Back to the Sep-Oct 2019 issue

League Celebrates City Champions

By Mary Jane Smetanka

The 2019 C.C. Ludwig and James F. Miller Leadership awards were presented on June 27 during the League of Minnesota Cities Annual Conference in Duluth. The winners were St. Anthony Village Mayor Jerry Faust and St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot. The C.C. Ludwig Award for elected officials and the James F. Miller Leadership Award for appointed officials honor individuals who have consistently done outstanding work to improve the quality of their own cities as well as cities throughout the state.

Jerry Faust

In recent years, when St. Anthony Village needed a steady hand at the tiller, Mayor Jerry Faust was there.

The city was experiencing controversies over a proposed Islamic Center and the closing of the city’s only mobile home park. In an incident that shook the city to its core, Philando Castile died after being shot by a St. Anthony Village police officer. Some called for the mayor to resign.

But 15 years after he first won the seat, Faust is still mayor. City Councilmember Hal Gray says St. Anthony Village came through those ordeals stronger because of Faust’s leadership.

“We didn’t collapse, we stayed together as a team, not only in the Council but with city staff as well,” Gray says. “With Jerry’s leadership, we were able to persevere.”

Putting residents first

Faust says a united City Council and a hard-working city staff share his priority of serving the city’s 9,200 residents. Under his leadership, the city has demonstrated this priority in many ways over the years. A few examples:

  • During the recession, the city took advantage of low interest rates to fund an aggressive street reconstruction program.
  • When the city learned that a solvent from an old military site was contaminating the aquifer the city uses for drinking water, it began building a new water plant even before it had secured funding. Eventually, the U.S. Army paid the $10.5 million cost.
  • After intensive community discussion, St. Anthony was one of the first cities in the metro area to convert to organized garbage collection, which is better for the environment and easier on city streets and residents.

“Jerry really tries to take the long view in decisions,” says City Manager Mark Casey. “He is passionate about good governance and cares very deeply for the city.”

Faust, 73, moved to St. Anthony Village with his family in 1980 because the city was midway between his and his wife’s workplaces and because they could live on a lake. After 23 years in the military, he retired and joined the city Planning Commission because he wanted to be more involved in the community. He was elected to City Council in 1996, and he became mayor by special election in 2004 after the previous mayor died.

Steady voice in difficult times

Faust says that though he isn’t always patient, his military experience taught him to work with anyone and get the job done. He says he works to listen to others, a philosophy that was on display during the hard months after Castile died.

Casey describes that period as “horrific” for the city, but says Faust was “a steady voice” and offered stalwart support to a shaken staff and Police Department.

“The trust he had was seismic,” Casey says. “It was treated as an opportunity for learning and for our Police Department to go from good to great. We continue to do race and equity work. It opened the door to change.”

At crowded, rowdy meetings where people demanded to speak, Gray says Faust kept order, didn’t lose his cool, and dropped the usual time limits on public comment to let people vent.

“He knows when to be firm and when to back off and let people speak,” Gray says. “People needed to let off steam, and he understood that.”

Faust says nobody came away unscathed by the Castile tragedy. “You just have to rise above the animosity and anger out there, listen to what people are feeling, and then be able to say, I can’t undo it, but I can do everything in my power to not have it happen again.”

Willing to teach and listen

People often expect the mayor to be more rigid than he is, Gray says. But Faust values transparency and resident involvement, and he takes time to mentor new councilmembers and explain city procedures to the public.

St. Anthony has one of the highest outright home ownership rates in the state, Casey says, an indication of its older population. But that’s changing as younger families move to the city for its schools, and Faust says he and other city leaders are ready to listen to those younger residents.

In fact, he’s proud that St. Anthony Village is a place where all residents have a chance to be heard.

“Equity is a big issue now, not just race, but gender, pay, and access to resources and opportunities,” he says. “When you look at things through those lenses and you make sure you are delivering services that meet those demands, that never goes out of style.”

