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Mike McNamara interview

(McNamara is one of three candidates running for Grand Forks mayor.) Q. Tell us when you started thinking about running for mayor. A. Once I got on the radio, it goes back to probably the water park issue. That's when I really began to kind of pe...

(McNamara is one of three candidates running for Grand Forks mayor.)

Q. Tell us when you started thinking about running for mayor.

A. Once I got on the radio, it goes back to probably the water park issue. That's when I really began to kind of peel back the community and develop my thoughts as more of a public person about the composition of the city. I got my ideas of the demographics of the city then, and that was kind of my motivation to run in 2006.

Since then ... You look at something, I'm sure as you all do, as outsiders. I have an interesting perspective now because I kind of get to go behind the curtain, depending on how many rooms you can get into where they're making decisions. And I thought, Well, let me see what it looks like from the inside, because often the assumptions that you make as an outsider are invalid.

Then, as I've been on the council, my assumptions haven't changed. And my assumptions are that we can run the city in a leaner fashion, we can deliver all the goods and services.

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And we can really, I think, do a better job of listening to the citizens. Whenever you go to get a signature or knock on a door, the first thing you discuss is spending, which ultimately translates to property taxes.

And probably the two incidents last fall that made me think about running or pushed me were No. 1, the budget. I thought it was clearly in our capacity to deliver a budget where the city ate inflation on existing property. It would have put the city in a position of opting out of the discussion about property taxes. We could have said to the citizens, Hey, we get it; we understand it; we'll deliver all your services. We could have done that, and I thought that Mr. Christensen's plan and my plan that we put together, I thought, answered that. But the council didn't do that.

Q. When you say that the city could have eaten inflation, what does that mean?

A. It means that you're going to have to prioritize things. We have additional sales tax revenue that we've collected, and the city's been very fortunate in that. As we went through the different spending items, we saw some wants that we believed shouldn't have been in the budget. They could be in the budget, but only after people pay the increase on their existing property taxes. Obviously, our plan didn't pass.

To me, what the citizens are talking about is the marginal increase on their existing property taxes. To me, it's fully within our capability to address that. Now, maybe not every year; but the city of Grand Forks, if you talk to the other political entities, has more sources of revenue than any of them. They are single-source entities, and any one of them would trade places with us in a heartbeat.

So with that, we have greater discretion in terms of what we do.

The other thing that made me think, "You know what? As a leader, I probably could do this better," was that we met in the North End and the South End on the landfill issue, which has probably been the most compelling and highest-visibility issue in the past year.

I thought the mayor should have been at those meetings. As a leader, and I've learned this in my life: That's where we practice foreign policy. I don't think the city does foreign policy in Norway and Japan; I think we do it in the four-mile extraterritorial zone.

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It's tremendously important for the mayor to be leaning against the wall at that meeting, and at some point interjecting, "Hey, I'm going to give you my word as the mayor of Grand Forks that we are going to be good stewards of this land; we are going to take care of the right of way. His presence, I think, is important.

The mayor wasn't at either of those meetings. And I thought, You know what? I see leadership maybe a little bit differently than Mike Brown does.

Q. How would you square being mayor with your job on the radio? Would you keep on doing what you're doing?

A. What I've found since being on the City Council is that the position certainly reins you in terms of the entertaining that you can do. I've never been one who lights the flamethrower off on too many people. So I think, it certainly, again, will be another installment in making my show duller. (Laughter)

I think there's a question of whether they'd want to keep me on the air. But I find that what people like is they want to hear smart people be asked difficult questions, and then they want to hear their responses. An example is that Sen. Conrad is great with those graphs, but if you say, OK: You're not going to cut benefits, you're not going to raid it and the workforce is getting smaller, then how do you do that? Once you put him in that box, and they always try to break the sides of the assumptions, and if you keep bringing them back, you begin to see how difficult those problems are.

So to me, the schtick of talk radio isn't what's important. What it drives you to is more substantive discussions.

So, I don't have a problem with that, and if it ever did become a problem, I'd probably do something else.

Q. Along those lines, when you talk about finding economies in the city budget, what services could be made more efficient?

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A. As a leader, I don't think the services are all run out of our Enterprise Fund. When people say, "Well, he's going to cut our services," that's smoke, because you pay for your water through your water bill. You pay for your sanitation through your sanitation bill. So those services are going to be provided for. Cops are going to be provided for.

It's what we do on the margin. An example: We recommended that we cut $100,000 because we were going to put new video stuff in City Hall to the tune of $100,000. We said, "We're on TV now. For us, anyway, it's a want, not a need." So the council struck that out.

Well, they did it anyway. My conclusion was, there wasn't $100,000 extra in the budget; there was $200,000.

And we were only discussing the marginal increases from the year before. We didn't drill into the budget and say, "What about that? And what about that?"

