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Worthington continues to offer honorary city council member program

Honorary Council Members1 / 2
Worthington City Hall. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- A quick glance at the list of nearly 100 former honorary council members reveals several familiar names.

All but a couple of the current councilmen participated in the Honorary City Council Member of the Month Program at one point: Mayor Alan Oberloh took part in 2000, as did long-time councilman Bob Petrich. Current County Commissioner Norm Gallagher served in 1992. More recently, local leaders Hector Andrade, Diane Graber, Phil Willardson, Robert Ramirez and Mike Hokeness have completed several-month terms alongside the elected council.

"We've had a lot of them tell us it's a real valuable program," said City Clerk Janice Oberloh. "It's a good way for people to get background information in how city government works."

Since its inception in May of 1992, the program has aimed to serve three key purposes: increasing the number of people familiar with local government operations, gaining a fresh view on city issues and developing potential city council candidates.

"I wasn't really excited about it at the beginning," admitted Graber, the provost at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, who was asked to participate. "But it was such a great experience for me because I learned how difficult their jobs are. They have a multitude of problems that land there, and I was impressed with the whole process."

Graber found especially interesting the process to negotiate funding, weighing the possible uses for each dollar and considering who the funding will serve. And she hasn't ruled out her own pursuit of city office.

"I think they maybe need some aesthetic advice from a woman," she said with a laugh.

"It's a way of allowing citizens who have some interest or even would like to have some knowledge of the workings of city government to do so," explained Mayor Oberloh. "Quite often, when people take this position they say 'Wow, I didn't know there was that much involved.' They cannot believe how much work the council and the mayor do each month with all the committee meetings."

Ken McNab, the second-ever honorary council member, was nominated by an elected council member.

"I kind of like to participate in civic affairs, so it was interesting to find out who was voting for what and things like that," he recalled.

The resolution adopting the program was unanimously approved at the March 23, 1992, meeting under then-Mayor Robert J. Demuth.

"I've asked a few people about it, and there's been a positive reaction," then-councilman Ron Bourassa was quoted as saying in the May 24, 1992, edition of the Daily Globe.

The honorary designation gives members the right to participate in council discussion but not to make motions or vote, to attend a staff briefing and tour city facilities and receive all correspondence directed to the council.

Although it was proposed councilmen take turns selecting honorary members, the resolution was ultimately adopted in a way that would allow any resident city voter who was at least 21 years old to apply -- to make the process fair, applicants would then be selected at random.

Current Honorary Councilman Lon Lien is actually in his second term in the program: he also served as an honorary member in 1995.

Since his first stint, Lien has noticed only one major change in the program: originally selected for one-month terms, honorary council members now serve for three months, attending regular council, advisory board and commission meetings. Janice Oberloh said that was to allow members more time to fully absorb the workings of the council. Because council has only two regular meetings each month, participants said the program would end just as they were beginning to understand how council works.

Lien continued: "Before I signed up for this, I wasn't aware of the major issues of these (Local Government Aid) cuts that are going to have a serious impact on cities such as Worthington. The deliberations over that are going to be sort of difficult, and the resulting budget restraints are going to have an impact on the community. But hopefully we'll be able to get through it."

He said the opportunity to better understand city government prompted him to sign up.

"Sometimes I don't always agree with or understand the workings of the local government, so I was just hoping to gain a little insight into the process and the other legal processes that happen, so I understand what's going on," he said.

Lien, who grew up in Worthington and is now partowner of Lien Electric Co., said he's seen a lot of changes in the community during the years, but remains interested in the community's betterment.

"I am and have been cognizant and concerned about community issues and growing the community and having Worthington be a good nice place to live," Lien said. So that's part of why I wanted to be involved."