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'It tears this community apart': Concerns raised over Minn. councilman's anti-immigrant Facebook activity

Human Rights Commission member Ben Larson speaks Monday to the Willmar City Council about his concerns regarding apparent social media activity by Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson. Christianson was not in attendance Monday. Erica Dischino / Forum News Service

WILLMAR — Both detractors and supporters of Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson spoke Monday night during the Willmar City Council meeting, even though Christianson himself was not in attendance.

Ben Larson, a member of the city's Human Rights Commission, brought forward concerns regarding Christianson's apparent activity on Facebook, using the social media platform's tools to "like" and comment on other people's posts that disparage Somalis, Muslims and Latinos.

Larson had raised the concern last month with his fellow members of the Human Rights Commission, and he spoke with the Tribune last week about his concerns and his plans to go before the council Monday night.

While Larson at first had called for Christianson's resignation, he said Monday night that he is open to a different path after meeting over the weekend with Christianson's wife, who told him "Ron is not a racist."

Larson said Christianson should denounce the posts, admit his support for them was wrong and ask for forgiveness.

"Then he should take actions to mend the hurt he has caused to this community," Larson said.

If Christianson cannot do this, Larson said, he still believes Christianson needs to resign.

"It tears this community apart. He shouldn't be a leader if he really believes those things," Larson said.

John Burns, a self-described proud Irish-American, said that immigrants to America, no matter their background, have dealt with these kinds of remarks for centuries.

"Every wave that comes in, it was the Irish, it was the Jews, it was the Italians, the Hispanics, all of them. All of them have suffered the same thing, even though in our sacred documents we say we believe all men are created equal," Burns said.

There were also comments from those who supported Christianson and the Facebook posts in question.

"I'm tired of the Somalis too. They've taken over the whole damn town. You guys need to take your blinders off," Joe Fernkes said.

Bob Skor said Christianson is not a racist, just a proud American.

"Everybody has their opinion, but we can't agree to disagree and that is a problem," Skor said.

Following the open forum, Mayor Marv Calvin recessed the meeting after a few individuals started speaking loudly in the hall off the chambers and disrupting the council proceedings.

"I wanted to make sure the council was safe and the members of the community that were here were safe," Calvin told the Tribune after the meeting.

Police Chief Jim Felt said that as people filed out, an individual made a rude hand gesture toward someone else in the crowd. Felt said he and Capt. Mike Anderson, who was also at the meeting, wanted to make sure nothing escalated and that everyone left the chambers in a calm manner.

"There were no further issues," Felt said.

While the council members in attendance did not address the public comments during the open forum — which is the council's usual practice — a few did comment at the end of the meeting.

"I'm not going to pretend I didn't hear a lot of hateful words in this chamber," Councilor Shawn Mueske said.

Mueske sits on the Human Rights Commission as well, and he said that body did not act on the Facebook issue because no human rights policies were violated and that any council member can have an opinion.

He said though that when a public official shares their opinion, it opens the door to allow other people to share their opinion.

Mueske also said he would continue to stand for a open and welcoming Willmar, no matter what comes from the underbelly of the city.

"If you sit on this council, we have to make sure Willmar stays an inviting community for all its residents," Mueske said.

Councilor Kathy Schwantes challenged the community at large to say a kind word and give a smile to those around them, while Councilor Fernando Alvarado urged people to get to know their neighbors and work together.

"We have to remember those four words, 'I love my neighbors,' and get to know who our neighbors are. We have a great community and we'll have an even greater community once we start working more and more together."

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