By Marisa Helms
Though Jim Miller’s corner office at the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) offers enviable views of the state Capitol and the Cathedral of St. Paul, one gets the feeling he doesn’t spend much time looking out the window.
For Miller, who will retire on July 31 after 22 years as the League’s executive director, work has always been about serving the membership, bringing out the best in his staff and peers, and transforming the organization into one of the most trusted and well-respected municipal leagues in the country.
A look back
When Miller became the League’s director in 1993, due to various personnel matters, the organization’s leadership was in profound disarray. Its former executive director had just resigned, staff morale was low, and the League’s reputation was on the line.
Stepping into what many people still refer to as “a mess,” Miller took on what has been perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.
“It was really a very difficult, tumultuous time for the League,” recalls Miller. “I knew some of what was going on, indirectly, and I had an expectation of what I had to deal with. But it was still even more of a difficult situation, especially for the good, dedicated people who remained.”
Thinking back, Miller says he probably had a sleepless night or two in those early days. But he says he was so sold on the organization that he never had any second thoughts about the job and what needed to be done.
From the beginning, Miller’s management skills and collaborative leadership style set the right tone, and over time, Miller built a team of employees who trusted him and believed in the League’s mission and values.
Miller is quick to credit outstanding staff for ensuring the League’s transformation into the highly respected, ethical, and effective organization it is today. But many of Miller’s long-time associates say the League’s turnaround and current stability couldn’t have happened without Miller’s leadership.
“Jim sets high expectations,” says Pete Tritz, administrator of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) and 40-year League employee. “If you’re going to make a recommendation [to Miller], it better be pretty well thought out. But Jim is also a very humane manager. If people have issues, Jim will bend over backwards to accommodate them. That has something to do with why people like working with Jim. He asks a lot of us, but he’s willing to give a lot too.”
Stability and vision
At this point, Miller says, his role as executive director is to provide strategic guidance for the staff and the organization. One way Miller stays connected to the daily priorities of the organization is through weekly meetings with League department managers.
“He tees up an issue and lets each of us approach it and mull it over from our professional perspectives,” says LMC Intergovermental Relations Director Gary Carlson, who has been with the League for over 20 years. “He wants to understand an issue from as many angles as possible before proceeding. That’s a skill not many people have. They don’t have the patience to mull over issues for an extended period of time. But Jim finds value in our perspectives and what we bring to those discussions.”
Carlson says Miller’s deliberative style translates well with state lawmakers, who genuinely respect Miller for his integrity and deep understanding of municipal issues.
Former Willmar Mayor Les Heitke, who served as LMC president in 2001-2002, affirms Miller’s status at the Capitol.
“[miller] is at the top in terms of personal ethics and professional responsibility to cities and elected officials,” says Heitke. “Even bombastic politicians will stop and listen to Jim Miller. Once, we went over to the Capitol to see [then- Gov.] Jesse Ventura. Jesse and I knew each other, and he would slap me on the back and want to know how things were in rural Minnesota. But, when Jim had something to say, Jesse shut up. He knew that Jim is deep and wise and knows his positions very well.”
What Jim Miller built
Among Miller’s early accomplishments as director was overseeing the construction and relocation of the League’s offices into the current headquarters at Rice Street and University Avenue in St. Paul.
“It gave us some permanency, and also symbolically, moving into a new structure helped us move forward,” says Miller.
Another priority for Miller—early on and throughout his tenure—has been to continually assess League services to ensure they are responsive to members’ ever-changing needs. A big part of that has been the decision to more fully integrate the LMCIT programs and services with the rest of the organization.
“We realized that our members didn’t really care whether they were talking with someone in the Insurance Trust or the League; they simply wanted help with information or problem solving,” says Miller. “That led us to refocus both the content and funding for a number of our services, the result of which has been much more valuable service to League members.”
A distinguished career
Miller’s long career in public service began 1966. While completing a high school civics class assignment about his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Miller’s curiosity and interest won him an invitation to intern with the city manager.
Since then, Miller has worked for a variety of cities around the country, gaining valuable experience before coming to Minnesota to take the city manager job in Minnetonka in 1980, and then becoming the League’s director in 1993.
“I wanted to commit my career to try and help enhance the image of local government as being competent, professional, and ethical,” explains Miller. “That has driven me over the years.”
Miller’s management experience is enhanced by a distinguished academic career. He earned master’s and doctorate degrees in public administration from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, as well as a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
A mentor and a friend
Before Miller became the League’s executive director, he was very involved in League business and governance.
Miller served on the LMC Board of Directors from 1983 to 1988 (including being president in 1986-1987) while he was city manager of Minnetonka.
Former Minnetonka Mayor and 1995- 1996 LMC President Karen Anderson says she thought the League made the right choice when Miller was hired to become its executive director in 1993.
“The League needed someone of Jim’s caliber and esteem, someone with his strong sense of ethics,” says Anderson, who calls Miller a mentor and a friend. He encouraged her to run for City Council, and then later, for mayor of Minnetonka. “I have such respect for Jim and the way he carries out his responsibilities,” says Anderson. “He’s a star in my eyes. And to know he had confidence in me was awesome. He helped point me in the right direction and was always willing to offer support, encouragement, and the information I needed to move ahead.”
Anderson isn’t the only person to praise Miller’s kindness, integrity, and great sense of humor. As former Willmar Mayor Heitke puts it, Jim Miller is “a gem.”
A legacy of trust
When Miller entered the League offices 22 years ago as its director, member cities and legislators were questioning the League’s relevancy.
But now, as the quiet, self-effacing Miller bids farewell to the League, he leaves with the surety that the organization is in the best shape in its history, and ready to meet the future with integrity, credibility, and a commitment to service.
“When I look at our core values, the one that stands out for me is trust,” says Miller. “It’s internal—we trust each other. But our members also trust what we do, not only in terms of honesty, but trust in terms of competency. The League’s goal [is] to be the best partner we can to enhance the quality of local government in Minnesota.”
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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