Back to the May-June 2023 issue

Public Service Is About Building and Maintaining Relationships

By David Unmacht

David Unmacht, Executive Director of the League of Minnesota Cities

Just over 30 years ago on a spring day, four individuals stood beneath a large oak tree, overlooking a wooded ridge line — on the left, a small pond, and a scruffy overgrown field in front and to the right. A land developer, a golf course designer, professional golfer and golf course architect Tom Weiskopf, and myself.

Admittedly I was awestruck while Tom and his partners described a possible layout of what months later would become the third through fifth holes of the Wilds Golf Course in Prior Lake. As an avid golfer who played on both my high school and college teams, this was city manager nirvana.

A few weeks later, I made a career move to resign my position as city manager in Prior Lake to become the deputy county administrator in Dakota County. I was repeatedly asked, “How can you leave now, the golf course project is perfect for you?” My reply: “It’s not about the projects, it’s about the people and relationships. This is an opportunity I cannot pass on.”

My work with the League of Minnesota Cities and local government is ending with retirement in May. Forty years of building relationships across city, county, consulting, and association management. Ten years after realizing my personal dream to be a city manager, I followed my passion to roles that offered other titles, positions, opportunities, and challenges. I have matured and grown professionally beyond my imagination. I have tried and failed more times than can be counted. I have been blessed with more projects than I can remember. Yet all that matters less to me than the people I have met, the relationships made, and the lasting friendships I will carry for a lifetime.

I have completed many personality profiles and assessments, but it is hard to categorize me as an extrovert since I cherish my private time. I am energized not by parties and large crowds, but through one to one, personal human connections and interactions. I can resonate with anyone, no matter the title, office, or position: from the first staff member in the door in the morning, to the part-time cleaning staff arriving at the end of the working day. I want to be remembered as the person who treated the intern the same as the Board chair. I made it a priority to connect with the rookie police officer with the same esteem and respect as the mayor.

My focus and emphasis on relationships is not a trendy management technique. It singularly defines what I think is the most important leadership skill a public official must have to be successful. Simply, my ability to create relationships, thus building trust and support across years and roles, is why I believe I was selected for the executive director position. This role has given me so many opportunities to travel and connect with city officials throughout the state. I will be forever blessed for the experience.

I have written nearly 45 St. Paul to City Hall columns covering many subjects. including the pandemic and its impact on our lives and work, the myriad roles our city officials and members have in our mission, the value of member engagement, legislative priorities, and numerous leadership topics such as culture, strategy, and personal and professional development. An underlying theme embedded in my columns on leadership is to offer ideas and advice for the reader to learn, understand, and act. In a small way, I hope that my words made a difference to you.

In the past months, I am routinely asked what has changed and what has not changed during my career. The answer is a lot, of course, with changes most evident in the use of technology and its influence on the pace of change in our work. We live now with expectations of instantaneous replies.

What hasn’t changed over 40 years is that public service was, is, and always will be a people business. From day one on April 5, 1983, I’ve been sincere in my purpose and intentions; always striving to do better, never satisfied, and far from perfect. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people, one personal note, one card, one handshake, one phone call, one text, one email, and one hug day after day after day. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Thank you for reading my columns.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1205.