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Published on November 5th, 2019 | by AberdeenMagazine

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A Meeting with the Mayor

In city government, the position of mayor has evolved with each elected candidate. Here, Mayor Travis Schaunaman and three of his predecessors talk about their goals and strategies for bettering an always-changing Aberdeen.

What is the first thing you look for when considering a new job?

If you are honest and said the pay, you are not alone. According to a poll by LinkedIn, job seekers scan employment listings for the salary and benefits packages first before deciding if they will read about qualifications and responsibilities. So, picture this help wanted ad. Hiring: Mayor. Salary: $15,000 per year. Benefits: None. Duties include, but not limited to: Head the city government in all ceremonial purposes. Vote and preside at meetings of the city council. Represent the city in intergovernmental relationships. Appoint members to citizen advisory boards and committees (with the advice and consent of the city council). And, present the annual state of the city message.

Did you get past the $15,000 to read the rest?

Most of us probably wouldn’t. But some have stood apart from the crowd and thrown their hats into the ring as mayoral candidates. If you are not in it for the money, it must then be for the work itself. Over the years, Aberdeen’s city government has gone through changes that have naturally shifted the duties of the city’s mayor. And even with a clear job description, each mayor can put an emphasis on the things they find
most important.

On July 1, Aberdeen’s newest mayor, Travis Schaunaman, officially began his first five-year term in office. At 38 years old, he is best known around town as the owner of Production Monkeys, a website development and marketing company he founded in 2007.

Schaunaman says he ran for mayor to advocate for the city and its business owners, both future and present. “By the time I finish this term, I want Aberdeen to be known as the best place in the entire state to live and the best place to start a business. All of my objectives work toward that goal,” he says.

This intention is momentous, but one he says is achievable because Aberdeen has already been leaning toward it for years. Of his objectives, Schaunaman highlights a couple of major ones. First, he wants to reduce overregulation that he says can deter businesses from starting and expanding in town. He cites several existing city ordinances that pose financial and other difficulties to business owners, such as those dictating landscape standards, home occupancy laws, and signage rules, as examples. In legislative matters as these, the mayor has an equal vote with the eight members of the city council. Schaunaman says he hopes to be a voice behind the scenes that gets the ball rolling for change.

In terms of creating momentum, Aberdeen has situated itself as an entrepreneurial hub. Schaunaman says we should be talking about this more with our young people, so they keep their hometown in mind when deciding on their future. This year he plans to launch a mentorship program between area high school students, students studying business at NSU, and professionals at the height of their careers in Aberdeen. The program will give kids who have demonstrated high academic performance the chance to have conversations with successful adults in the community. He says, “We miss the boat on a lot of these kids. If they leave to go to school, find jobs, and start families elsewhere, it is hard for them to come back to the area. But if they have been seeing Aberdeen as a great option from day one, they’re more likely to consider building their lives here.”

Schaunaman adds that the city’s tradition of entrepreneurship has created a collective knowledge of business development amongst the community. “Aberdeen is a great place to start and grow a business. I want to make sure everyone understands that and has access to all the resources and people who are here to help them.”

Like many in the mayor’s seat before him, Schaunaman will be working his full-time job in addition to managing his new role for the city. That’s because for most of Aberdeen’s history, the mayor position has been a part-time one. Only during a single term starting in 2004 was it a full-time endeavor touting an annual salary of $55,000. That year, eight people entered the election race, and Mike Levsen says he narrowly won with the most votes. Levsen came into office at age 55 and on the heels of a 30-year career in radio. Just six months after he became the city’s first full-time mayor, Aberdeen voters approved the Home-Rule Charter and adopted a city manager form of government. In short, this change meant the mayor position would become a leadership and ceremonial role versus a functional and operational one. It would also revert to part-time hours. Meanwhile, a hired (not elected) city manager would oversee the city’s administrative duties. Levsen finished out his first term doing both the job of mayor and of an interim city manager. In 2009, the Home-Rule Charter took over. Levsen says he was more interested in the responsibilities of the city manager, as he felt he could accomplish more with that position. But since he was a previously elected official, he was not able to apply for the job. 

