St. Cloud's mayor is taking his weekly town hall meetings on the road, launching a "mobile town hall" bus that he will drive around the city starting this month.
Dave Kleis promised when he ran for city office in 2005 that he would hold weekly town hall meetings, and he's kept his word, hosting nearly 650 meetings in parks, at coffee shops — even while riding a bike at a gym.
Now, thanks to a donated 10-year-old bus from St. Cloud's Metro Bus, he's taking the meetings to neighborhoods and other places that don't have public spaces.
"The purpose is to go places where there wouldn't normally be the opportunity to hold a meeting," he said. "I'm trying to bring the meetings to people."
The 14-passenger bus, which has 195,000 miles on it, was headed to the scrapyard. Instead, it's now wrapped in the city's blue and white colors with a photo of Kleis and its name — the "mayor's mobile town hall." The bus, graphics, insurance and gas to fuel it are all funded by donations — including some of Kleis' money; no taxpayer dollars will be used, he said.
"It's got a few years left in it," Kleis said of the mobility bus. "It's like a mobile conference room."
The town hall meetings draw anywhere from one to 500 people asking questions or voicing concerns — a way, Kleis said, to reach residents who are intimidated about speaking in public at City Hall.
Across Minnesota, mayors often reach out to residents by holding meetings over coffee, writing newspaper columns or speaking on radio shows, said Perham Mayor Tim Meehl, president of the Minnesota Mayors Association. But, Meehl said, he hasn't heard of anyone going to the lengths Kleis has with the bus and hundreds of town hall meetings.
"It's a good thing," Meehl said. "Some mayors probably sit back and try to not to be seen."
Not Kleis. He also makes weekly videos that include his home phone number, hosts twice-weekly radio town hall discussions and invites strangers to dinner at his house once a month to get neighbors talking to one another. The former state legislator has been re-elected three times since 2005, running unopposed for the job, a full-time, CEO-like position in the city.
"It's so critical today when less and less people are engaged and involved that we find a way to engage and involve," he said of the bus. "To me, this is the best way to get input from people. I'm going out to listen."