NORTH MANKATO —
Kim Spears shows up at virtually every North Mankato City Council meeting, asks questions, scrutinizes budgets and is approached by other residents looking for someone to bring their concerns to the city.
Pretty much the only thing that council members do that Spears doesn’t is cast a vote when the roll is called. And Spears hopes, with help from North Mankato voters on Nov. 6, that his name will be added to the roll call beginning in January.
Spears is making a second run at a city council seat after finishing fourth in 2010 in a four-person race for two seats. Councilwoman Diane Norland and challenger Bob Freyberg won the seats two years ago, but fewer than 750 votes separated the four candidates among 9,000 cast.
Mayor Mark Dehen is also planning to be on the ballot, seeking a second two-year term after knocking off incumbent Mayor Gary Zellmer 56 percent to 43 percent in 2010.
Whether it’s Spears or someone else who jumps in during the two-week filing period that beings July 31, there will be a new face on the council at its first meeting in January.
Half of the four council seats are on the ballot — the ones held by the council’s longest-serving members, Bill Schindle and Billy Steiner.
Schindle, a 20-year veteran of the council, won’t be back because he’s running for the Nicollet County Board. Steiner, who has served for 16 years, didn’t return calls seeking comment on his plans.
More to do
Dehen’s motivation for running in 2010 stemmed partly from wanting to follow the example of public service set by his father, Dave Dehen, who served 14 years as the city’s mayor.
But Mark Dehen also wanted to see a more collaborative, less confrontational approach by North Mankato in dealings with other governments. And he said he wanted a more open and transparent decision-making process.
He said progress has been made, but he wants to continue that momentum for another two years.
“We’re not acting in a vacuum,” Dehen said. “Trying to keep everybody moving in the same direction is interesting work. But it takes some work.”
Dehen and Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson, also a first-termer, have been working to improve what has been — for decades — a sometimes strained relationship between North Mankato and Mankato.
Early efforts have involved the building of a military memorial at the foot of the Veterans Memorial Bridge, further growth in the sculpture walk the two cities share, the closing of the Vets bridge to traffic so pedestrians from each city can watch Independence Day fireworks reflected on the Minnesota River.
“Just another symbolic way of linking the communities together,” Dehen said.
With longtime City Administrator Wendell Sande retiring at the end of May, Dehen is also heading the effort to find Sande’s replacement.
“It’s a time of change,” he said. “... We also have to look at it as an opportunity.”
Spears, a computer programer at Dotson Iron Castings, has lived in North Mankato since 2000. In 2008, with the economy falling into a deep recession, Spears saw little sign that government officials recognized the pain that higher property taxes were causing residents.
He brought his concerns to the Nicollet County Board, the Mankato Area School Board and the North Mankato City Council. The message from the elected officials, he said, was essentially: there’s not much we can do about it.
“I said, ‘Well, you better get used to seeing me ...,” Spears said.
Unlike other taxpayers who occasionally undertake the role of a watchdog at the meetings of a local governing body, Spears didn’t go away after a few weeks or months. He rarely misses a meeting, and when he’s there he almost always offers a comment or asks questions — usually about spending.
“My main motivation is still the fact that our city government spends too much,” Spears said. “That has not changed since I started attending (meetings).”
Spears has made clear that he has a narrower view of what city government should be doing than city staff or the council majority. He’s skeptical of major expansions of Caswell Park to add soccer and softball fields, for instance. And he opposes virtually all government grants and subsidies to private businesses, criticizing the North Mankato Port Authority for what he sees as arbitrary decisions to help some businesses at the expense of their competitors.
“It seems like they all have their pet projects,” he said of council members. “And sometimes their pet projects override common sense.”