Levsen says he was usually in the mayor’s office from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM every day, discussing and interacting with city business and responding to emails and phone calls from the public. He estimates he represented the city at three or four speaking events each week, for a total of over two thousand during all his years in office. “In events that are important to the community, it is the mayor’s job to be visible and accessible, and I felt that it was at least a 30 or 40-hour job a week to be at all the places where a mayor should be,” he explains. That comes out to about $7 or $8 an hour. Without missing a beat, he says, “I would have done it for nothing. I felt like I gave Aberdeen a full-time effort for a part-time salary and that was my choice, I didn’t have to, and it wasn’t asked of me. But I enjoyed it, so I did it.” He acknowledges that he was in a fortunate position to be able to devote so much time to the role. In the future if Aberdeen continues to grow, he says it could be justified that the mayor position becomes full-time, opening it up to more potential candidates.

The mayor also runs the city council meetings, a responsibility that takes a specific skill. Levsen says, “I placed a very high emphasis on running the meetings professionally. It was important that we stayed on topic and did not interrupt each other or repeat things.” He adds that the majority of Aberdeen city government happens outside of these council meetings, handled by department heads who are more than equipped to make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

When summing up a career, everyone wants to know your list of accomplishments. Levsen says that’s one question he can’t answer. “It is impossible for a mayor to do anything alone; the mayor doesn’t have that kind of power. I have never done anything good for the city that didn’t involve a lot of other people.” In the last 15 years, Aberdeen has grown in many ways, adding 6,000 residents, 2,000 new homes, and a list a mile long of hundreds of millions of dollars in capital projects. “I take a lot of satisfaction in the overall quality of city government and city employees and in the dozens and dozens of community leaders who decided we were going to take a positive and aggressive attitude and start doing things. The fact that I got elected didn’t change that; it just happened to be the time that it changed,” he concludes.

Preceding Levsen were Mayors Tom Hopper (1999-2004), Tim Rich (1987-1999), and Del Janusz (1981-1987). During their years in office, Aberdeen was led by a strong mayor-commissioner form of government, which differed significantly than the current city manager and council format. The mayor was considered the head of the city and worked closely with four elected commissioners who had a responsibility to all of Aberdeen, not just individual sections, in four specific functions—public works, water/wastewater, safety, and finance. If you had an issue or a question, it fell under one of these categories, and everyone went to the same official to handle it. 

Before he was mayor, Tom Hopper became a city commissioner at the age of 24, making him the youngest person in Aberdeen to be elected to a city government position. He says he made two promises as mayor: to do the best he possibly could and to continue doing neighborhood outreach. During his time in office, he knocked on thousands of doors to visit one-on-one with the people and hear from them directly about what they needed. Because of this, investing millions of dollars to improve the infrastructure of various neighborhoods—the streets, water, and storm sewer systems—became one of his main priorities. He says, “We tried to make people feel good about their government, and to show them that it could work for them and be responsive, by talking with them and completing these projects that they wanted and that improved their quality of living.”

In total, Hopper served as commissioner and mayor for 23 years. He says, “Everyone I worked with always worked very hard to make Aberdeen successful. When I came into office, I was able to do things because of all the effort put in by mayors and commissioners before me.” 

Del Janusz, the city’s only female mayor, still lives in Aberdeen today. After she stepped away from the mayor’s office to run for State Senate, Tim Rich, a commissioner in his early forties, was chosen to be the active mayor. Rich worked for his family’s business, Aberdeen Finance Corporation and Insurance (a job he still keeps today) and says he hadn’t anticipated becoming involved publicly. “A lot of businesspeople and people my age would meet in the mornings at a café downtown called Mother’s. We’d talk about Aberdeen, and I was very open and verbal about what I thought should be done. One morning someone said, ‘If you’re so smart, why don’t you run for office and fix things?’ I thought, ‘Really?’ And it kind of grew from there. The next thing I knew we had petitions and I was running for city commissioner.” During his time as mayor, Rich says he placed an emphasis on creating new job opportunities and convincing large companies—like Banner, Sheldahl, Twin City Fan, and Aberdeen Machine Tool—to open locations in Aberdeen. “Our labor force is one of the best, and we wanted to bring in life-supporting, permanent jobs for people,” he says. Other highlights for Aberdeen during Rich’s terms as mayor included the expansion of the city’s boundaries and a legislative bill that changed NSU from a teacher’s college to a university. He says, “We really fought to get it to be a university so we could attract new students—which is a vital part of our economic existence—and compete with other schools in the state who were calling themselves universities.”

Good leaders are always looking ahead, trying to see how they make things better for generations to come. Former Aberdeen mayors are in a unique position because they can also look back on the work they did and see how it is benefiting the city today. Hopper explains, “Making decisions as a mayor wasn’t always easy because not everyone you meet is going to agree with you. But it is nice to be able to drive around town and see things happening now that we all helped get accomplished.” // –Jenny Roth


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