Next Tuesday, Derek Woellner will take the oath of office as the youngest mayor in city history, at the age of 25.
Among many local contested races in the Spring General Election on April 3, Woellner challenged two-term incumbent Bill Bialecki. When the final ballot had been counted Tuesday evening, Woellner clinched the upset-win (1,017-938).
Now with the election in the books and his first day in office drawing near, all signs point to the new mayor being ready to get to work. Friday afternoon, Woellner met with the Merrill Foto News to discuss what lies ahead, as he begins his four-year term.
In discussing his roots in politics, the 25-year-old UW-Stout grad is quick to admit politics was the last thing from his mind when graduating college in 2016, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, and a dual concentration in Digital Humanities. Prior to college, Woellner has been a lifelong resident of Merrill, graduating from Merrill High School in 2011.
“My original plan following graduation was to move to the Twin Cities, believe it or not,” Woellner said. “I remember when I was going to high school in Merrill, I couldn’t wait to get out of town with no plans to come back. There just wasn’t anything for young people, or a reason for anyone my age to stick around.”
However, a reach-out from friends back at home triggered a change of plans for Woellner, and he found himself on his way back to his hometown shortly after college graduation.
“Right about the time I graduated, I was contacted by a few friends here in town who had organized the Merrill Disc Golf (MDG) club,” he said. “Their intent was to create a starting point to offer options to young people for things to do. I thought it was a great idea and decided to come back to help out.”
The MDG initiative would prove to be Derek’s first endeavor into the local government scene. In the wake of several meetings and lobbying efforts, a three-hole course was established at Kitchenette Park in November of 2016 and six more holes were added last year.
“The disc golf club gave me a reason to come back to Merrill and change what I didn’t like most about living here,” Woellner added. “I saw it as an opportunity to come back and start something good for the city and something fun for people of all ages to do. If I had moved to the Twin Cities, I would have taken a job stepping in to work on something someone else had already started. But coming back to Merrill and working with the MDG, was an opportunity for me to help start and build something from scratch.”
Woellner’s interest in local government intensified as he learned of matters which he felt were not properly handled by city administration, including the city’s nepotism policy and the city street commissioner referendum last year.
“When I addressed the Common Council regarding my concerns of these matters, I felt ignored and was blown off,” he adds. “That was a key turning point for me. That’s when I decided I wanted to run for Mayor.”
As he prepares to take office next week, Woellner cites meeting and fulfilling core responsibilities of the mayoral office as a priority. Other priorities include investigating possible cost savings at city hall by reconfiguring city administrative positions, marketing the city by means of making Merrill the “Disc Golf Capital of the United States” and minimizing TIF incentives to new business development.
“I would like to see the city administrator position eliminated and replaced by an HR (Human Resources Director) as well as the city attorney,” he said. “I see value in the city attorney position, but his salary is too high. I don’t feel the City Administrator has the skills to hire and manage personnel. Any responsibilities currently held by the City Administrator, that an HR director is not qualified to handle, would be turned over to the Mayor. I feel I could handle those responsibilities during my term, it would be tough but I think I could do it. But eventually I would like to see the mayor position become full-time again, with benefits. Not during my tenure, as I feel that would be unfair. But by having a full-time mayor, I feel the city would be better served than forcing a mayor to either be retired, self-employed or juggle a full-time job on the side. Also a full-time mayor could better handle additional responsibilities than a part-time mayor.”
As for disc golf, Woellner sees the expansion of disc golf to include 100 holes throughout the city, as a tool to market the city and in turn make the city more lucrative for relocation and aid in the building of a skilled labor force.
“Taming TIF’s” was one of a few concepts of Derek’s mayoral campaign.
“I feel the previous administration spent too much time and effort into awarding TIF gifts,” he adds. “I agree it’s important to incentivize business, but it shouldn’t be our main focus. I see TIF incentives as a catch 22 for Merrill. We need jobs, but companies who offer good jobs need a skilled work force and we can’t have a skilled work force without good jobs, The Bialecki administration wanted to attract development and jobs to attract a work force. And now I would like to focus on building a skilled work force to attract development and jobs.”
Woellner currently works full-time, but based on the flexibility of his schedule, he assures his full-time work responsibilities will not interfere with his responsibilities to the city and the mayor’s office.
Derek will be sworn in as the city’s 37th mayor on the evening of Tuesday, April 17.