Former Morris Mayor Sheldon Giese reflects on his two decades in local politics

By Thomas Hiatt

Before his retirement in January of 2023, Sheldon Giese devoted twenty-one years in service to the city of Morris: five with the city council and another sixteen as mayor. 

The beginning of his political career dates back to 2001 when he made an unsuccessful run for Morris City Council. After his loss, however, he contributed his time to the council as a private citizen. “I went to every meeting, and was very very informed about what was going on.” Mayor Carol Wilcox felt impressed enough by his perseverance to appoint him to the council when a seat became vacant in 2002.

Although born in Morris, Giese spent his early days on his family’s farm in Big Stone County, near Artichoke Lake. After graduating from Appleton high school in 1974, he joined the Minnesota National Guard out of Appleton. Largely because the Vietnam War had just ended, he served all six years stateside. 

He permanently settled in Morris after leaving the Guard.

When asked about the high and low points of his mayoral tenure, he responded “My tenure as mayor was a high point in itself. There’s just been so many things I’ve done.”

He discussed road conditions in Morris, which began improving under Mayor Wilcox and continued into his term:  “When I came on the council, the roads in town were crappy at best, most of them. When I was there, we started doing a pretty major project almost every year. We’d take a neighborhood that we felt was one of the worst with the streets, the infrastructure, the water, sewer, storm water. Last year, we did East 6th, North Columbia and then Iowa Avenue. We kind of combined that into one project.” 

As it turns out, the state funds a full 18 miles of the streets within Morris, which are classified as state aid roads.  “If we do any work on those roads,” he said.  “We can get state money to help pay for it. Basically, a state aid road has to start at a state road and end at a state road. For example, Columbia Avenue now starts over on Highway 9, which is a state road, and ends on 28, which is a state road, so that whole road is a state-aid road. So that’s a big deal. The community doesn’t lose the money.” 

 He discussed the ongoing issue of driveway entrances being blocked by the ridges of snow created by passing plows. “It is Minnesota. I mean, there is equipment that you can mount on the plow that actually blocks the plow as they go by a driveway or sidewalk and then they can lift it up, but we don’t have it. There’s the cost of it and obviously that would slow down the entire process. 

“The entire number of personnel has dropped over the years. You know, people retire through attrition and such and people don’t hire back. We try to do more with less, it doesn’t work real well when it comes to plowing snow. You gotta get it all done.”

 He also discussed towing. 

He recalled the most prevalent complaints coming from people whose vehicles failed to start during a snow emergency, the frequent mantra being “I called you guys, but you towed me anyway!” As unfortunate as the circumstances are, the streets still need to be cleared for the plows. Another issue occurred when people re-parked on the street after a plow came through, wrongly believing the emergency to be over.

He also spoke of budget issues. “Most of the City of Morris’ revenue comes from local government aid, from the state and property taxes is actually a very small portion of the city’s budget. So we could raise property taxes and it’s not going to affect it a lot. Over the last 20 years, we have tried to tow the line on increases. I think our taxes are too low right now. I think they have been too low for quite some time. But that’s a fine line, too.”

He is proud that the drawn-out issue of the crumbling Morris Floral structure was finally resolved on his watch.

“That (issue) was a tough one and I’m glad it all worked out in the end, And I knew it would, it was just a question of how to get there. I think the owner of the business knew that the building was run down. He just didn’t know what to do either. I think, in the end, it’s been a win-win. He still has his business. It’s thriving. The building has since been demolished. It’s just a parking lot right now. I’ve heard there’s been some recent development on it.”

Of the UMM campus- Morris city relationship he said, “Quite frankly, I guess I’ve always said an incoming student can come to the University here in Morris and never step foot downtown ‘cause they don’t have to. If they stay at the dorms and they get the food there. Mom and dad meet their needs. They have no reason to come downtown.

“Morris does not have the big box stores that a lot of students are used to. So they have to deal with what we have. Willie’s and Meadowland and now The Homestead and Town and Country.”

He also clarified the controversy and misunderstandings around the closing of Coborns.  

“Coborns actually bought the property where Heartland Chevrolet is (now) and they were negotiating with Walmart to put in a store.That was back when it was only neighborhood Walmarts. They really didn’t have food. Coborns felt there was absolutely no competition for that. People will come to Walmart, do their shopping for stuff there and then come on over to our store.” He explained that shortly after Coborns acquired the additional land, Walmart decided to become exclusively full-service super stores, which included groceries. “That’s when Coborns said ‘No. We’re not going to bring Walmart here to cut our throat’. So that’s when that dropped off the table. 

“And another thing about Coborns is you’ll hear the city wouldn’t give them a liquor license so that they could have Coborn’s Liquor. They never asked. I don’t believe it would have happened (anyway) mainly because of the revenue that our Municipal Liquor Store generates for the city. If we either closed the liquor store or brought another one in to cut the revenue down, we’d have to raise taxes.”

On the recent shuttering of the Morris Police Department – which made statewide news – he said, “That wasn’t just an overnight thing. It has been an issue for many, many years. They’re shorthanded, always shorthanded. They’d hire somebody and somebody else would leave. They’d hire somebody else and somebody would go to the sheriff’s office or go to the University. It seemed like it was always an issue, not just with Chief Willy. It was the same thing with the chief before that and the chief before that.”

He sees a general improvement since the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office assumed the Morris Police Department. “For the past several years, the police department really didn’t have an investigator, so when the City of Morris had a case, it really wasn’t investigated as much as it probably should have been. But now with the police department part of the sheriff’s office, they’ve got the whole team. In fact, I just talked to the sheriff a couple of days ago and he said everything was going well. It just seemed to be easier to hire with better candidates to the sheriff’s office than the police department.” The number of the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office has increased from around 7 to around 15 since the closing of the Morris Police Department. 

On his life since retiring he said, “(Being the mayor) didn’t take a whole lot of time, except for meetings. So, I really don’t miss the meetings. I still watch the council on the Youtube channel just to see if they’re doing things right.”

He and his wife, Kim, have been married for the past 26 years and have owned and operated West Central Screen and Print for almost 20. “We’ve been at this location for seven or eight years. We were in where Accelerated Chiropractors is behind Tamara Speers building on main street. When I bought it, it was out by the bypass where the snowmobile club keeps their groomers. (Our clients are) mostly individuals. (We print shirts for) sports teams, any kind of team. We do not do banners; just apparel, jackets and shirts mainly. We don’t do embroidery but Kim does a lot of heat transfers. It’s been a good time.”

He ended the interview with a humble nod to his predecessor, and the woman who gave him his political career.  He is particularly proud of her getting a sidewalk built from Green River Road to Highway 28 along Columbia Avenue and the numerous annexations the city made under her watch. “Carol Wilcox was a good mayor,” he said.