Updated: Experience gives Wilson nod in appointment to Elk River City Council

The City Council felt all three candidates were good, but Wilson could hit the ground running

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Citing Stewart Wilson’s wealth of experience and ability to hit the ground running, the Elk River City Council has voted 4-0 to appoint him to an open council seat.

Stewart Wilson
Stewart Wilson

Wilson will complete the last two years of Nick Zerwas’ Ward 1 council term, through Dec. 31, 2014. Zerwas resigned after being elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November.

Wilson is a lifelong Elk River resident and long-time local banker. He also chairs the Elk River Housing and Redevelopment Authority and is a former member of the Elk River Planning Commission.

The other two in the running for the appointment were Barbara Olsen and Nick Freitag.

Council members said all three were good candidates, but Wilson’s experience appeared to give him the edge in the appointment vote at a work session Monday, Feb. 11.

Council Member Matt Westgaard said two years will go by in a blink of an eye and they need someone to come up to speed fairly fast.

What set Wilson apart from the other two candidates was his familiarity with the city, its processes and its plans, Westgaard said.

“He has been very, very involved in the community already and I think he would do a very good job at representing the people of Ward 1,” he added.

Council Member Barb Burandt said any of the three candidates would do a good job. Freitag has a perspective from younger people and it’s important to have their voice heard, she said. Although he does not have as much information at this point, he is willing to learn and grow, she said.

Olsen served more than 10 years on the Coon Rapids Planning and Zoning Commission and has a lot of experience she could put to use on the Elk River City Council, Burandt said.

But Burandt said neither has the same experience as Wilson.

“I would agree that he could hit the ground running,” she said. “He knows our city…”

Council Member Paul Motin said the learning curve facing a new council member is a big factor and it’s clear Wilson has the strongest background in city issues.

Mayor John Dietz also supported Wilson, saying he was the most qualified candidate.

“We can’t afford a six- to nine-month learning curve in a 23-month term,” Dietz said.

Westgaard made the motion to appoint Wilson, Motin seconded it and it passed unanimously.

Wilson, who was watching from the audience, thanked the council. He will be sworn in at the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19 city council meeting at City Hall, 13065 Orono Parkway.

One question raised some questions

Before choosing Wilson, the council discussed the process leading up to the appointment.

The city had the option of either appointing a candidate or holding a special election. The City Council decided to appoint in part to save money (an election would cost as much as $15,000) and time (with an election it could be June before the new council member was in place). Concern about low turnout at a special election was also voiced.

The city had taken pains to conduct a fair appointment process. Candidates submitted applications and answered written questions, were interviewed by the council and participated in a public forum.

At Monday’s work session, City Administrator Cal Portner asked the council for feedback on the process.

There was some discussion about a question asked of the candidates regarding whether or not they envisioned running for the seat in 2014 if appointed.

Freitag had indicated if appointed, he envisioned running for the council seat in 2014.

Wilson said if appointed, he would not anticipate running in 2014.

Olsen said if appointed, she couldn’t be sure at this point if she would run or not in two years.

Westgaard said that question generated a lot of feedback and “seemed to bother 80 percent of the people.”

The mayor said he doesn’t think it should have been asked.

Westgaard agreed.

Motin, meanwhile, said he would have liked to see more than two days between Saturday’s candidate forum and Monday’s meeting to choose a council member to allow for more public input.

About Stewart Wilson

•senior vice president at The Bank of Elk River, where he has worked since 1975.

•current chair of the Elk River Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and an HRA commissioner for 16 years.

•served on the Elk River Planning Commission in the 1980s and was on the Guardian Angels board for 17 years.

•has a bachelor’s degree in political science.

•is a lifelong Elk River resident.

•he and his wife have two children and two grandchildren.