CEO & City Councilor Sees A Lesson For Congress From Locals

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RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. — What politics teaches at the local levels is often forgotten by the time political leaders take a seat in Washington, observed Joyce Kalbakdalen, who suggests senators and congressmen can benefit by looking back on their roots.

Kalbakdalen, CEO of Soo Select CU in Thief River Falls, Minn., and a member of the Red Lake Falls city council for more than 20 years, said many local governments learn the simple fact that working together produces results. "Our city council has always gotten along. We might have some disagreements, but they have never been anything we can't resolve."

That ability to work together is the direct result, Kalbakdalen said, of respecting that everyone has an opinion, and then sitting down, discussing the issues, taking a step back, and addressing how to resolve any conflicts. "You tell me your issue and I tell you mine, and we come to an agreement. I don't think congressmen and senators are doing that today."

The CEO of the $14-million SSCU contended that what often happens is politicians in Washington begin paying attention to their own plans and fail to put the people they serve first. "They have their own agendas and they are not about to listen to anyone else. When issues come up to our council for a decision, I first look at what the decision will do for the people. Is it a good decision for them?"

Kalbakdalen said her comments about national politics do not apply to all leaders in Washington, as she believes there are many excellent politicians.

Being CEO of SSCU, which is 18 miles south of her home in Red Lake Falls, Kalbakdalen said making time for the council is harder than it used to be 20 years ago. It's taking more time to run the credit union given the industry's increasing complexity, and the growing compliance and regulatory demands. Kalbakdalen estimated that she often puts in 10 hours a month on city council, and sometimes that can double. "When I came to the credit union it was a one-person office in 1992. But we have grown, and now we have five employees, but are short staffed. My assistant manager and I often have to work the teller line and do whatever needs to be done."

The Upside of Politics

Yet Kalbakdalen has no intention of setting aside her political career, as she enjoys seeing local residents satisfied when city projects improve their lives. "I enjoy seeing the faces of people and talking to them when something goes the way it should and they realize the council did a good job."

What has helped Kalbakdalen in her tenure as CEO and city council member are her CU's directors. "I have been called out in the middle of the day to come back to Red Lake Falls for a council meeting, and my board has always been supportive. I also have an excellent assistant manger who can take over."

Another lesson Kalbakdalen has learned during her political career is that she does not want to be mayor. The CEO ran for Mayor of Red Lake Falls in 2008, and lost. For that, she's thankful. "To be mayor takes too much time, more than I have, especially since I work out of town. I am happy right where I am."

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