Click here to read about the other top newsmakers for 2011.
by Jim Boyle
Elk River’s first hometown mayor in 73 years had a busy first year as mayor of the community he loves.
When John Dietz wasn’t helping launch new initiatives like a volunteer recognition program or Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, he was making headlines trying to jump-start a difficult budget process with his own controversial proposals. He continued to prod it along with new suggestions.
He managed to accomplish a lot in his first year as mayor, even though the year ended on a low note for him when he saw the city’s tax rate rise 4 percent despite significant budget cuts to the tune of $837,000. Dietz voted against the final budget plan, and expressed that he felt defeated in his quest to hold the line on taxes.
The Star News staff has named him the Newsmaker of the Year in 2011. The staff recognizes that Dietz took on a lot of controversial initiatives at a time when many first-time mayors might have taken an easier road. Asked if he ever considered taking his first year at a slower pace, Dietz responded: “No, not really.”
He admits had he been a first-time mayor without the benefit of 16 years of experience on the City Council, he would have approached things differently.
“But I knew how things operated and how I would like to see them evolve,” he said. “I may have made mistakes in my first year as mayor, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.”
Dietz continually came up with ideas to consider and led the council in a direction toward greater efficiency. They didn’t always buy his ideas, but he kept them coming.
“The knowledge he brings to the role and the passion for what he believes in is amazing,” said Elk River City Council Member Nick Zerwas. “There’s no question he pushed the council toward a lower levy.”
Zerwas said he didn’t necessarily like Dietz’ final vote on the budget, but he’ll always respect him.
“What he says may not always be what you want to hear, but it’s always what he believes,” Zerwas said. “And people respect him for that.”
Dietz also has deep roots in Elk River. His father ran a town grocery store for 30 years and his father-in-law ran a feed store for nearly as long.
“I grew up here, went to school year and I am ingrained here,” Dietz said.
The town of Elk River numbered about 3,000 people when Dietz was only 5 years old. It’s now close to topping 23,000.
He had long considered a run for mayor but it wasn’t until one day on his way to work he decided to do it. Once he decided, he was at peace with the decision.
Dietz hustled to become mayor.
His mayoral campaign included four to five hours of door-knocking each Saturday between June and the November 2010 election. He and Daryl Thompson would meet for breakfast and then go out. Dietz estimates they hit about 75 percent of the homes in Elk River.
One weekend he enlisted the whole family. He also partnered for a time with Zerwas, who holds the seat to Dietz’ old ward when he was on the council.
He expresses appreciation for the help and support he got along the way.
He got right to work after getting elected. It wasn’t long after Dietz was sworn in that it was announced a volunteer recognition program he spearheaded was starting.
The City of Elk River Volunteer of the Month Award is intended to recognize Elk River citizens for their volunteer contributions and commitments to community service. Before it could be officially launched, however, Dietz was already making headlines for one of several budget crunching initiatives he would float in 2011 for staff and council consideration.
One of the first was the controversial suggestion to extend the life of squad cars, which is being done on a trial basis heading into 2012.
Work is also being done to create a volunteer handbook to formalize efforts to integrate more volunteer opportunities within the city of Elk River.
Dietz has also played a role in pulling together an effort to launch a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon (BTYR) program for members of the military and their family members before, during and after their deployment.
Zerwas says Dietz’ approach to getting new initiatives off the ground with volunteers rather than government funds has been ingenious.
“It is a huge endeavor,” Zerwas said of BTYR. “But he has identified people in the city and the county who can take on huge chunks. It’s a good approach.”
Dietz remains on the Elk River Utilities Commission, which has a $30 million budget. He’s also concerned about making sure the Elk River Economic Development Authority (EDA) puts its best foot forward in attracting businesses and industry.
He appointed Brian Provo to the Elk River EDA, which squeezed Ron Touchette out of his role as the chair of the EDA. Dietz said he wanted someone from industry on the EDA and felt Provo would make a great choice.
“It’s one of the few appointments I get to make,” he said.
Budget discussions, of course, were some of the diciest in recent memory, and Dietz got the ball rolling with a proposal that would have, among other things, scrapped Energy City but salvaged Project Conserve.
The proposal touched a nerve in the community and on the Energy City Commission and got people talking about the city’s budget.
The commission lobbied the council and a petition was even circulated at Pullman Place.
Energy City was ultimately saved, but a decision has been made to go with Dietz’s suggestion to merge the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo and the Energy Expo and at least try it once.
In the end, the tax levy was reduced by $837,000 over last year’s levy through a number of cuts, but it still resulted in a 4 percent increase in the city’s tax rate. Dietz cast the lone “no” vote because the 2012 budget didn’t go far enough to reduce the tax rate and he worries about how it will hurt commercial businesses already strapped by a down economy.
Zerwas credits Dietz with pushing the council along to create a significant drop in the city’s levy, which outpaces a number of nearby communities’ efforts. But to go further than what was proposed went beyond what other council members could stomach.
Dietz will continue his push to lower the tax rate in 2012, and look for new and more efficient ways to do things.
“My least favorite saying is we do it this way because this is the way we have always done it,” Dietz said. “I’m going to keep throwing ideas out there. I’m going to give it all I got.”
He will also continue to push for meaningful collaboration with the school district and local units of government like Sherburne County, Otsego and Nowthen.
He also plans to get more involved in the League of Minnesota Cities and be open to ideas he gets from other mayors.
“In today’s world, we need to get at hard topics, ways we can share and explore ways we can both benefit from partnering.”
And as for city staff and others, he wants them to always know how much he appreciates them.
“I don’t ever want people to feel like I expect them to go above and beyond,” he said. “I want them to always know I appreciate when they go above and beyond.”
Dietz said one of the many examples of that was the 9-11 anniversary program, open house and dance that was put on.
“That was great,” he said.