Back to the Nov-Dec 2021 issue

League Recognizes 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 2021 winners
are former Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan and former Buffalo City Administrator Merton Auger.

C.C. Ludwig Award winner

To say that Tom Ryan governed Blaine with a personal touch is an understatement.

Ryan joined the Planning Commission in 1986, intending to serve two years. He ended up in city government for 36 years, 24 of them as mayor. During that time, Blaine morphed from farm fields to one of Minnesota’s biggest cities, with over 70,000 residents.

Photo by Eric Haugen

But Ryan’s self-described role as a “small-town mayor” never changed. Though his job as a truck driver kept him on the road a lot, he seemed ever-present in Blaine: attending Boy Scout events, mowing lawns and shoveling snow for families with loved ones serving in the military, operating the barbecue at events for seniors, opening a new ball field, cheering on triathlon participants.

People called him at home to tell him about their problems with the city. When someone notified the city about a noxious weed growing in a road median, Ryan went over and pulled it. When a resident’s house burned, Ryan was there to comfort them.

And when someone called one night to say they’d seen someone dumping five gallons of oil in the street, Ryan went to the spot with a solution to sop it up. A resident saw the shadowy figure in the street and called the police.

The cop “laughed his head off when he saw it was me,” Ryan says.

A passion for people

Ryan stepped down as mayor last December with fond memories of the job.

“It was hard, but the longer you do it, the easier it gets. You start to understand people,” he says. “I really enjoyed it; I felt like I was accomplishing something. I knew every elected official in this county. I never brought politics into it. We worked together.”

Jeff Bird, chair of the Blaine Park Board, has admired the mayor for 20 years.

“I’ve been absolutely impressed with the decisions he’s made and his concern for the city,” Bird says. “I was amazed at the time he put in and his concerns for citizens. He was always available and listened to everyone no matter who they were or what their issue was. The man has a passion for people.”

Blaine Council Member Jess Robertson, left, says Tom Ryan was “the ultimate public servant.” (Photo by Eric Haugen)

City Council Member Jess Robertson calls Ryan “the ultimate public servant.”

“With him at the helm, we had such an engaging environment,” she says. “Everyone had an opportunity to agree or disagree. He was so passionate about our community, especially our seniors and veterans.”

Ryan grew up in St. Paul and, after his parents bought a sod farm in Blaine, he built a house next to the property in 1969. He and his wife raised four daughters in that house and still live there.

After serving on the Planning Commission, he joined the City Council and then became mayor. All that time he kept his job as a fuel transport driver. Sometimes he came to City Hall straight from a road trip, changing his clothes in the vehicle. “I wouldn’t miss meetings,” he says. “A lot of times, I had to park the truck in the lot at City Hall.”

His down-to-earth persona seemed an asset in the growing suburb. One day, Ryan was talking to someone while campaigning and didn’t know he had a hole in the back of his pants. “The guy said, ‘I’ll vote for you because obviously you’ve been working,” he remembers.

Growth and achievement

During Ryan’s time as mayor, Blaine’s population almost doubled. He is proudest of the thousands of single-family homes the city added during his tenure, but there were many other accomplishments, including:

  • Developing major sports venues such as the National Sports Center, Tournament Players Club Golf Course, and the Four Seasons Curling Club.
  • Building a 2,700-unit housing development called The Lakes of Blaine.
  • Adding more than 100 miles of new streets and sewer lines.
  • Preserving hundreds of acres of natural open space, including a wetland sanctuary that will have an interpretive education center for families and school groups.

In addition, Ryan was chair of the Highway 65 Task Force, which worked to find funding to expand that major thoroughfare to reduce congestion through the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs. Also, during his time as mayor, Blaine achieved a AAA bond rating, added 35 new parks, and maintained high satisfaction ratings among residents.

Still, it is Ryan’s personal touch and dedication to the city that people remember. He walked ditches to remove debris and cut tree branches down to help resolve a neighborhood dispute.

As a veteran, he was committed to Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, an organization that connects military families to community resources and support. For his service to those families, he was awarded the Seven Seals Award, a statewide honor.

A time for family

At 77, he says he can no longer mow lawns and clear driveways for military families. When he left office, older residents were still calling him at home about city business, he says. Although he wants to help, he now refers them to a current city official.

