On Friday, Sept. 27, it was announced that former Cambridge mayor and current council member Marlys Palmer had died as the result of a recent heart attack. 

The following is a statement released by city administrator Lynda Woulfe regarding Palmer’s passing.

“A custodian of our area’s rich history has been lost. Marlys Palmer, former mayor and current council member, has passed away.  

She seemed to know everything about Cambridge’s past and generously shared that knowledge to help shape the city’s future. 

No one can question Marlys’ commitment to the citizens of Cambridge. For over 20 years she exemplified public service. Her distinguished voice was always full of pride as she worked to make Cambridge a better place for its citizens. The citizens of Cambridge were always the foremost thought in her mind.

Marlys was a servant of the people. She strongly encouraged civic engagement and was passionate about citizens’ concerns, always striving to find compromise and solutions. Marlys truly modeled kindness and integrity every day. 

Marlys will be truly missed, but she will live on in our hearts and throughout the community as we use our parks, the Cambridge-Isanti Bike Trail, Cambridge Dog Park, Community Garden, and other special places she had a hand in. 

We ask citizens and businesses to leave their porch light on in honor of Marlys on Monday, Oct. 7.”

According to Woulfe, out of respect to Palmer, the council has decided to not discuss filling the vacancy until their Oct. 21 council meeting. 

From ‘outsider’ to longest running mayor

Palmer’s political career began when she ran for city council in 1995, where she was defeated by incumbent Dr. Ray Magnuson. 

Ironically, Palmer was first elected as mayor two years later after she defeated Magnuson for the open seat previously held by Dr. Carsten Seecamp, who did not run for reelection due to health reasons. 

At the time of her campaign for mayor, Palmer listed “Isanti County Humane Society President” as her “past elected offices held.”

According to the Star’s election results, Palmer “soundly” defeated Magnuson, who was still serving on his city council term, by a margin of 59% to 41% – a difference of almost exactly 300 votes.

She was re-elected in 1999 by a margin of 57% to 43%. That year also marked a change to four-year mayoral terms for Cambridge. Four years later, Palmer ran unopposed, garnering 193 out of 224 votes.

Because of the poor election turnout in 2003, the city made another change, moving to even-year elections for city offices to correspond with state and federal elections. As a result, Palmer’s term was shortened to just three years. However, Palmer again ran unopposed in 2006.

In 2010, Palmer did face a single opponent, but still prevailed, picking up 55% of the votes.

The 2014 elections brought Palmer’s toughest test, facing five other candidates. However, Palmer still prevailed, picking up just under 35% of the votes. The next closest challenger, Jim Godfrey, came in with just over 27.5%. 

That election also brought forth the next change in Cambridge elections, with the council deciding to go to conducting a primary election if there were more than two candidates.

In 2018, a primary election was needed, where Palmer saw her lone mayoral defeat to council member Jim Godfrey. However, that wasn’t the end of her political career as she was selected to fill the council seat vacated by Godfrey. She held that position up until her death last week.

Palmer’s initial election came on the heels of troubling economic times for the city of Cambridge, which included accusations of major mismanagement of the city’s finances, culminating in a scathing report from then-state auditor Judi Dutcher proclaiming that the city had gone broke.

Under Palmer’s leadership, not only did the city recover from that devastating report – paying off the debt that had been incurred and  rebuilding the city’s credit rating – the city started or restarted projects such as the current city hall, constructed a new water tower (with another water tower soon to be built), instituted long-range street improvement plans and most recently saw the successful referendum to fund a new library.

Reaction to the news

Shortly after word got out about Palmer’s death, condolences began coming in via the city’s Facebook page and other social media posts.

“She embodied what a public servant should be – always putting Cambridge’s needs before herself,” said current mayor Godfrey. “I will miss her wisdom and charming humor.”

“The second person I met when my family moved to Cambridge was Marlys,” said former council member Joe Morin. “She welcomed us to Cambridge, then mentioned she was the mayor. I came on the city council in 2001, and we have been friends and confidants ever since. She will be missed in many ways.”

“I will be forever grateful to Marlys for working so hard to do the very best for the citizens of the city of Cambridge,” said current council member Lisa Iverson. “She loved this city like most of us love our children.”

“I am so grateful to have been able to work with her the last three years on council,” Kersten Barfknecht Conley said. “She had a beautiful heart, and I learned so much from her.”

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Oct. 12, at 4 p.m. at New Hope Community Church, 33030 Vickers St. NE, Cambridge, with visitation one hour prior to the service at the church. Arrangements are being handled by Carlson-Lillemoen Funeral Home (763-689-2244).

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