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The optimist: Longtime Granite Falls mayor, in an age of discontent, shares his faith in civic life

“What I really hope to do is demonstrate, educate and just encourage others to take the plunge and get involved,” said Dave Smiglewski. Of the lack of civic involvement, he said: “It’s a real threat to community life.”

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski pictured at Tillie’s Restaurant in Granite Falls.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

Dave Smiglewski was 26 years old, a college dropout working for the railroad in Granite Falls, when the City Council member who represented his ward resigned. The council, looking for a young person’s perspective, appointed Smiglewski to fill the seat.

Smiglewski hadn’t planned on a long career in public service, but he soon found that he liked the work. He enjoyed meeting people and working on municipal problems. The job also fueled his interest in local history.

Nearly 40 years after that appointment, Smiglewski is still working at City Hall. Mayor since 1996, he has led this river town of 2,900 residents through two traumatic floods, pushed and prodded for a variety of projects, including a community center and an ethanol plant, and run the local newspaper. He has worn the many hats of a small-town mayor.

“Towns have personalities,” Smiglewski said. “Some places do things and some don’t. But if people can see that something is happening in your town, that can build some faith for the future.”

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As Smiglewski nears the twilight of his career – his current term will end in 2020, when he will be 67 – he is as engaged in local projects as ever, including a potential “whitewater park” for kayaking, paddle boarding and other activities.

But he has also, in this age of political discontent and cynicism, been pondering a part of American life that has long bothered him: the lack of participation in civic matters that, he fears, can cripple communities – especially in rural areas.

In part, he can point to the numbers. According to statistics from the state secretary of state’s office, for instance, no candidates filed to run in 116 races for city offices across Minnesota in the 2016 elections. Many mayoral races, meanwhile, involved incumbents running unopposed. Smiglewski, himself, ran unopposed that year and recalls having only two opponents in more than a dozen races for public office.

“The attitude is, ‘Someone will do it,’ ” he said. “Then you end up having two people for four openings on the school board.”

His plea: Just jump in and do it.

“People are tugged in more directions than they used to be. Families are busier than ever,” he said. “The other part of this is that we just haven’t taught people that this is important – and even fun! We have just not taught that to our future leaders.”

He added: “Your communities need you.”

Back to school

In early December, Smiglewski earned a bachelor’s degree from Metro State University, collecting his diploma at a commencement ceremony at the Minneapolis Convention Center with his family in the audience.

Smiglewski joked that he “dropped out for 43 years,” so his return to college was, in part, about the completion of an unfinished goal. But he has also used his time back in the classroom to study the state of civic life and the dearth, here and elsewhere, of interested future leaders.

He earned an individualized degree with an emphasis in communications, studying with the help of a prestigious Bush Fellowship – worth as much as $100,000 – that he received for his interest in learning more about civic engagement and community involvement. The scholarship runs through 2018, giving Smiglewski the chance to take additional classes in leadership and, perhaps, begin graduate work at Metro State or at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

He is not sure where his academic work will lead him, though he has thought about taking his message on the road as a kind of proselytizer for public service. He’ll take a test run of sorts in January, when he will get the chance, as part of a League of Minnesota Cities panel discussion, to speak to newly elected city officials.

“What I really hope to do is demonstrate, educate and just encourage others to take the plunge and get involved,” he said. Of the lack of civic involvement, he said: “It’s a real threat to community life.”

Roots on the prairie

Smiglewski grew up in Granite Falls and graduated from the local high school, where he participated in football and track, sang in the choir and served on the student council. He was an Eagle Scout.

He read the newspaper every day and remembers discussing the big issues of the times – especially the Vietnam War and social unrest – in his ninth-grade classes. His parents always voted. Later, at the University of Minnesota (he stayed for one quarter), he delved into American labor history, studying under Hy Berman, the popular late professor and commentator.

Smiglewski left the university and spent some time at Southwest Minnesota State, in Marshall, and at Minnesota State, Mankato. He never graduated, though, and by the mid-1970s he was back home, working for Burlington Northern Railroad. Then his ward representative resigned, opening the door to Smiglewski’s life in public service.

In 1996, after 17 years as an alderman, Smiglewski assumed the position of mayor after the death of the incumbent, Roy Lenzen. About a year later, he was confronted with one of the biggest challenges of his career: helping the community deal with a dangerous flood from the overflowing Minnesota River, which runs alongside the city’s downtown and through residential areas. (The river flooded the city again in 2001). The mayor held daily meetings to brief the public on relief efforts, coordinated volunteers and even stacked some sandbags himself.

Granite Falls

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Smiglewski on Granite Falls: “If people can see that something is happening in your town, that can build some faith for the future.”

Tom Cherveny, a reporter for the West Central Tribune in Willmar who has been friends with Smiglewski for several years, wondered at the time whether the mayor was getting any sleep. (Smiglewski remembers once stealing a 45-minute nap in his pickup). “Everyone was really nervous,” Cherveny recalled, “and he really calmed people during that time.”

