Back to the Nov-Dec 2020 issue

League Honors City Leaders

By Mary Jane Smetanka

The C.C. Ludwig and James F. Miller Leadership awards are presented by the League of Minnesota Cities each year to honor individuals who have consistently done outstanding work to improve the quality of their own cities as well as cities throughout the state. The 2020 winners are Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski and Lakeville City Administrator Justin Miller.


C.C. Ludwig Award winner

Dave Smiglewski, C.C. Ludwig Award winner
Photo by Eric Haugen

When the Granite Falls City Council was looking to fill an empty seat in 1979, Dave Smiglewski was a single 26-year-old railroad maintenance foreman who seemed like an unlikely candidate. But he had an interest in city affairs, so he decided to jump into the race.

Smiglewski found local government to his liking. He’s served on the Council for more than four decades, the last 24 years as mayor. “From the first day, I loved it,” he says. “I really didn’t know much but it’s always fun to learn new things. The other councilmembers were welcoming and encouraging.”

He is best known for calmly leading Granite Falls to recovery from two devastating natural disasters. He also has a statewide reputation for leadership on city issues and for mentoring new city officials.

“He is an encourager, a humble and very genuine person, and he has accomplished a lot, not just for Greater Minnesota but for the whole state,” says Heidi Omerza, an Ely city councilmember who calls “Smigs” a mentor and a friend. “He’s open-minded about everything, ahead on the issues, and just a really cool guy.”

Leading through crisis

When the Granite Falls mayor died in 1996, Smiglewski was appointed to fill the vacancy and won election to the post later that year. The next spring, Granite Falls, which straddles the Minnesota River, was hit with a historic flood.

The flood response was a top priority for the city for the next several years. More than 60 homes and businesses were moved. Flood walls, a wastewater treatment plant, and a walking bridge were reconstructed, and City Hall was relocated.

The city sought out expert advice and set up a task force to pursue the delicate job of relocating residents. In the end, there were no forced home purchases.

“Our smartest thing was knowing what we didn’t know, and being humble enough to say we needed help,” Smiglewski says.

Smiglewski’s leadership was crucial to recovery, says City Manager Crystal Johnson. “He held daily briefings with the public, helped with the sandbags. His dedication and commitment were key in those times, and he was able to move the community forward.”

In 2000, the city suffered another natural disaster when an F4 tornado destroyed 67 homes and damaged nearly 300 others. Smiglewski says he was so busy, he didn’t really have time to think.

“My role as mayor was to make sure we were prepared for the help we received from other cities, counties, and the state, so they had a clear direction of what to do,” Smiglewski says. “We said ‘Thank you’ dozens of times each day, and we meant it every time.”

True public servant

Dave Smiglewski talking to coworker in an office.
Smiglewski meets with City Manager Crystal Johnson. Photo by Eric Haugen

Though Smiglewski is quick to credit others for making things better in Granite Falls, Johnson says he is often the one initiating improvement. “Civic involvement is his passion, and he’s in here every week talking about what needs to be done,” she says. “He’s a true public servant.”

Omerza met Smiglewski 10 days into her first Council term in Ely. “He was generous and kind and said, ‘If you need anything, call.’ People say that all the time, but he really means it,” she says.

What started as a mentorship evolved into friendship. Omerza called Smiglewski when she had questions about an issue, or if she just needed a gut check on something that didn’t feel right. “His breadth of knowledge is so wide, and he’s open-minded about everything,” she says.

Working for all cities

Smiglewski has been a Bush Fellow and served on the boards of the League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. He’s served groups that work on transportation and economic development, and on a governor’s task force that examined local government aid.

The mayor says he loves local government because it has an immediate effect on people’s lives. “I do lament that there seems to be a decline of interest in participating,” he says. “Part of my passion is to talk about how fulfilling it is to be involved and to help make decisions.”

This year, after experiencing speech issues for about three years, Smiglewski was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He says his disease is advancing slowly. Unsure about running for reelection this year, he decided to file after others urged him to run again.

“As long as the City Council can tolerate my speech difficulties, we’ll stay at it,” Smiglewski says. “I don’t have time for ALS. I’m too busy!”