Steve Bot

When Steve Bot became St. Michael city administrator in 2012, he was told that his top goal should be accomplishing something that the city had absolutely no control over: expanding the number of lanes on I-94.

For St. Michael, it was no exaggeration to say the highway was a lifeline to the future. Easier, faster commutes meant the city could attract residents who had jobs in the Twin Cities. Businesses wouldn’t prosper or come to the city if traffic delays cost them money.

Making dreams come true

Mayor Kevin Kasel admits that making the I-94 expansion the city’s priority seemed a stretch. “It was kind of a pipe dream,” he says. “We didn’t have anyone’s attention, but we figured if we made it the No. 1 goal, maybe something would happen.”

Something did happen. At the urging of the I-94 Coalition, which Bot led and helped found, Gov. Mark Dayton made the project a priority in 2013. The expansion from two to three lanes between Rogers and St. Michael—which hadn’t even been on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) 20-year plan—was completed in 2015.

Kasel says it was Bot’s tireless advocacy at the Legislature and his leadership of the coalition that kept things moving. “He dove in and said, ‘I will do everything I can.’ When he put his mind to it, it was amazing. People began to think it was a possibility.”

Taking skills to next level

Bot, 45, never trained to be a city administrator. A native of St. Louis Park, he got a civil engineering degree from the University of Minnesota, worked for an engineering consulting firm and later for the cities of Plymouth and Hopkins. He was hired as St. Michael’s city engineer in 2002, and soon was doing the job of public works director as well.

City leaders could see that he could do more, so when the top city spot opened in 2012, they offered it to Bot. And he willingly stepped into the role while continuing as city engineer and public works director.

Bot is also well-respected by local officials in neighboring cities and counties, as well as MnDOT officials and state legislators. He has collaborated with leaders outside St. Michael on many projects and, when it came to the I-94 expansion, he knew that would benefit many communities and enhance the quality of life for residents and commuters from the metro area up to St. Cloud and beyond.

“His efforts have always been focused on the greater good for the entire state,” Kasel says.

Energetic advocate

Recession meant city finances were tight, and the housing boom that had fueled development had faded. City officials knew the widening of I-94 was critical for the area to prosper.

“Our future really relied on our ability to move around,” Bot says.

Before the I-94 expansion, Bot says the congestion was so bad that people were fleeing the freeway to use smaller roads in the area, creating new traffic and safety problems and wear on county roads. The jammed highway also was unsafe, with above-average accident rates.

The project really brought out Bot’s skills in legislative advocacy. He made phone calls, visited the Capitol, and brought key legislators to town.

“I figured I’d try everything I could,” he says. “There’s a million doors that were knocked on and a lot of people who helped. I-94 is big enough that it hits on everyone’s interest, whether it’s your legislative representative, or the governor, or business.”

Kasel says that Bot was a skillful and energetic lobbyist, with all the facts at hand and a sense for how to make a powerful case to people without overstaying his welcome. His engineering background helped with the technical details. “MnDOT- speak is different from any other language known to man,” the mayor jokes.

Beyond I-94

Though the highway expansion is a top achievement for Bot, Kasel says he has been an excellent administrator for St. Michael. He is a good judge of talent, he says, and moved people and duties around when finances required it.

City leaders credit him with creating 10-year-plans for capital budgets, retaining talented city staff, and increasing the city’s bond rating. He also collaborated with neighboring cities to develop staff-sharing agreements.

Recently St. Michael, which has almost 18,000 residents and is seeing healthy growth in new housing again, was able to hire a new city engineer, removing that duty from Bot’s portfolio.

“I just want to keep things rolling and progressing,” Bot says. “This is a new challenge for me, and I really feel that we folks at this level can make a difference for people. I also have a lot of good people behind me trying to deliver great services at low cost.”

Kasel says Bot is too modest. “I’ve known some darn good city administrators in my time, and Steve is one of the best. He exemplifies what a city administrator should be.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.