Want to be mayor? Move to one of these places

George Hoffman is running unopposed in Wilmont.
George Hoffman is running unopposed for a city council seat in Wilmont, Minn. He has served on the four-person board for six years. "We've tried about everything we could," Hoffman said of trying to get people involved in running for public office.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Dozens of Minnesota city council, township board and mayoral elections are missing something this year — candidates.

Around the state there are offices on the ballot in November with no one seeking the jobs. That means a few write-in votes could determine some municipal leaders or that local governments will have to find other ways to fill those posts.

Wilmont, a bedroom community 20 minutes outside Worthington, had a population of 339 people in the last census. It's where George Hoffman is running for another four-year term on the city council.

In November, his name will be the only one on the ballot — for three Wilmont government offices at stake. That includes the mayor's office. The current mayor is retiring so he can travel more and visit family scattered around the country.

In his six years on the council, Hoffman has assisted the mayor, but he doesn't want the title himself.

"I was not interested in taking the mayor's job," Hoffman said, "I'm 70 years old, which is not that old I guess."

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The retired John Deere service technician figures he could wind up with the responsibility anyway.

Playing pool in Wilmont's community center.
From left, Ray Brake, Harry Springman, Al Menke and Ron Baumhoefner play pool in Wilmont's Community Center on Aug. 29, 2016. Their mayor, Paul Grant, is stepping down in two years and no one has stepped forward to take his place.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"I'm just afraid that as assistant mayor that I will be slid into that position if we do not get somebody that steps forward," he said. "Otherwise if we get one write-in vote for mayor and one write-in vote for the other council seat, they've got 'em!"

MPR News analyzed candidate filings for cities and townships and found more than 250 instances where no one is seeking the job. A few of the undesired posts are in places with one thousand or more residents. But most affected cities have tiny populations.

Barry, a 16-person city in far western Minnesota, is an example. Voters are supposed to elect a mayor, city council member, clerk and treasurer this fall. There are zero candidates.

League of Minnesota Cities executive director David Unmacht said he hasn't studied the municipal ballot vacancies closely enough to declare this year's number an aberration or a trend.

Either way, it's hard for Unmacht to find blanket explanations.

"It's really unique to each particular community," he said.

"At the same time, it is a tough job. It's not always the most popular position in town. And in small towns, everybody knows everybody," Unmacht added. "And often times in some of these small communities people have rotated these positions so 'Who's turn is it next?' And it might not be the time for people to serve."

If still empty after the election, most of the cities should be able to fill their position gaps through appointments to carry them through the next election.

"These communities know that there isn't anybody who has signed up to be a mayor. They're having conversations in the coffee shops as we speak about who should run for mayor," Unmacht said. "They might even being picking someone to run for mayor in terms of being a write-in candidate as we speak."

Unmacht's bigger concern is the graying of city halls and the difficulty some areas are having attracting younger blood for park boards, advisory panels and other entities that can serve as training grounds for future leaders.

In the central Minnesota city of Bowlus, Joe Sobania has the ballot all to himself as a city council candidate. Problem is, there are four jobs in all up for grabs.

Sobania, who works in manufacturing, was surprised when the filing period closed earlier this month and his name was it.

"I thought there would be one or two more people," he said. "Because they always can complain about stuff but nobody wants to run for city council to do something about it."

Sobania was appointed to the city council not long ago when someone else moved. He estimates that he devotes three to four hours a month to the part-time role, where things like dog-leash ordinances and public works concerns are front-and-center.

So did he set his sights too low this November by not trying for mayor?

"I'm just new the scene so I kind of want to take baby steps and work my way up, kind of to see what I'm getting myself into and work my way up," Sobania said.

It was a fluke that left the void on the Grand Marais ballot for mayor.

Incumbent Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux hopes to keep his job. But something went wrong.

"I just didn't get the papers there," Arrowsmith-DeCoux confessed.

The mayor had been on a family trip into the Boundary Waters. In his town on the national wilderness area's doorstep, it's as good an excuse as any.

"The fact that nobody else filed I'm kind of relieved by that," he said with a laugh.

He's been razzed by his friends for the slip. He's waging a write-in campaign. And the first-termer is vowing he won't make the same mistake next time.

"So you can sure bet your baloney that when the next election comes up I will be the first person putting my paperwork in," Arrowsmith-DeCoux said.

Back in Wilmont, Hoffman said a write-in mayor would cut both ways — getting him off the hook but also carrying uncertainty.

"We're just concerned about who we might get in there. You don't know who you would get on a write-in," Hoffman said. "If they want the job and they take it, we have to accept it. We can't say 'No, we don't want you in there' because they were duly elected."

Minnesota cities with mayoral elections and no candidates who filed to run:

• Aldrich

• Barry

• Bigelow

• Bowlus

• Boy River

• Browns Valley

• Clarissa

• Conger

• Dumont

• Eagle Bend

• Elizabeth

• Fairfax

• Flensburg

• Funkley

• Georgetown

• Grand Marais

• Halstad

• Hatfield

• Hitterdahl

• Lake Henry

• Lake Lillian

• Leonard

• Long Beach

• Meadowlands

• Mizpah

• Morton

• New Richland

• New Trier

• Prinsburg

• Roscoe

• Tenstrike

• Trosky

• Turtle River

• Twin Lakes

• Ulen

• Wabasso

• Wanda

• Warren

• Westport

• Wilmont

• Wolf Lake

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State's Office