My leadership style has always been this: In terms of running the city, there are people over there who are much smarter than me. I think when you say, "Here's the goal. Tell me how we we get there," then they're the ones who tell you how to do it. And they're fully capable. As a leader, you have good subordinates and you use those subordinates.

Q. Why didn't the council majority agree with your budget ideas? After all, they're elected officials and have to run for re-election, too.

A. I don't know.

I'm married, I have four kids, and I'm plugged into a lot of different places in this community. And spending is the topic that people want to talk to me about.

The question they ask is, Do they get it? So, I don't know. I struggle with that. If you're around Grand Forks and you have that discussion a lot, then you can't help but wonder, Are we doing enough to run the city as lean as we can?

Now, some people are comfortable with it. And that's them as politicians. I think we could do a better job. And, I think there's frustration on the part of the citizens, because I think they think we can, too. But, what they hear us say is, Hey, we're doing a great job. Look at us, we're doing better than the county. Well, my dad used to tell me, you don't have to be good, just be better than the person you're standing next to. And then his admonition was, Be careful who you stand next to.

So, the question to me isn't, Are we better than somebody else? The question is, are we doing as good of a job as we can do? I think you'll find a diverse series of opinions on that, but I think we can do better.

Q. Would the kind of savings you have in mind make a difference in anything other than on the margin? Are there examples that would lead to significant savings for taxpayers?

A. The first step is a baby step, which is to live within your means. Last year, the city and all the cities in North Dakota went down to Bismarck to lobby and said, Don't cap us at 3.5 percent. And the state Legislature agreed. The mayor then proposed a budget that had a 3.7 percent increase in new construction and an additional 4 percent increase on existing property. So, we expanded general fund spending by 7.7 percent, more than twice what the Legislature had been talking about.

To me, the first step is to live within your means. And if you can do that, then the citizens will see that you get it, you'll get greater credibiltiy. And then when you approach problems in this community that need to be solved -- For instance, we don't have an industrial park. Mike Brown's been in office eight years, but we don't have a good plan for an industrial park. And we don't have a whole lot of money for economic development. Where's that money going to come from?

The citizens haven't been too receptive to the county's idea of a home-rule charter simply because they believe on the other side that it's going to lead to a tax.

So, is there an issue where I can say, Cut that and we will substantially redesign government? No. I think the first step is a baby step, and that is to live within your means. And I think if you can do that for a number of years, then you can go to the citizens with your other needs -- things like the industrial park.

Q. How much education do you think you have to do to get the public to know that you're living within your means? When people think property taxes, they think "city," so the city gets blamed for what the county and others are doing. I don't think the populace understands that it's not being driven by the city.

A. I think the city has to do that, and then it has to tell people what it's doing. Does the city get blamed by some people for everything that happens? Yes. But by and large, in my experience, the people in this community are pretty savvy in terms of all the different projects that have come to market here and all the different funding that has happened. And I think that if you lay it out for them, the majority of them will get it.

I think you would certainly get their attention if you said, Hey -- not only did we not raise your taxes, we lowered them because we ate inflation.

Q. Because I think the discussion that "we lowered mills" doesn't translate, because ...

A. Because we raised your taxes. Here's where you have to get your secret decoder ring on, because if somebody's saying "I lowered mills," what he's really telling you is "I raised your taxes." That's because if he lowered your taxes, as a politician, he would stand up and he would thump his chest. You know, "Hey -- Dig me, I lowered your taxes. And don't forget it on Election Day."

That's the great shell game that we play here with the mill levies in town.

Q. Just to be clear, you're not actually promising to lower taxes. You're promising to contain taxes on existing property.

A. Right. And that's what the citizens are irritated by. They're not looking for us to gut the city, to turn it on its left ear. But they want to see that we get it, that we acknowledge the increased debt that people took on after the flood and revisit on a monthly basis. Because they see some of the things we spend money on, and they hear us say "We're doing a great job," and they don't buy it.

Q. So, increases in budgets would come from taxes on new property and whatever other revenue sources Grand Forks might have, including the sales tax, licenses, fees and so on?

A. Right. And that's the box that you would put yourself in in terms of living within your means. Some years, you would do better than you would do in other years.

I think we need get away from the idea that every year, we'll get something like this year's 7.7 percent increase in general fund expenditures.

Q. But no increase in mills.

A. Right, because the city didn't have to. The only reason they didn't do that was because they didn't have to.

Q. What did that increase buy that we would have given up if it hadn't gone up so high? If it had only gone up 4 percent or 3-something ... what did that extra 3.7 percent buy?

A. I hesitate to speak off the top of my head. But we're doing some things ... For example, we're "pre-funding" a fire truck to the tune of a quarter million dollars a year. Doug Christensen's and my position was, hey, when we make the decision on a new fire station, the decision on how to pay for it will be made at that time. But that's not how it's currently being done.

