ST. CLOUD — Before Dave Kleis was elected mayor in 2005, he promised voters two things: that he would usher in the return of paddle boats to a local lake after budget cuts and host weekly town hall meetings.

The paddle boats were back on Lake George that first spring, and now — 19 years later — Kleis is nearing his 1,000th town hall.

He's met with constituents on buses, including his own small "mobile town hall" bus that traveled around town with a large photo of his face plastered to the side until the transmission went out. He's meandered through city parks with folks. And he's even conducted a town hall while sitting atop an exercise bike when the local YMCA opened.

But his 975th town hall this past weekend was among the most unusual: an ambitious meeting that started at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and ran for 24 hours.

The offbeat occasion doesn't seem too unusual for Kleis; he's known for hosting other engagement events. Among them are his "dinners with strangers," which are held at his house and chili and ice cream cake are served. The dinner's only stipulation: He doesn't already know the guests.

But those events feel uncommon in an era when many politicians seem hesitant to make themselves available to constituents.

"I didn't know anyone who actually did that," St. Cloud resident Max Stueven said of the daylong town hall. "I wanted to see if he was actually here."

Kleis said Stueven and people like him are a reason he planned the off-hours town hall. Stueven works third watch — from about 2 to 10 p.m. — at St. Cloud prison and hasn't been able to attend sessions held during the day.

"Normally I wouldn't be able to come to something like this. I'm either with my kids or sleeping," he said about 11:30 p.m. Saturday. "I happened to be getting off work and came over."

The marathon session was Kleis' second 24-hour town hall. His first — more than a decade ago — ran from midmorning to the next midmorning. On Saturday, Kleis started at midnight as a way to front-end the event with what he expected to be the quietest — and maybe most boring — hours. If he started to feel drowsy, he said, he planned to run up and down a set of nearby stairs.

"I'm wide awake. I feel great," Kleis said shortly after midnight while sipping tea in the City Hall atrium.

The first guest stopped for a short visit just after 1 a.m. About 4 a.m., a steady stream of visitors began arriving. By the end of the event, 85 people had visited: Some were friends or colleagues who brought snacks, but many were city residents who had never met the mayor.

"We were out on our scooters. We got them running for the first time of the year," said Jacob Ehrlichman of St. Cloud, who visited with two friends after seeing a social media post about the town hall. "We just dropped in — and there he is."

Ehrlichman hadn't met Kleis but was curious to hear the mayor's thoughts on housing and possible measures increasing residential density to allow for more duplexes in the city.

Topics throughout the day varied widely: Some visitors wanted to talk about specific projects, such as plans to renovate a city-owned building on St. Cloud's east side to allow for a community policing outpost similar to the "COP House" on the south side. Others were curious about Kleis' thoughts on immigration (not the city's role, he said), how to better partner with neighboring cities in terms of services (something he favors) and whether he plans to run for a sixth term in November (he'll decide sometime closer to the filing period in May).

"I think campaign seasons are way too long at it is," Kleis said. "I don't announce until filing because it doesn't change how I serve."

Kleis, 60, is the city's longest-serving mayor. First elected in 2005, he was re-elected while running unopposed in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In the 2020 election, Kleis defeated a challenger with more than 63% of the vote. He also served in the Minnesota Senate from 1995 to 2005.

During his mayoral tenure, town hall attendances have ranged from as few as one person to as many as 500. The largest gathering was in 2010 after anti-Islamic cartoons and swastikas were found around town.

But most town halls draw just a few people — and that's intentional: "If 20 people come, maybe only three or four speak anyways. But if it's a smaller group, more people feel comfortable talking," he said.

Kleis said about 90% of people who attend his weekly meet-ups tell him they've never been to any type of town hall before.

"The goal is the access," he said. "This is an avenue for someone to have a conversation. If you don't have town halls frequently, things fester."

As the clock struck midnight for a second time this weekend, Kleis reflected on the long day (and night). He was happy with the turnout and said the steady stream of guests helped him stay awake without needing coffee.

He said he also learned something about what it's like to spend time at City Hall in the wee hours of the night: The motion sensor lights shut off every three minutes. So each time they went dark, the mayor had to stand up, take a few steps and wave his arms around.

"This is good exercise," he said with a chuckle.