Cherveny, who lives in Granite Falls, got to know Smiglewski in the 1980s when both were part of a Blandin Foundation leadership program. They ended up working together on the creation of a community center – a project that took 12 years. Smiglewski spent years working on flood mitigation plans and has traveled to Washington, D.C., several times to lobby for Highway 212 and Highway 23 funding. All on a mayor’s salary of $4,000.

“He has told me once or twice that, ‘You know, some people like to fish and camp, but I really enjoy this,’ ” Cherveny said. “It’s fun for him.”

Mr. Granite Falls

By the early 2000s, Smiglewski had been working for Burlington Northern for 30 years and had risen to the position of maintenance foreman when the company moved some of its work out of Granite Falls. Smiglewski found himself working on weekends – and looking for another job.

As it happened, the local newspaper, the Advocate Tribune, was looking for a publisher – someone who knew the area and was willing to put in the endless hours that are required to put out a newspaper. Tim Douglass, the outgoing publisher, knew where to look.

“I thought, ‘Who could be a better guy than “Smig” to run the paper – Mr. Granite Falls!’ So, he and I talked about it and he said, ‘Yeah, I would be interested in it. I don’t really know what I don’t know.’ ”

Of course, Smiglewski, who also served as the editor, had an immediate problem: How could the newspaper cover city government fairly when the publisher was also the mayor?

That led to lots of discussions between Smiglewski and Douglass (who now runs weekly papers in Glenwood and Starbuck). They talked about handling angry letters to the editor; the nuances of libel law; what’s news and what’s advertising – “the kind of insight that reporters always talk about,” Douglass says.

Smiglewski didn’t wring his hands for long. He addressed the issue in a column, then got out of the way and let his staff cover city hall. He got few complaints.

“He had (a news) editor and they covered the city meetings and he didn’t get in the way of that,” Douglass said. “Then he was elected after he had become the publisher, so there was some affirmation in that.”

Smiglewski soon began writing a column called “River Ramblings,” a folksy commentary of project updates, local history and musings on rural life that he has continued to write since retiring from the paper in 2016. In a recent column, he discussed the growing concern over day care accessibility in rural areas – ending with a characteristic appeal. “All hands (and all resources) need to be on deck for this effort,” he wrote. “Our communities need this.”

Douglass recalled a lunch meeting last fall, when Smiglewski happened to be in Glenwood. The two talked about their families briefly before the subject turned to a laundry list of mayoral concerns: government aid for cities, the upcoming legislative session, rural needs. It was a long lunch.

“Whenever I’m gone longer than I say I will be,” Douglass said, “my wife always thinks I must have run into ‘Smig.’ ”

Looking for new leaders

On a recent cold and windy afternoon, Smiglewski sat inside Tillie’s Restaurant, nursing a bowl of chicken dumpling soup; he had eaten at the popular diner just hours earlier, during one of the many meetings he attends. In addition to his work as mayor, he remains active as a board member for Project Turnabout, a chemical dependency treatment center in Granite Falls, and as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. He and his wife, Cindy, have three adult children.

He wore a blue vest over a cotton shirt, a Fitbit on his wrist and his telltale mustache on his upper lip.

A half-dozen residents stopped by to say hello, most of them addressing the mayor as “Smig.” One woman handed him a program for a Veteran’s Day event, patted him on the shoulder and encouraged him to attend; another happened to be his son-in-law, Chad Christianson, and they talked briefly about a grandson’s upcoming basketball season.

“He has been on [the council] for such a long time, he just does a great job of communicating with folks he meets [out in the community] or those who come into the council chambers,” said Sarina Otaibi, a City Council member. “He’s really invested in the work, and that shows.”

Smiglewski was heartened by the election of Otaibi, who brings a millenial’s resume to the job: She grew up in Saudi Arabia, moved to Granite Falls to finish high school, left for college in Florida and Maryland and then returned. (Otaibi’s mother, a Granite Falls native, met her father, a Saudi, when he was studying at Ridgewater College in Willmar).

Otaibi was 26 when she got elected – Smiglewski’s age when he joined the council – and shares the mayor’s frustration over the lack of interest in or knowledge of public service, which she senses in conversations with friends and acquaintances.

“I completely agree with Dave with what he is trying to figure out,” she said. “Once I got on the council, I was hoping other people my age would see that they could serve. But these days, just even talking about it and normalizing it with people my age has been important.”

Otaibi ran for the City Council again in 2016 and won. She is the only woman on the board (which has a vacancy) and can think of several people who would be excellent candidates – but it’s hard to make the public-service case.

“People have this misconception, especially in small towns, about how much time it actually takes to serve and do these things,” she said. “But once you get involved, it becomes normal and a lot easier to handle than you might think.”

“I personally like the direct impact you are able to make, especially in smaller communities,” she added. “You can see the results of your work.”

Smiglewski couldn’t have said it better.

“Getting on the City Council wasn’t my goal in life. It’s played out more like a hobby or an avocation rather than a vocation,” he said. “But you get exposed to things and you learn from it and it’s interesting, and you get things done.”

He thought for a moment and said: “It grew on me.”

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.