James F. Miller Leadership Award winner

Justin Miller, James F. Miller Leadership Award
Photo by Eric Haugen

For years, Lakeville and Eureka Township were at a stalemate on how to update Airlake Airport, which spans both communities.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission wanted new hangars with sewer and water that only Lakeville could provide. Lakeville saw the increasingly busy airport as a valuable tool for economic development. But the township feared creeping urbanization and hostile annexation.

Little progress was made until Justin Miller, the Lakeville city administrator, got involved. Working slowly and diplomatically, Miller shaped an agreement that satisfied all three parties. Township Supervisor Tim Murphy, who had watched the issue drag out for years, hailed Miller’s work.

“Pre-Justin, negotiations did not go well,” Murphy says. “When Justin got involved, things got done. He didn’t strongarm, he truly negotiated and brought things to the table to make it happen.”

A diplomatic leader

Miller, who joined Lakeville in 2014, has honed his diplomatic and management skills in a city where rapid growth must be balanced with respect for historic neighborhoods and working farms. Mayor Doug Anderson says Miller has been the right man for a delicate job.

“He exhibits a long list of leadership qualities, from sound decision-making to being a good listener, being empathetic, being professional, and building a good team,” Anderson says. “Justin has been able to create responsible growth.”

Miller is a native Texan who studied business administration and political science in college but veered toward public administration after talking to a friend who was in the field. “I was intrigued by trying to make government run better and more efficiently,” he says.

He followed his wife to Minnesota after she became an intern with the City of Eagan. (She is now assistant city administrator there.) Before taking the head management post in Lakeville, Miller worked in Chanhassen, Falcon Heights, and Mendota Heights.

“I like [this job] because you get to make real practical differences in people’s lives,” he says. “We are dealing with true quality-of-life issues. Parks, transportation, utilities — those are the things people notice if they’re not working. It’s a good opportunity to make things better for everybody.”

Managing growth

Lakeville, with a population of around 65,000, is one of the state’s fastest-growing cities, adding roughly 1,000 residents a year. “Growth is exciting, but it’s challenging,” Miller says. “Everyone wants the best of everything right now, but we have to do that in an affordable way.”

Anderson credits Miller with balancing the need for new infrastructure to support growth with preserving older areas like the city’s historic downtown.

When some downtown businesses withered in the face of new competition, the city directed resources to revitalize the area. There are new restaurants, a couple of breweries, mom-and-pop businesses, and an art center in a converted church that was bringing thousands of people downtown before the pandemic.

“Even in the face of rapid growth I continually hear that Lakeville has a small-town feel, that people love their neighbors, they love their community, and they love the things we’re doing,” Miller says.

Proactive at all levels

Miller has been a leader not only for the City of Lakeville, but he’s worked for the good of all cities at both the regional and state levels. He has served on the League of Minnesota Cities Board of Directors, the Dakota Communications Center Board, and the Local Government Information Systems (LOGIS) Board, and he’s a member of the Dakota County City Administrators.

Justin Miller meeting with coworkers.
Miller meets with City Clerk Char Friedges, center, and Communications Manager Tierney Helmers. Photo by Eric Haugen

Anderson says under Miller’s leadership, the city has also proactively dealt with legislative issues. Working with other cities, Miller developed an eye-catching fact sheet on housing costs in response to efforts by a developers’ association to limit city development fees. So far, the efforts at the Legislature to cap those charges have stalled, and local authority has been maintained in this area.

“There was a lot of misinformation being shared, and we handed out these sheets and it was effective and eye-opening for legislators,” says Jason Wedel, Prior Lake city manager.

“Justin was one of those who took more of a leadership role, scheduling meetings with state representatives and senators. He was very proactive in getting the word out,” Wedel adds. “He’s insightful. He asks questions that no one else has thought of. He has a good knowledge base, and he’s good at what he does.”

Miller is proactive at the city level, too. Anderson credits him with increasing transparency by starting a weekly email update on city issues that goes to the City Council and all city staff. And Miller’s emphasis on taking citizen advisory committees seriously has boosted public interest in serving on those groups because people feel they have real impact, Anderson says.

“I’ve always believed that who you report to and who you are responsible to aren’t always the same thing,” Miller says. “I’m responsible to residents, city staff, and people who work here. I try to encourage staff to remember that.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.