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Fill in the blank: Four area communities face write-in candidates for mayor

REGIONAL -- When voters go to the polls on Tuesday in four southwest Minnesota communities, they will have to come up with their own suggestion for their town's mayor.

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Bigelow mayor Brad Meester.

REGIONAL - When voters go to the polls on Tuesday in four southwest Minnesota communities, they will have to come up with their own suggestion for their town’s mayor.

The top leadership position failed to attract candidates to file for the job in the Nobles County communities of Bigelow and Wilmont, and the Pipestone County communities of Trosky and Hatfield.

The city charter in each of those communities spells out who is eligible to serve as mayor, with the basic requirements including U.S. citizenship, being age 21 or older and having residency within the community where the write-in vote takes place.

As current mayors of those communities point out, there is far more to the job than meeting those few qualifications and attending council meetings once a month. Their reasons for choosing not to file are varied.

Bigelow Brad Meester was elected to the Bigelow City Council four years after moving to town, though he was no stranger to the community. He grew up on a farm just outside of this southern Nobles County community.

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Meester is now finishing up his 12th year on the council - eight years as a council member and four years as mayor. Though he says it was a great experience, choosing not to file for another term was a decision he had to make.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I’m at the stage that my career needs to be invested in. I’m spending a lot more time doing things that are work-related, and my job involves a lot of after-hour work that takes away from the family.”

Meester, an ag loan officer at First State Bank Southwest in Worthington, has a wife and two young children, and he wants to spend more time with them.

“When I put more stuff on my plate, things have to go,” he said. “The one thing that does take the most commitment is the one I have to step away from.”

Meester notified the Bigelow City Council of his decision prior to the August primary and sent a newsletter out to residents of the small town in hopes someone would step forward and offer to serve. The filing deadline came and went, however, and no one wanted the job.

Election Day has Meester feeling a bit worried. He’s already told the community he will help a new mayor transition in, but he will not accept the position if his name is written on the ballot.

“I feel like I’m leaving them without having someone in that position, but at the same time, there has to be a way - these things are going to come up,” Meester said. “The reality is that somebody in the community needs to step up and take these positions.”

In addition to the mayoral post in Bigelow, voters of the city will also have to write-in their choice for one of two open city council seats. Terry Neugebauer filed to retain his seat, but no one filed for the second seat.

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Meester believes he’s leaving the city in good hands for whoever ends up being mayor. He and the council have accomplished much in the dozen years he served, from installing a new sewer system to working with Habitat for Humanity to address a housing project in town and tackling projects to improve the city’s utility grid - something needed to help the local grain elevator thrive.

There is still work to do, however. Meester said there is a need to improve efficiencies by investing in technology and equipment in the city office. The city’s water tower will also need attention in the next couple of years.

“I would say a lot of it is maintenance,” Meester said of the issues that need to be faced.

So, why didn’t anyone file for the mayoral seat in this community of 230 residents?

“A lot of these people have served their time on council many years ago,” Meester said, pointing to the age of the community’s residents as one factor. Another is that Bigelow attracts people who don’t stick around.

“There’s a portion of the community that has become more revolving with the number of rental properties,” he said. “Just because of that revolving nature, they don’t (get involved).”

The town needs volunteers - volunteers to serve on the city council, and volunteers to serve on the fire department. In a town that employs a part-time clerk-treasurer, volunteers are a necessity.

“It is very hard to find people to dedicate and commit to doing these volunteer jobs,” Meester said. “It’s a very much appreciated thing volunteers do for the community.”

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Wilmont Paul Grant was elected to the Wilmont City Council in the 1980s and, after learning the intricacies of city government over the course of the next several years, he was elected the town’s mayor. Grant served five back-to-back terms in the city’s top spot before stepping down to become the maintenance man for the city of Wilmont - a job he would keep for 16 years until his retirement.

Retirement gave Grant some of the flexibility he wanted, though he still worked as a consultant for Wilmont and held both the water and sewer licenses for the community.

Then, in 2014, no one filed for mayor. Enough city residents wrote Grant’s name on the ballot to give him the job if he wanted it, and he decided to accept the majority rule.

This time, however, Grant has made it clear he’s ready to step down. He will not accept another write-in vote. After more than 40 years of service in some capacity to the city of Wilmont, he really does want to retire.

