Mayor lauds border task force

International Falls city council took a step towards increasing co-operation with its Fort Frances counterparts earlier this week, establishing a task force to promote communication between the two municipal governments.
And if Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk has it his way, council here could take a step in the same direction as early as next week.
“This is absolutely a good thing,” Mayor Onichuk said Wednesday of the border task force. “We will be reciprocating accordingly at our next council meeting.”
Mayor Onichuk added he will be making a motion for Fort Frances council to join the task force, likely at this coming Monday’s meeting.
At its meeting this past Monday night, International Falls council formed a committee—dubbed the “Border Sister Cities Task Force”—to promote co-operation between the two municipalities.
The move comes two-and-a-half years after Fort Frances and International Falls signed a “twinning” agreement in September, 2002—a pact hailed by then Mayor Glenn Witherspoon as “long overdue.”
While Mayor Onichuk insisted that forming a joint task force would be an extension of the existing “twinning” deal, he admitted there had been very little follow-up after the ink dried.
But he vowed that won’t be the case this time around.
“This is a step, a giant step, towards ensuring that follow-up occurs,” he said of the new push. “It’s the follow-through that is the important part.”
If Fort Frances councillors support Mayor Onichuk in his move to make the task force a reality, he said there’s no shortage of issues the two municipalities could tackle together.
“There’s so many issues that we need to get understanding and co-operation on,” the mayor remarked, noting cultural, social, economic, and environmental issues would be obvious topics for discussion.
He’d also like to see the two councils pool their ideas on how to resolve the traffic problems at the border crossing here.
Asked what the two municipalities stand to gain if the task force comes to fruition, International Falls Mayor Shawn Mason did not hesitate.
“A more powerful voice,” she replied matter-of-factly. “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Falls City Administrator Rod Otterness would like to see the two councils join forces to take on issues at higher levels of government.
He said International Falls administrators would be more than happy to lobby their state or federal government to look more closely at issues that impact both communities, as long as Fort Frances is willing to do the same on this side of the border.
Mayor Onichuk said the attempt to create a task force is not the result of the recent proposal to make passports mandatory for all travelers crossing into the United States (including Americans) by Jan. 1, 2008.
But he’s “certain it will be discussed.”
And the two councils undoubtedly will be able to make more headway on national or international issues than just one could, he added.
“The more people you have at a table to come to an agreement, the more people will listen,” Mayor Onichuk noted. “If you’re a lone voice on an international issue, the first thing they’re going to say to you is. ‘What do your counterparts in the Falls think?’
“If the Falls is taking the same stance as us, they can be talking to their government and counterparts on their side and we can be talking to ours,” he reasoned.
“I think, in issues that pertain to the lives of people who live in border communities, like passport issues, we need a border voice,” agreed Mason, a former longtime executive director of the International Falls and Area Visitors Centre and Convention Bureau.
In fact, Mayor Onichuk said the impact of the proposed task force could reach much further than the municipal boundaries of the two sister communities.
“It sort of opens more communication with our whole community, being northern Minnesota and the Rainy River District,” he said, adding he’s pleased International Falls and Fort Frances seem poised to take the lead on the initiative.
“We’re a community,” he noted. “Just because some politician drew a line along a river and said, ‘You’re U.S.A. and you’re Canada’ . . . those lines don’t mean anything when it comes to everyday living.”
Both Mason and Otterness stressed their move to create the task force shouldn’t be viewed as a sign International Falls is not happy with the relationship the two communities currently have.
It’s actually quite the contrary, Otterness said.
“What we hope to do is broaden and deepen our already good relationship,” he said.
“We have that great relationship with our sister city of Fort Frances and it’s because we’ve had that great relationship historically that we see this as an opportunity to deepen our relationship and try to take on issues at a higher level of government.”
Otterness is slated to make a presentation to Fort Frances council at its June 27 meeting, CAO Mark McCaig confirmed Wednesday.
However, council could vote to accept a formal invitation from Mason to join the task force before he speaks.
Mayor Mason, Otterness, and two councillors already have been chosen to represent International Falls on the task force.