Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Life and Times of Buzz Olson, Fictional Mayor of Mosquito Heights

Back in 1992, LMC communications staffer Tim Busse* was charged with the task of producing an informational video that could be used during the League’s Regional Meetings.

As he recalls, “That year the topic of the video was city finances—some things never change—and we did it as a straight-up report. We had a talking head on the steps of the Capitol, interviews with city and LMC officials, charts showing city spending trends, etc. It was informative and well done, and it was the most boring thing ever put onto videotape.”

So the next year, Tim knew something had to change. Liking the medium but wanting to jazz things up a bit, Tim switched the format of the video. This time a “Nightline” set-up (renamed “Sightline”) was used, complete with host Ned Koppel asking questions of a panel—one of whom was Buzz Olson, mayor of Mosquito Heights.

This fictional mayor from a fictional Minnesota city soon took hold and became the star of a popular video featured at Regional Meetings for many years. Buzz and his crew (including regulars like Willie the Intern, Councilmember Gultch, and Councilmember Bertelsen) used their campy and sometimes kooky theatrics to cover topics like the Open Meeting law, succession planning, and the Y2K bug in Mosquito Heights, a locale meant to represent municipalities of all shapes and sizes.

For example: when the city dealt with staff turnover (featured in the video clip above), they forgot to ask the retiring public works director what size light bulb fit at the top of the water tower—so they sent their long-suffering intern, Willie, up the giant ladder to find out. In another video, the value of a good joint powers agreement is illustrated through an attack by feral cats at a “C” league softball game in neighboring Pleasant Valley.

Of the early years, Tim remembers that “LMC staff observed that people seemed to enjoy the video more if they partook in the social hour first,” so the viewing was always scheduled following drinks and dinner. Additionally, a real-life Minnesota mayor (who shall remain unnamed) was frequently designated as the “laughing guy” in the audience during the videos to help warm up the crowd.

For 16 years, these tongue-in-cheek productions taught members something important while still having some fun. And during that time, Buzz’s influence even extended beyond our own state’s borders. The National League of Cities distributed at least one of these Mosquito Heights videos, and the Texas Municipal League copied the idea to create their own version—aptly named after the fictional city of Armadillo Flats.

*Tim Busse left the League in 1997. He has been a councilmember for the City of Bloomington since 2011, and says his days producing and starring in the Buzz Olson videos helped prepare him for his role with his city.

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