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Small-City Leader Makes Big Difference for All Cities

By Andrew Tellijohn 

Ely, pinned on a Minnesota state map

Ely City Councilmember Heidi Omerza has dedicated the last 13 years to improving not only her own city, but all Minnesota cities.

She helped raise the profile of issues important to small communities, such as the expansion of high-speed internet. She took an interest in issues ranging from economic development to public health and tourism to good governance, going “all-in” for the betterment of cities, the state, and the League of Minnesota Cities. She traveled around the state and beyond, strengthening relationships and building a better understanding of the challenges of cities both large and small.

Statewide leadership

Heidi Omerza
Ely City Councilmember Heidi Omerza

Omerza achieved these accomplishments and more by using her role on the Council of a small Northern Minnesota city of 3,400 to become a statewide leader. She was elected to the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) Board of Directors in 2011. She also serves on the board of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) and the board of CGMC’s economic development affiliate, the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

Omerza’s term on the LMC Board ended in June, after four years on the Executive Committee. She was the 2018-2019 president and just completed her year as immediate past president. Her nine-year term makes her one of the League’s longest-serving Board members.

“She was all about making the League — and the cities that make up the League — better,” says Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson, who was LMC president for 2019-2020 and is now immediate past president.

Always kind, but always heard

Mornson and others say Omerza is modest, creative in trying to get colleagues to think “outside the box” and, above all, civil in discussion.

“She is a kind person,” Mornson says. “She was always out for what was best for the League.”

Elected to the Ely City Council in 2007, Omerza was on the committee that hired Harold Langowski, Ely’s city clerk and treasurer. He considers her a friend and has great confidence in her decision making.

“We may not always agree, but she certainly listens and understands where I am coming from,” Langowski says. “I think that is very valuable in today’s divisive atmosphere.”League Executive Director David Unmacht marvels at Omerza’s willingness to travel almost anywhere, despite living in one of the state’s most northern points.

“That dedication, simply by virtue of geography, is indicative of her support,” he says.

Whether it was broadband expansion or economic development, Omerza was great at ensuring that issues facing small towns, which make up nearly 80% of the League’s membership, were top of mind.

“The majority of our cities are small,” Unmacht says. “Heidi made sure we remembered that.”

She excelled at building relationships, not only in Minnesota, but nationally via involvement in the National League of Cities.

“She’s on a first-name basis with leaders across the country,” Unmacht says. “She helped establish our League as one of the top leagues in the country. Heidi was one of those connectors.”

A voice for Ely

Omerza has lived in St. Paul, Brooklyn Park, Pine City, Blue Earth, and Mahtomedi. She was eager to serve and, she says, that variety of home fronts helped.

“I have experienced a lot of different places around the state,” she says. “When people tell me what’s going on, I have a perspective of it. It’s not coming from left field.

”She doesn’t seek praise for anything she and her colleagues achieved, though she acknowledges pride in the relatively seamless transition when LMC Executive Director Jim Miller retired after 22 years, and Unmacht took over leading the League in 2015.

Primarily, she just wanted to make sure Ely was heard. “It’s important to have a place at the table,” Omerza says. “I thought it was important that if someone from Ely had an opportunity, that we took advantage of it.”

She’s aware of her reputation for being outspoken but says she tries to be collegial, as well.

“I just feel like I am saying my piece,” she quips. “Sometimes I say it nicely. Other times I just know I’m right, so I say it. I just say it with a smile on my face.”

Example for her daughter

Her children inspire her involvement. She wants to instill in her daughter and three sons the importance of serving and making a difference. It was while pregnant with her daughter, Elizabeth, that she realized there were no women or people with children on the Ely City Council.

“I was the first female on the Council in a long time,” she says. “A lot of my drive has to do with being the right example for my daughter and making sure that my segment of the population — people who have children going through the school district — have a voice.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.