A non-politician running against 5-term Mayor Elizabeth Kautz questions the city's direction and takes issue with City Hall.
Voters in Burnsville will choose Nov. 4 between Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, who's seeking her sixth consecutive term, and newcomer Jerry Willenburg, who has run twice before for City Council and once for school board.
It's partly a race about the city's direction, spotlighting Kautz's work to put Burnsville on the map as a regional destination and a model U.S. community -- and Willenburg's contention that these "grand" projects have led the city to overextend itself. On the subject of the "Heart of the City" mixed-use redevelopment, which will include a publicly financed performing arts center, Willenburg says the likely return doesn't justify the investment, but Kautz says the projects are increasing tax revenues while revitalizing a once-blighted area.
But on another level, Willenburg has made the campaign not just about taxes or spending, but also about stylistic differences, saying the current administration has gotten too big for its britches.
He contends that Kautz, city employees and council members have shown "disrespect" for the public. He says that his "Promise of Respect and Fair Treatment," posted on his website, should be adopted by the City Council as a code of conduct for city employees.
"What I think is at the core of most of our problems is bad communication within our city government, both internal and external," Willenburg said.
In an interview, he could not immediately cite a specific example of the city showing disrespect to its citizens, only saying that there had been "the lowering of eyes." He subsequently gathered several comments from unnamed residents, including one who complained about not getting enough opportunity at a council meeting to object to the arts center.
But Kautz dismisses claims of not listening, of stifling speech or of tolerating disrespect. "There is no substance or fact to the issues that he's complaining about," she said.
"As far as citizens' comments, we graciously receive their comments. At times, we're not at a point to act on their comments and we refer them to staff, or take their remarks and then bring them up at a work session so that we can continue to explore the issue that was brought forth."
Kautz said the council already adheres to a code of conduct long posted at City Hall. And over the years, she said, she's held many listening sessions for residents and has published a wealth of information on the city website, in newsletters and in other publications.
Kautz noted that she recently encouraged Stefan Remund, 11, to speak during a citizen-comment period about his request to keep chickens in violation of a city ordinance. She also visited his home to see his birds.
"So respectfully, even with our youth, we take everyone seriously," Kautz said.
Kautz has long said it's her calling to serve and to make a difference. "I believe that the role of government and the government official is to facilitate the work of the public," she said.
Pay as you go
On the issue of spending, she points to her 14-year record as helping to place the city in strong financial standing, with a pay-as-you-go program for roads and other infrastructure. Kautz said she'll work with other officials to maintain prudent financial management and seek grants.
"We take the time to plan carefully and have secured a top bond rating, a low tax rate, an extremely low debt level and a proposed tax increase for 2009 that is likely to be one of the lowest -- if not the lowest -- in Dakota County," Kautz said. Any city tax hike, she said, will be "nil."
Willenburg, meanwhile, doesn't try to hide his lack of political experience -- rather, he plays it up.
"One of the things that I have heard from residents is that they think one of the greatest assets I have is that I'm not currently a politician," Willenburg said Friday.
"I feel strongly that as we enter into a time of great economic challenge that we need a different kind of leadership to better protect our financial future. In order to deal with this challenge and others that face our city, we desperately need better communication within our city government and from our city government to the residents of Burnsville."
Willenburg has changed his reason for seeking office and explains why on his website:
"I ran for City Council in the past. I was mainly interested in having a platform from which to speak. I realize now that nothing I said from that platform had any real impact on the problems that exist within our city government. Now I realize that real and decisive action is needed to make real change."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017