Long Prairie mayor proud to serve, then and now

In 1964, when Don Rasmussen was a young sailor in the U.S. Navy he took an around-the-world-tour aboard his ship, the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Enterprise. It was a grand adventure. The magnificent ship stopped at ports in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. Don remembers the adventure well. But the primary lesson he took away from the experience was a sense of the importance of service. “Wherever we went our first job was to be teachers and helpers,” Don said. “I remember we stopped in Naples, Italy, at least four times while I was a crew member of the Enterprise. In Naples each division had an orphanage assigned to it. We would take food, paint, and cleaning supplies and go up there and help.” That was a nearly half a century ago. Today, Don believes young people have less opportunity to be of service to their country and the world. “The government should have done more to expand President Kennedy’s volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps and VISTA,” he said. “Maybe they should even bring the draft back.” Don sees his life, since serving as an ambassador to orphans as a U.S.S. Enterprise sailor, as having been one of ongoing service. He spent more than two decades working for the State of Minnesota trying to guide delinquent youth down a more constructive path. After that he retired, he purchased a business, served on the local airport commission, the community festival committee, and in numerous other volunteer capacities. And, at the end of this year, after six terms and twelve years of service as mayor to the town of Long Prairie, Don will pass the gavel to whomever wins this fall’s election. Even though he’s an elected official, he says he steers clear of politics. “I’m not a politician,” he said. “I don’t like talking about politics.” Don says he does like doing what he believes is best for the town and its people. He recalls what initially drew him to run for election as Long Prairie mayor. “I had been going to city council meetings before I was elected,” he said. “I was not in favor of some of the decisions they were making regarding repairing a 33 year old road grader. They chose to repair that one rather than buy a thirteen-year-old machine for only $5,000 more than it would have cost to repair the old one. I believe that was the wrong decision for the city. It wasn’t good for the city.” Don believed than, and believes today, that you have to make investments today that will save money in the future. “The decisions are not easy,” he said. “You have to weigh whether it is better to fix an old piece of equipment or buy a new one.” One of the most important parts of city government, according to Don, is communicating the reasoning behind those decisions to the citizens. Don is particularly proud of how the city communicated with residents during a major street repair project in 2010. The project involved removing and replacing everything from long buried sewer and water pipes, street surfaces, and curbs. “In the old days we would just have done the job and sent them the bill,” he said. “In this case we had meetings with each block that was going to be effected and the engineer went door to door and talked with each resident.” Don credits the success of this project to an excellent and hard working city council and a top-notch city administrator. “People understood that we were trying to better the whole town and that we didn’t want to fight with them,” he said. One of the more memorable events during that major street construction project was when residents, who had gaping holes and roaring equipment in the streets in front of their houses, held a barbecue for construction workers. That, Don believes, is the result of good government by the mayor, city council, and administrator. Long Prairie has what is known as a weak mayor. That means that the mayor’s vote has no more authority than a council member’s vote. That makes working as part of a team, with the council members and city administration, important. But, for many residents, the mayor’s voice is the public voice of the town. Don has not been shy about speaking up in that capacity. He has repeatedly spoken up about the large numbers of Mexican immigrants that have come to town during his tenure as mayor. “There is a bit of a language barrier but I tell people to get over it,” Don said. “As a Christian Society we need not run people down and then, on Sundays, go to church and sit in the front pew. I’ve said this publicly.” Don has appeared before the local service clubs and encouraged it members to reach out to their new neighbors. He’s also gone to statewide gatherings and preached the message of tolerance and inclusion to other mayors and civic leaders. It’s gotten him a bit of a reputation. That reputation has had its side benefits including crank calls from people outside of Long Prairie. Don doesn’t enjoy taking the crank calls, whether they are local or from out of town, but he’ll take them and then try and educate the caller. It’s the rumors that really bother him, however. “The thing I like least about being mayor is the rumors,” he said. “People will come up to me and say such and such a thing is happening. I’ll tell them it’s not true. Then they will accuse me of lying. I tell them we don’t have secrets and I encourage them to come to the City Council meetings.” Even though there is the occasional irritating rumor, Don has enjoyed serving Long Prairie for six terms as mayor. He feels that it has been both a joy and an education. He’s enjoyed working with long time City Administrator Dave Venekamp, numerous city council members, and the residents of Long Prairie to make the town a better place. In the process he has learned a little about small town government and he has some advice for the next mayor. “You can not be political as a small town mayor,” he said. “You need to be open minded. You are responsible to everyone in the city and you need to treat everyone equally. Your job is to serve the community.” That’s a pretty big assignment for a position that pays $200 per month. But, Don Rasmussen believes the rewards of public service are well worth the meager pay.

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