With 12 grandchildren and two great grandkids all living nearby, he says, “It’s time to spend time with family.”

James F. Miller Leadership Award winner

When a consultant called Buffalo “the city that Merton built,” it was no exaggeration.

Over more than four decades, retired City Administrator Merton Auger had a hand in almost all the changes in Buffalo, from community attractions like downtown cobblestone streets and the shore walk that brought attention back to the lake at the city’s heart, to business and job-building efforts like the commercial/industrial park and a pioneering fiber-optic internet system.

Merton Auger
Photo by Eric Haugen

“Merton likes to give credit to the City Council and community leadership, but he had his finger on everything,” says Mayor Teri Lachermeier. “Before something would happen, he had to know it was going to work. He never moved forward without understanding that.”

Auger “influenced the mayors and councils and the community,” says Council Member Steve Downer. “He was very adept at sensing where the community was at and then following from that and making things happen, so it all worked together. He was very good at that.”

Dedicated to Buffalo

Remarkably, Auger spent his entire 43-year professional career in Buffalo, joining the city as a planning and development specialist in 1977 and retiring as city administrator in 2020. When he was hired, he was one of the city’s four office employees. By the time he left, Buffalo’s population had grown from 3,500 to over 16,000 and the city had 75 full-time employees.

“Our goals were to create a healthy economy and provide for the health and safety of the community,” he says. “One thing we always took pride in was our goal to exceed standards.”

Auger, now 68, grew up near Buffalo. During service in the Navy in Vietnam, he saw desperately poor people coping with issues like contaminated water. It motivated him to try to ensure that infrastructure was better at home, so when he went to college, he decided to major in public administration.

After graduating during tough economic times, he couldn’t find a job in his field. He was flipping hamburgers in a Happy Chef when he was hired for the Buffalo planning job.

Soon the city administrator was giving him other jobs like creating the city budget. When the administrator left, he recommended Auger succeed him, and he did, spending over 40 years in the job.

Innovative projects

Auger loved working on economic projects like the industrial park, which provided good jobs for area residents, and the design and construction of a groundbreaking wastewater treatment plant. Though it would have been easy for Buffalo to take the traditional route and dump sewage sludge on the fields of willing farmers, Auger thought that was unwise.

“We know that heavy metals creep into fields,” he says. “You’re begging for a lawsuit somewhere down the line.”

Auger, left, recently had the opportunity to visit with Mayor Teri Lachemeier, center, and Council Member Steve Downer at City Hall. (Photo by Eric Haugen)

So, in the early 2000s, the city built a plant that burned sludge to create its own heat. Water leaving the plant was clean and so were emissions from the smokestack. The process is essentially a circle, Auger says. All that’s left is ash that’s used in road construction.

The plant’s innovations were recognized by professional groups, and officials from other cities came to Buffalo to see it. Though the facility was more expensive to build than a conventional plant, Auger says it was not a hard sell to the City Council.

The council was also receptive to other city investments, including an early fiber-optic internet system (City Hall insiders called the tech-savvy Auger the “chief geek officer”) and buildings that aimed to meet the highest environmental construction standards.

“You explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” he says. “If the city doesn’t lead locally, you’re not going to get things done. We believed that putting money into quality paid in the long run.”

Additional successes

Auger also made progress in staffing, appointing women to management positions in several areas, including the water and street departments, which have traditionally been led by men. He says he just hired the most qualified people.

“They could do the job, and they were very respected,” he says. “The council was supportive.”

Another of Auger’s legacies is Trailblazer Transit, a public transportation system that nearly died in 2013 after Wright County discontinued support. City officials from around the county began meeting to try to save it, and Auger was key to that effort, says Delano City Administrator Phil Kern.

Other city leaders respected and listened to Auger, Kern says. “He was dependable, he was thoughtful, and when he took action on something, people listened and followed because they knew he wasn’t doing it for personal gain or attention. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do for our communities.”

The cities funded the system themselves for two years, until Wright County again assumed responsibility. Kern and Auger say the system is now the best it’s ever been.

Since retiring last year, Auger says he’s enjoying playing more golf, spending time with his grandkids, and “putzing around the yard.”

While Auger says he loved his job, by 2020 he felt it was time to move on. “It was time for someone else to come in and do new things,” he says.

Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.