There's also a discussion about an issue that the Herald wrote an editorial about. The mayor proposed that we hold on to the 5 1/2 mills that could have fallen off if we lowered the dike mills. (Editor's note: Because of rising property values, Grand Forks was collecting more taxes than it needed to pay for the dike.) Hal Gershman wrote a letter saying he wanted to spare the citizens the turmoil of raising taxes later on to pay for other public works projects.

I think the citizens read that stuff and think, You've got to be kidding me.

I'm not opposed to turmoil. I don't mind the turmoil of democracy. And I said, I don't think this is a good thing to do. I think that the mills we're using for flood protection should go back to the citizens when the flood protection is complete. Then, whoever has to levy in the future comes in front of the citizens, we fight about it and make a decision. I think the editorial very appropriately said the same thing.

Q. What are some of the other things on the margin that you could identify?

A. My comments about the mayor's staff and the public information center are things that I've clearly said. Having said those things, I want people to understand that the way you do those things is through attrition, not by going in and firing people.

Clearly, some of the staffing is beyond what people think is reasonable. Now, what's the remedy for that? The remedy for that is through natural attrition and retirements. The estimate I saw says that 25 percent of the city's workforce is going to retire in the next five years. So I think the city is fully capable and will have the opportunity to downsize through attrition. We simply have to make it a priority.

I know there's unions calling around and saying, "Vote for Mike Brown because McNamara is going to fire all these people." I have no intention of doing that, and I don't think you need to turn the city on its ear to achieve the things we're talking about.

Here's another thing. Gas goes up, let's say, 33 percent. Does your budget have to go up 33 percent? Could you do it on, say, 25 percent? People say, "Hey, you can't do that," but I bristle at that. If I gave you a bonus of $15 million, do you think you could meet a lean budget for your organization? I bet you'd find a way.

Q. Fifteen million?

A. Right. You personally.

Q. Meet me afterwards. (Laughter)

A. I think those things are achievable, but we've gotten into this thing of passing it along to the citizens. And I think the 7.7 percent increase is indicitive of that mentality.

Q. The other place where I hear some concern about a potential McNamara as mayor is from economic development interests. What can you say to calm those fears? There's a sense, I think, that Mayor Brown has achieved a kind of a breakthrough here in terms of growth and in terms of the visibility and stature of the city.

I guess I'm looking for, What's the reassurance that this lustre -- both in economic development and in "Destination City" status -- isn't tarnished by electing you?

A. I don't understand how it would be tarnished. I have a degree in economics. He's an OB/GYN.

Q. Which means he's directly increasing the population, as he likes to tell it. (Laughter)

A. Exactly. But let me tell you why they specifically don't need to worry.

If I become mayor, the business relationship between UND and the city of Grand Forks is going to improve. I don't think it's a secret in this town that we can go to cocktail parties and be friends, but the business relationship is not a very good one.

The council has a better relationship with the Student Senate than it does with the business leaders at the university. I think that's one thing that certainly needs to be remedied.

Q. Is that the city's fault or the university's fault?

A. I don't know. But like in any marriage, I'm sure that the husband blames the wife and vice-versa. The problem is, as the chief executive, if you have to lock those people in a room to get them to say, "We may not like each other, but we're going to do business together and open up the lines of communication," then that's what you need to do.

I will tell you that a great example is our relationship with the Student Senate. Whether it be the R-1 discussion, the loud party ordinance or working on SpringFest, we meet with those young people. We talk to them, and they help us solve problems. We might not always agree, but we communicate very well.

We don't do that with the university.

Q. How does that tension show up? What's not happening between the city and the university?

A. One thing that's very illustrative of it is this whole Greenway maintenance thing. When you have Mr. Kruen being interviewed and saying, Maybe we need to sue them -- That relationship, if it gets to that point ... To me, as a leader you need to say, "This is not good. Chuck (Kupchella, president of UND), let me bring my guys, and you bring your guys, and we'll close the doors and they can scream and yell at each other. And you and I will go have a cocktail and come back when they're ready. And it might be several cocktails, but we're going to solve this thing."

Q. That would be an illegal closed meeting. (Laughter)

A. Well, but we would announce it.

The thing is, you have to force that behavior. And even though it might be unpleasant at times, you have to force the relationship because that is the most important business relationship in this community.

I think if you look at the way Energy and Environmental Research Center expansion did not go very well; I also think the new building out there, that was not the smoothest.

Again, we meet on a regular basis with the Student Senate. We don't with the business leaders at UND.

Q. I might be wrong, but what I hear people who talk from the university -- not for the university; from the university. They blame, specifically, Doug Christensen.

A. But how does Doug Christensen trump the mayor as chief executive? Doug Christensen would be a very powerful guy if he were able to do that. He's in the minority on the council, so I don't understand ... Certainly, Doug's an easy guy to blame. But the mayor has four votes just about any time he calls on them.

