Back to the Jul-Aug 2021 issue

Mornson: Lifelong Learner and Leader

By Mary Jane Smetanka

Photo by Bre McGee

Are people born to manage cities? Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson — who just completed his final term on the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) Board — seems to have been destined for the job.

When he was 16 and taking a high school government class, teachers told him he’d be good at managing cities. By the time he was 23, he was city administrator of both Carver and Young America.

In his first week, the Carver city attorney took him to a court hearing on property condemnation, where the judge spotted Mornson in the courtroom and said, “What’s the kid doing here?”

“It was baptism by fire,” Mornson says now. “I learned along the way.”

‘A team sport’

That learning was aided by other city managers who became mentors. Mornson didn’t forget that. “Managing a city is a team sport,” he says.

“What I’m most proud of in the cities I’ve worked in is having a great staff,” adds Mornson, who’s been in Hopkins for 10 years. “I’ve always said that I’ll be there if you need me, but I’m there to support and guide. I like people who are smarter than me.”

Mornson is the “consummate people person,” says LMC Executive Director David Unmacht. “He’s humorous, engaging, exceedingly passionate about the work of cities and the LMC, and he cares deeply about what we do. He’s a committed guy.” Mornson was elected to the League Board of Directors in 2013, and his service ended in June after four years on the Executive Committee. He was the 2019-2020 president and just completed his year as immediate past president.

Love of people and learning

Ely City Council Member Heidi Omerza, another LMC past president, was assigned to mentor Mornson when he joined the Board. She was amused by that, saying he was already well-known around the state. “He puts people before things,” she says. “We had speakers [almost] every month when he was president, on how to be better at something. He worked very hard at investing time in all of us on the Board. It was something I can’t remember any other [LMC] president doing in all my years on the Board.”

Mornson grew up in Jordan, where as a teen he interviewed the city administrator and was intrigued by the job. But he also did volunteer work helping elementary school students and people experiencing homelessness. In addition, he volunteered for political campaigns, but “that wasn’t much fun,” he says.

Those activities fit his philosophy that learning should never end. But it was public administration that he concentrated on at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Hamline University. “As the Jordan city administrator told me, this is the closest government to the people,” Mornson says. “I like being with people.”

Collaborative leadership style

After two years with Carver and Young America (which is now Norwood Young America), Mornson moved on to Big Lake, St. Anthony Village, and finally Hopkins. His tenure in those cities has tended to be long, up to 17 years.

“Stability is important to me, and spending more time in a city is good because you see the changes,” he says. “You want to leave a city a little better than it was when you came.”

Hopkins Mayor Jason Gadd says, “His style of management sets the example for how a city should be led. He empowers department heads, encourages them to improve themselves, and works well with the community. He’s very collaborative. I feel like he has a partnership with us.”

Leading through turbulence

Halfway through Mornson’s stint as LMC president, COVID-19 hit, and his leadership went from in-person to virtual. “One benefit of being on the Board is interacting with fellow Board members from all over the state, so that was disheartening,” he says. “But [serving on the LMC Board is] one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in 35 year as a city manager.”

Omerza credits him with helping Minnesota cities through the beginning of the pandemic, “making sure information was correct and being an articulate voice. He was upbeat and positive, and that’s a tough thing to do. It was what was needed, and he did a great job.”

Mornson says turbulent times have made city management more challenging than ever. He gets away from the job by reading, exercising, and rooting for his beloved Green Bay Packers.

And while controversy over policing, public demand for fast results, and the pandemic have added to the stress of the job, “I still have the energy,” he says. “I have always been optimistic and looked at the positive side. And I try to inject humor. It helps you move along. We need funny.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.