“My wife and I are both retired now and we like to travel,” Grant said. “I just feel that I can’t devote my full time to being the mayor and to take care of all the projects and the day-to-day things that happen in the city.”

Wilmont City Clerk Rita Vaske said she understands Grant’s wishes.

“He has been dealing with city issues for a long time,” she said. “I don’t blame him at all. I’m going to miss him. The experience is unbelievable (with Grant) - and the knowledge.”

Both Grant and Vaske are a little concerned about the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

“There’s always someone who’s going to put Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck down and those people are not available,” Grant said with a laugh. “The only concern is that whoever does receive the write-in is a person who is really concerned and wants the job.”

Vaske said the role of mayor doesn’t take an exorbitant amount of time, but it does require someone with knowledge about government and city infrastructure.

“(Wilmont is) a bedroom community and to find people that are really interested in the day-to-day workings of the city, it’s hard to do,” added Grant. “It’s where government starts. It’s a challenge, in a way. I guess not many people want to take on the challenge.”

In addition to writing in their choice for mayor, the residents of Wilmont, population 340, will also have to write in their choice for at least one seat on the city council.

Trosky In the Pipestone County community of Trosky -- population 83 according to 2015 census estimates -- Lyle Schiebout stepped in as interim mayor in January, when the town’s elected mayor moved away. Schiebout is interested in keeping the mayoral title, but because his term on the Trosky City Council doesn’t expire until 2018, he couldn’t file. Instead, he’s hoping for the write-in vote, according to Don Walhof, a member of the town council.

Walhof, whose own seat on the council is up for election Tuesday, said it is a challenge in a small town to find people willing to serve. His own entry onto the council came about after the death of a council member and a need to fill the vacancy. That was four years ago.

“Nobody else wants it,” he said of the leadership roles. “It is a lot of work, even in a little town. We all take turns helping out.”

Facing a sewer project for the past eight years, Walhof said the city relies on others for help. With the sewer project, they are working with state and federal agencies.

“That’s probably the reason it’s been a problem getting someone to step up on the council,” Walhof said. “We’re looking for land acquisition right now.”

Without a single full-time city employee, the mayor and council members maintain the streets (they hire someone to do snow removal), take water samples and try to meet the needs of residents.

A blacktop Pipestone County highway angles through town - the only paved street in Trosky - and the county maintains that. The rest of the streets are gravel, and the council members keep them oiled to control dust.

The city is served by Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water, so councilman Ron Klumper, who is certified in municipal water testing, submits quarterly samples for review.

Hatfield Approximately nine miles northeast of Trosky, also in Pipestone County, is the tiny town of Hatfield, population 50. Pat Kirby has served as either a city council member or mayor there for more years than she can remember.

Know what else? She’s never filed for public office.

“I was asked if I wanted to be on the council or be mayor down at the bar,” she said with a laugh. “That’s how small our town is.”

Kirby said she wasn’t sure she would be elected when she first agreed to be a write-in candidate oh-so-many years ago. Now, it seems, there’s nothing to worry about.

“It’s kind of word of mouth, and there’s nobody else willing to run,” she said. “I haven’t heard of anybody that wants the job.”

Part of the reason is that most of the residents of Hatfield have served their time.

“Just about everybody has served once,” Kirby said. “The new people are younger, and they’re busier. They have games and all that stuff.”

Kirby anticipates she will win again on Tuesday if she garners the write-in vote - and she will accept what the voters choose.

“I don’t mind it,” she said of being Hatfield’s mayor. “It keeps me involved in the city.”

So, why not file?

“Because I don’t need to,” she said. “People normally get voted back in unless somebody says, ‘I’m done.’ And then we look around and see if we can talk someone into being on the council.”

Before anyone signs on, however, they should know when they agree to serve on the council, they’re agreeing to more than simply attending council meetings.

Kirby and a fellow council member read the water meters in Hatfield once a year. They also put up the snow fence each fall. Another council member, Kirby said, is kind enough to take care of any issues dealing with the town’s water or sewer system.

“When it comes to snow removal, we do our best,” she said.

Doing their best. That’s what each of these small towns without mayoral candidates is trying to do.

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Wilmont Mayor Paul Grant,

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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