Diana Willits’ passion for Windsor Heights is contagious. You see it in her friendly smile, hear it in her upbeat voice and feel it in her palpable energy. It has sustained her as a public servant since 1997 and it resonated with voters who elected her on Nov. 5, 2013, to become Windsor Heights’ first female mayor.
Willits got a feel for the mayor’s position last fall, acting as mayor pro tem after longtime and popular mayor Jerry Sullivan resigned and moved from Windsor Heights. She was sworn in to the four-year office on Nov. 18 and is ready to not only meet the challenges of the office in the new year, but her constituents, too, as she launches a series of town hall-style meetings with residents beginning Jan. 23 at the Windsor Heights Community Center at 6 p.m.
The newly-elected mayor plans to use those meetings to gather feedback from residents with the hope they will become more engaged in local government, as well as to share with them her short- and long-term goals for the city. Her early initiatives include expanding entertainment options for young people, meeting regularly with business leaders and addressing the need for traffic cameras and the public perception associated with them.
Working closely with the City Council will be a priority for Willits. Voters last November re-elected Betty Glover and former Councilman Steve Peterson, and they chose Anthony Timm to fill a third seat. They join incumbents Charlene Butz and Dave Burgess.
“I’m looking forward to building a vision for our community with the City Council and our citizens,” says Willits. “I’m looking forward to their input, and I’m honored to be their mayor.”
She already has the support of her predecessor.
“I have worked with Mayor Willits for the past 12 years, and she brings so many talents to the job from day one. Her experience from being mayor pro tem (for six years) where she was involved in every important decision pertaining to the City of Windsor Heights is invaluable,” says Sullivan, who now resides in West Des Moines.
In addition to having served on the City Council for 16 years, Willits served on several committees and boards: Metro Advisory Legislative Committee, Metro Mayors Committee, Policy and Administration, Metro/West Help Board Member, Community Development Committee, Executive Board Metro Waste Authority, Convention and Visitors Board and six years as a Greater Des Moines Partnership Washington, D.C., delegate. She was also instrumental in the creation of Windsor Heights’ own ZIP code, the redevelopment of Colby Park, the construction of the city’s bike trail and implementation of the West Help Home Improvement program.
Her civic participation includes being a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Chi Omega Parents Group President/Special Events Committee, Western City School Collaboration Committee, and the Urban Heights Covenant Church Worship and Fellowship Ministry Team.
Sullivan says her biggest obstacle will be maintaining property values while balancing a “difficult budget situation” due to a reduction in commercial property taxes. He notes that among her greatest assets are newly-elected council members Peterson and Timm, as well as the staff at City Hall. He also says that the Hickman corridor development holds great potential growth for the city.
“My advice would be to maintain a good working relationship with the surrounding communities. Recruit, reward and retain the best people possible to assist with maintaining a safe, clean and successful city,” says Sullivan. “I wish her the best of luck as she becomes the eighth mayor of Windsor Heights.”
The new mayor also cherishes the support of her family. Willits, 56, moved to Windsor Heights in 1981 with her husband, Jim. They have two daughters: Courtney, 22, and Ashley, 20. Her oldest daughter fondly recalls her mother’s longtime public service.
“We grew up watching Mom on the City Council and her love for the people on it and the city,” says Courtney Willits. “She always had good ideas because she loves Windsor Heights so much. She cares a lot about the city, and she wants to be sure that peoples’ thoughts are heard because she loves to collaborate. We couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Last month, Windsor Heights Living magazine spoke with Willits about her new role as mayor as well as her greatest challenges and goals. The following excerpts from that interview appear here.
How did you feel when the voters of Windsor Heights elected you as mayor last fall?
Willits: I felt very grateful. I was pretty humbled by it, especially to be the first female mayor. I’ve always worked behind the scenes, and now I’m the spokesperson for the city. It’s an honor. I’m honored to be working with such a great staff and to have had a good mentor in Jerry Sullivan, who was a great mayor.
What prompted you to get involved in local government?
Willits: When we moved here, there were not very many activities for young people. They had Music in the Park, which has been great for older residents, but nothing for young people. So I started to get involved, volunteering for several activities. I worked with parents to bring the Montessori school here, started a neighborhood block party and got involved with the committee for the Fourth of July parade. It was a lot of fun. In 1996, Pat Iles was on City Council and she was a great mentor, and she talked me into running for City Council. When I was elected in 1997, Don Steele was the mayor. He was the first of three great mayors that I worked with while on City Council, including Ned Miller and Jerry Sullivan.
What plans do you have for special events in the future?
Willits: We want to develop a new committee to get neighborhoods to work together. We want to bring special events to the community so they can get to know their neighbors better. We want it to run the gamut for people of all ages while maintaining our small-town feel. We want to bring back ice cream socials and include games with them. We also want to start neighborhood contests and have local businesses sponsor them. I’d like to see each neighborhood have a float in the Fourth of July parade, too.
Tell us about your plans to survey citizens to learn more about their needs?
Willits: We want to ask them what activities we can bring to their neighborhoods and how they feel about the city’s services. It’s been about five years since we last surveyed everyone.
Can you describe your upcoming series of town hall style meetings with the public?
Willits: We’re calling them 10/60. They will be held the third Thursday of each month and will include 10 questions from residents and business leaders and will last only 60 minutes each. We hope to get a ton of citizens to attend, to get new ideas and ask them what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right. A City Council meeting isn’t always the most popular thing to come to for sharing ideas, so we want to take the conversation out to the community. Everyone who works on behalf of the city is welcome to join me in listening to our residents on how to make this a stronger community.
What are some of your most important initiatives for 2014?
Willits: It will be fun to watch the development at Hickman Road and 63rd Street as it continues to move forward. We also want to meet quarterly with business leaders and developers to evaluate older developments that need to be reinvigorated. At some point, we would like to create a Windsor Village, like Valley Junction, and see if we can use sustainable materials to build it. It could be a showpiece for the city. We have more than 100,000 people pass through our city each day, and we have more than 800,000 pedestrians use our bike trail each year. What business wouldn’t want to be here? We also want to bring back City Council meetings in the streets like we used to do. It’s another way to encourage citizens to participate in the discussion, and it’s our responsibility to bring information to them. We’ll start them in the spring and hold them monthly through October.
What is your position regarding traffic cameras?
Willits: There are two things that people need to understand. First, Windsor Heights got its reputation as a speed trap in the 1950s when the executives who built their custom homes here didn’t want speeding on their streets. Sixty years later, we still have the stigma among people who don’t live here as being “Radar Heights.” That’s unfortunate because we’re not the only city monitoring traffic. Clive has red light cameras, and Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Polk County have traffic cameras, yet it’s a perception we can’t seem to shake loose. What people don’t realize is that we have a lot of fast traffic coming through our town off the freeway and Hickman Road and how the speed limits change quickly. Over the years, our residents have asked us to slow down drivers, particularly in residential neighborhoods like University Avenue at the top of the hill at 63rd Street. Commuters have to go through our city to go to West Des Moines, Urbandale, Des Moines and Johnston. We are a major thoroughfare. Many residents call 70th Street “I-70” and we get calls from them to place mobile units there. Since we installed radar units through the end of September, we found that less than 2 percent of those caught speeding were Windsor Heights residents, and that the average speed of those caught was 14 miles per hour above the speed limit. The fact of the matter is they’re breaking the law, which is why I’m in favor of speed cameras. It will be interesting to see how residents react to the survey when we send it out because that issue will be one of the things that we ask them about.