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ST. CLOUD — For the first time in three decades, Dave Kleis won't be on the ballot in November.

The five-term mayor — who, before that, represented the area for a decade in the Minnesota Senate — made the decision this week to not run for a sixth term.

"I almost made that decision four years ago but COVID hit and there was so much uncertainty — it would have been hard for anyone to step in," Kleis said. "I think it's important to have new leadership, and I'm confident there will be a lot of folks who will run."

Kleis made the announcement publicly Friday at a press conference where he unveiled two proposals to change the city's charter: to move city elections to odd years so voting doesn't compete with national and state elections, and to eliminate the three at-large council seats in favor of seven ward seats.

Kleis, 60, is the city's longest-serving mayor. First elected in 2005, he was re-elected while running unopposed in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and in the last election, he handily defeated his challenger with more than 63% of the vote.

"He's the real deal. Dave should do mayor schools — mayor workshops — simply because he gets it. Period," former St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson said Friday.

Kleis' first stint in office started in 1995 after he won a special Senate election following the election of Sen. Joanne Benson as lieutenant governor.

Kleis credits Benson as his inspiration for running for state office some five years after a failed mayoral campaign as a college student. Kleis handed out 750 lawn signs and had 120 people at his campaign party but somehow only received 96 votes, he said with a laugh.

"Frankly, I wasn't ready to be CEO of St. Cloud, so the voters made the right decision in 1989," he said.

But Kleis has always been civic-minded, first enlisting in the U.S. Air Force while he was a high school student in Litchfield. He credits Benson for encouraging him to give running for office another try in 1994, which led to his three decades in leadership.

"I won't ever step away from service, and I will continue strongly advocating for people to be engaged," said Kleis, who noted he has no plans to run for other elected offices but plans to continue being active in the community, especially in veterans groups. Four years ago, Kleis' brother Tom died by suicide, spurring Kleis to advocate for more mental health programming for veterans.

Kleis also owns a driving school in St. Cloud, something he'll continue to do after election season comes and goes.

"I'm very proud of and love this town," he said.

Kleis said he feels the city is in a strong position financially and has good administrative leaders in place, something that's important for continuity as a new mayor comes in. St. Cloud is one of just four cities in the state with a strong-mayor system, where the mayor acts as a chief executive and the council as a legislative body.

City Administrator Matt Staehling said Friday the city has a long history of smooth transitions with incoming mayors, though Kleis leaves big shoes to fill. He called Kleis the "Energizer bunny" who has likely been the mayor most involved in the city's day-to-day operations, in addition to his multiple engagement efforts such as weekly town halls and resident dinners at his home.

Anderson, who worked with Kleis until his retirement in 2022, lauded Kleis for his accessibility, which includes sharing his personal cell number widely in the community and online, which is a rarity among elected officials today. He also praised Kleis for his steadfast encouragement of others to also get involved.

"One of my favorite lines from Dave about people who would come and challenge him and say, 'Well, what are you going to do about [this]?" Anderson said. "And Dave's response was always, 'What are you going to do to help me fix this issue?' Because we are all in this community."

The candidate filing period for the November election runs from May 21 to June 4. In St. Cloud, the mayor and three at-large seats on the St. Cloud City Council are up for election. If three or more candidates file to run for mayor, a primary election will be held in August. All seats are nonpartisan. So far, Anne Buckvold is the only candidate to announce a run for mayor.

As for the proposed charter changes, Kleis said he plans to propose the charter committee consider moving city elections to odd years, similar to how it's done in Duluth and Minneapolis, and how it used to be done in St. Cloud.

"I was the last mayor elected in an odd year. My first term was three years because of the charter change. I know why they did it — to save money — but what happens is the city election is so overshadowed by national and statewide elections," he said. "But the people you elect locally have the biggest impact on your day-to-day life."

If the charter commission recommends the change, it would need to be unanimously approved by the City Council or by citizen ballot measure. Kleis said he isn't sure when the change would go into effect, but said if it was approved before November, the next election for the at-large seats could be in 2027.

Moving from the current council system — four ward seats with an equal number of residents and three at-large seats that represent the whole city — to seven ward seats would have to happen after the next census in 2030. Having seven wards would make the council more representative of the community, Kleis said.

Regardless, after a new mayor is sworn in this January, Kleis plans to commit more time to traveling in his effort to visit 150 countries in his life. So far, he's at 130.

"I'm missing one continent. It's really hard to get to Antarctica if you're mayor," Kleis said. "I tell people I haven't had a vacation in 30 years because I travel, but I continue to work. The phone calls and emails don't stop."