfectly proper and legal in all respects,” he said.
‘Appalled at the incivility’
Gathered in a garage lined with a map of Ward 2, residents talked about why they’re pushing for a recall. Many mentioned their respect for Stevens and their frustration that pleas to keep her were dismissed.
“That was when I started paying attention,” said Amy Engle, 43, who has been door-knocking three days a week. “I was just appalled at the incivility.
“I started to realize the control and personal agendas taking place.”
But several residents who answered their doors on a recent evening questioned whether a recall makes sense. A few argued that residents just had the chance to vote Christianson out in November, during the general election. Others noted a personal connection to Christianson or his relatives.
“That’s where this is the hard part,” Asmus said, walking back to the street. “In the anonymity of the voting booth, they might not vote for him …”
“But they don’t want their name on the list,” said her husband, Brian Asmus.
The petition on their clipboard starts with Stevens — alleging that Christianson “violated the trust of the citizens of Willmar by bypassing accepted procedures.” It then says Christianson violated the law. In January, Christianson drove through a Fire Department barricade protecting a gas main damaged by a car crash. An officer gave Christianson a written warning, Police Chief Jim Felt said.
The petition also alleges that Christianson, co-owner of Christianson Brothers Construction, “used his position on the council to advance his personal agenda.” He fought against a workforce housing project called Westwind Townhomes, it states, but later proposed a similar development, which the council approved “without one question.”
The “vast majority” of Ward 2 residents opposed the Westwind project, Christianson said. The housing built by his company, he said, “does not compete in the same market.”
He also said he’s confident that most of his constituents support him.
There are “two definite camps” in Willmar, said Mayor Marv Calvin, who was elected last year. Some appreciate Christianson’s “bulldog attitude” and tough questions, said Calvin. But others find him aggressive and believe he “kind of does what he wants.”
Calvin declined to take a position on the recall. He’s also quiet on Stevens’ departure, citing the council’s decision not to release e-mails in which they discussed her employment.
A few gaffes also have made the news. In March, Christianson shared a graphic on Facebook arguing that food stamps create dependency and likening recipients to wild animals. A hot microphone caught an unidentified council member calling a speaker an idiot. Recently, the council discussed banning phones at their meetings — earning a tweet from a national journalist.
Mayor Calvin called the city’s unflattering attention “a big concern.”
“People are making decisions every day where they’re going to move,” he said. “Sometimes by there being a lack of unity — or even a perceived lack of unity — that can hinder development.”