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City council evaluates its president

The Brainerd City Council Monday met in a workshop session to discuss the council president's performance, and how he should adjust his approach moving forward.

The Brainerd City Council Monday met in a workshop session to discuss the council president's performance, and how he should adjust his approach moving forward.

Council President Gary Scheeler called the meeting to ask the council how he should proceed in the city's search for a new city administrator, in negotiations with the city of Baxter regarding the local option sales tax and issues with the hydrodam.

Council member Chip Borkenhagen said he's spoken with citizens in the last two weeks regarding Scheeler's leadership and the input has not been good. Now it's up to the council to determine whether Scheeler is "the man for the job."

"If not, then we should talk about plan B, then we should find a plan B," Borkenhagen said. "And not keep pretending like everything's fine and yet have all this stuff going on underneath."

It's important for members of the city council to feel they're working as part of a team, Borkenhagen said. If the council can't sort out its internal issues, the city might be branded as "out of balance."

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Brokenhagen said he and Scheeler have talked about these issues before, so "I'm not saying anything that's new to him."

Scheeler said he appreciated Borkenhagen's honesty expressing his stance on the issue. He said he's also spoken with many city employees about the issues he wanted to discuss.

Since Scheeler took over as council president in January, he's worked as a facilitator on certain issues, but hasn't gone further than that, he said.

"I don't do anything different, that's all I do," Scheeler said. "I don't micromanage (city Administrator) Patrick (Wussow)."

When recent city administrator candidate Patrick Christopherson withdrew from consideration after being offered the position, Scheeler said he took it personally.

"I took it very personally," Scheeler said. "I really, really felt bad, and you remember that."

Council member Kelly Bevans has provided Scheeler with positive feedback throughout his time as council president, Scheeler said, and he appreciates it.

"I wouldn't have sent it if I didn't mean it," Bevans said.

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It's that kind of feedback he's looking for, positive or otherwise, Scheeler said.

"I appreciate the honesty, that's a part of leadership," Scheeler said. "I don't run from a problem."

A city council is like a dysfunctional family, and there are going to be disagreements from time to time, Koep said.

"You still do your best to overcome differences, be upfront and honest," Koep said. "Let the person, in this case the chairman, know what's expected of the chairman."

Elected officials are unique, Koep said, and each one brings their own expertise to a chairmanship.

"Every person brings strengths and weaknesses to a chairmanship," Koep said. "I believe that sincerely."

Council member Gary Pritschet said he's fielded many phone calls about Scheeler's leadership, and while he supports him as a person and council member, "I don't know if I could support you as a president" if the council held a vote for a president.

"But I will work as hard as I can to make sure things move forward and move smoothly in the city of Brainerd," Pritschet said. "It's nothing personal."

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During his 40 years of local business experience, Scheeler gained a reputation for a direct management style, Hilgart said, and earned the nickname "The Hammer." But that style might not work as well in local government.

"Someone who wants to be receptive to the other party's perspective, that's going to go a long way toward reducing the heat and make it a more cordial relationship," Hilgart said.

It's his tone and approach that causes people to "bristle" about Scheeler, Hilgart said. His "brusque" style is fine as a person, but not as a city council president, Koep said.

"I think what made you successful in the past are not necessarily the skills that are going to make you successful as council president," Pritschet said.

Near the end of the workshop, Borkenhagen said the night seemed to have turned into a criticism of Scheeler, but that's not the intent.

"Let's help Gary help us," Borkenhagen said.

Scheeler said he's taking all the feedback "to heart."

"All of this will make me a better person," Scheeler said. "And all of this gives me a direction, and I appreciate it tremendously."

Regarding LOST

Last fall, the voters approved an extension of the local options sales tax, called LOST, with $32 million going for city projects in Baxter and $8 million going to extend water and sewer to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport for operations and fire protection. The cities sought and received Legislative approval to extend the one half percent local option sales tax, which was subject to voters agreement. For Baxter, having a regional component to its request was a requirement by the Legislature. An agreement between the two cities regarding the specifics of the funding has yet to be reached.

Wussow told the council Mayor James Wallin requested the airport committee speak to area legislators about the issue, as the local option sales tax program comes from the Legislature.

Once those conversations have occurred, the committee will come to the council with a more thorough update, Wussow said.

Right now, the two cities are working well together on the issue, Scheeler said. Council member Mary Koep said her knowledge of the situation is limited, but feels the city of Baxter hasn't been given a fair shake.

"Baxter has sort of come off as the bad guy and I don't believe that's true," Koep said. "I think Baxter did us a favor in the first place."

Because of the city of Baxter's involvement in the issue, Koep said she feels they should be represented in the upcoming conversations with area legislators.

"Have them sit down together," Koep said. "My experience is Baxter has always been wonderful to work with. (They're) truly good neighbors."

Hydro Dam

When it comes to direction on the hydrodam the city purchased, council member Sue Hilgart said based on its charter, the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission is a separate entity from the city.

"That leaves us in a place where we can get information from the utilities commission about what's going on," Hilgart said. "But I don't know that we have the ability to direct the (BPU) because of the way the charter is structured."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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