The way I was raised as a leader: When in charge, be in charge. So, other people can get blamed, but the bottom line is that when you're in charge of the city of Grand Forks and you see this thing fraying a little bit, you say, "This relationship's too important to allow this to happen."

I think people say that about Mike McNamara -- they don't have any specifics that they say, but they say that.

Q. They say ...

A. They say, "Worst thing to happen to Grand Forks since the flood would be Mike McNamara being elected. What about economic development?" But economic development in this town, a lot of it is private sector. The city's job is streets and sewers; we do that.

We don't have a lot of money to make deals right now. That has to be remedied. We don't have an industrial park.

So those issues are out there, but what would Mike McNamara do differently than what Mike Brown is doing that would cost the city in terms of economic development?

Q. Speaking candidly, I think the rap from some economic development interests is, "Mike McNamara and Doug Christensen are close. They're a bloc. And Doug Christensen is a meddler. He has a passive-aggressive approach to economic development issues; he'll go along and then change his mind." There's a lot of angst about Doug Christensen's involvement, and by extension, Mayor McNamara's involvement. I think that's where that's coming from.

A. I would categorically reject that.

I respect Doug's ability to do math. We don't always see things alike. I would say that we're both fairly conservative; but at the end of the day, I certainly have my own opinion.

And again, we can agree to disagree. But you guys have dealt with Doug; it's just a little bit more of a confrontation.

Q. That's another part of the issue, I think. Mike Brown is seen as conciliatory always. Doug Christensen and by extension, Mike McNamara, are seen as being more combative.

A. The mayor is conciliatory always ... how do I say this and not get myself in trouble ... What's Mike Brown's position on Riverside Pool?

Q. I believe he's for it.

A. You believe he's for it. But you don't know. What's his opinion on the CDBG money episode that we had?

Q. I believe that he was essentially supportive of the United Way's position.

A. You believe. There's a trend here, right? You don't know.

Mike Brown is conciliatory. But if you don't take a stand as a chief executive; if you're opinion's not out there ... To me, the chief executive shouldn't get a pass. In East Grand Forks, is there any doubt where Lynn Stauss stands relative to issues? There's none. But Mike Brown -- is he conciliatory, or does he have a firm opinion? And when do you find out about that opinion?

Did you hear anything about Riverside Pool from Mike Brown until after the issue was decided? No. Did he use the bully pulpit? No. You would say that he's conciliatory. I would say that he's not fully engaged, because shouldn't the mayor have an opinion? Shouldn't he speak to the issues?

Our system of government in this city has a mayor who represents everybody and council members who represent wards. And there is a balance that gets struck there. But I don't see the mayor as fully engaged all the time. I see myself as a different mayor.

People may see that as confrontational and dangerous. I certainly don't. To be the advocate for Grand Forks and Grand Forks' economic development is certainly something that I would be not only proud to do, but excited to do.

So my guilt by association with Mr. Christensen, I would fundamentally reject. You can quote me on that.

Q. Do you think I'm mistaken about it?

A. Yes.

Q. I'm talking about the perception.

A. People have said a lot of things, and that's why I've started to call people and say, Hey, I want you to know that my agenda for Grand Forks is to be a better listener, and to move Grand Forks in the direction that I believe the citizens would like to see it move. And in that way, we can run the city leaner, we can grow the city and we can make it a better community.

Q. How much of this has to do with the structure of the mayor's office as far as its being part-time?

A. The mayor being full-time or part-time, I think, is irrelevant. It's whether you're fully engaged or partly engaged. As a mayor, I would be fully engaged.

I think Mike Jacobs wrote a piece maybe a year or so ago that said Grand Forks has a weak mayor and a strong council. That's not by design; by design, it's a balance. Again, as a mayor, I see myself as being fully engaged, and I would think of that as being positive for economic development.

Q. You were not here for the flood, but you were here for the difficult parts of the recovery. Did you think that switching mayors in 2000 was a good idea?

A. Was Mike Brown a better person for that time than Pat Owens?

I never personally experienced the things that Owens was criticized for. So, it would be tough for me to make a decision.

I think that one of the things Mike Brown, by his style, has done is he has taken the mayor's office out of a lot of those controversies and left them to the council.

If I were to judge Mike Brown, I would tell you that every year for eight years, the council cuts three to four mills out of his budget. So with Mike Brown right out of the wrapper, those of us who live in the city would be paying between 24 and 32 additional mills on our home. We'd also own a water park.

That's what he proposed. That's Mike Brown, out of the wrapper.

I think Grand Forks is moving back to "normal," in the wake of the flood, with the question of: Have we created infrastructure that's beyond out tax base because we got used to living large? When that happens with most communities, there comes a time when we have to get back to living within our means, and I believe that's where we are today.

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