By Mary Jane Smetanka
The 2016 C.C. Ludwig Award and James F. Miller Leadership Award were presented on June 16 during the League of Minnesota Cities Annual Conference in St. Paul. The C.C. Ludwig Award for elected officials and the James F. Miller Leadership Award for appointed officials honor individuals who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to improve the quality of city government and cities throughout the state.
C.C. Ludwig Award winner
Mary McComber’s Chicago childhood was rich with politics. Her father was a city fireman and a chauffeur for Mayor Richard Daley. Her grandfather was a Democratic precinct captain. Everyone thought her outgoing brother, a leader in organizations ranging from student council to sports, was destined to be the politician in the family. But such things didn’t appeal to Mary. When talk turned to politics, she left the room in irritation. She didn’t like to speak in public, and even found a way to avoid a college speech class.
So she never told her family when—pressured by Oak Park Heights neighbors who found her to be an articulate opponent of the city’s street assessment policy—she reluctantly ran for City Council. And won. When she called her brother with the news, she says, “He laughed so hard he dropped the phone.”
Listener and facilitator
McComber joined the Oak Park Heights City Council in 2000 and became mayor in 2012. While her reluctance to speak in public is behind her—she has been involved with LMC, the National League of Cities, Metro Cities, Minnesota Women in City Government, and more than a dozen local citizens committees—she views herself as more of a listener and facilitator than someone who seizes the bully pulpit.
“Some people are natural-born leaders, and I don’t happen to be one of them. I had to learn it, and I had to earn it,” McComber says. “I listen. I tend not to get defensive, and ask instead how we can look at this thing differently. We talk and try to reach a solution. Then the majority rules, and we move on.”
Oak Park Heights City Administrator Eric Johnson says of McComber, “She’s engaged, she’s willing to meet with people, she spends time getting involved in issues. She finds a good balance between that and being involved at the policy level.”
Not your average small city
Oak Park Heights is an unusual city, just a mile by two miles in area with a population of almost 5,000 that swells to about 20,000 during the day, according to Johnson. The tiny city is home to a state prison, a high school, a large power plant, corporate offices, a large senior housing complex, shopping centers, car dealerships, and fast food developments. Some of the city’s big institutions pay reduced taxes or no taxes at all. And because of its small population, Oak Park Heights does not get state aid for road funding.
“We probably deal with as many urban issues as many bigger cities,” McComber says. One of her goals when she became mayor was to mend fences with other entities big and small that the city must work with.
“We had the reputation of not getting along with other cities, or with the county,” she says. “We’re not done yet, but it’s a whole lot better than it was.”
Bridge is key accomplishment
McComber was one of the 28 people who for three years worked to hash out details of the St. Croix River Crossing bridge, which is set to open in 2017. “That’s why my hair is this color!” she joked, pointing to her flowing white locks.
She says one of the agencies the city has had a rocky relationship with is the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), but the bridge project has helped turn that around. One of the letters supporting McComber’s nomination for the C.C. Ludwig Award came from a MnDOT official, who praised the mayor for her steadfast support of and work on the bridge project and for being “responsive, open, and engaged.”
Improving residents’ quality of life
While the bridge is the highest-profile project to go forward during McComber’s time with the city, she is most proud of changes that have improved residents’ quality of life, including: Reworking the street assessment policy that first brought her to the Council to make it more equitable.
Rebuilding streets on the east side of the city, something she says should have been done 30 years ago. That work was held up as everyone waited for the new bridge’s alignment. Capping a fly ash pit from the Xcel Energy power plant to create meadows that became a city park. With grants and the work of volunteers, playgrounds have been added.
It’s projects like these that are near and dear to McComber’s heart and that make her love being the mayor.
“I absolutely love my city and I love my neighborhood,” Mcomber says. “I choose to get involved and try to make a difference and get the wheels to turn faster—and sometimes they do.”
James F. Miller Leadership Award winner
In the sometimes topsy-turvy world of city management, Shoreview stands out: in the 23 years that Terry Schwerm has been city manager, he’s replaced a grand total of two department heads.
Make that three if you count the time the parks and recreation director retired, and Schwerm himself assumed those duties. And did so happily.
“If we did not have Terry Schwerm at the helm, we would not find someone who would do those two jobs,” says Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin. “But he loves the park and rec work, and he felt he had a really good staff to support him.”
Stability is a theme in Shoreview, where Schwerm says his greatest accomplishment is developing and keeping a great city staff. He credits strong political leadership from Martin and other city councilmembers, most of whom have served the city for more than a decade.
“I think we created a quality work environment and a place people like working in,” Schwerm says.
Born for public service
Schwerm grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a village manager and a school counselor. As a young man he wasn’t sure that he wanted to follow them into public service.
“My dad had so many night meetings and he was gone so often that I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to do it,” Schwerm says. In college, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration. But when he interviewed with corporations, it didn’t feel right.
Working as an administrative assistant in the offices of a small town in Illinois did.
“I learned a lot there, and I had good mentors,” Schwerm says. “It really cemented my love of public service.” In 1983, he came to Minnesota as the assistant to the city manager of Minnetonka. Five years later, he was promoted to assistant city manager, working with then-City Manager Jim Miller, who later became the League of Minnesota Cities’ longtime executive director. After Miller retired last year, the League renamed the Leadership Award for him.
Miller was “one of the most influential people in my career, if not the most influential,” Schwerm says. “I saw his professionalism and integrity and ability to let departments kind of manage themselves even as he was the liaison he needed to be with the Council and departments, making sure the city was on course.”
It’s fitting that Schwerm is the first to win this award since Miller’s name was attached to it.
Making the move to Shoreview
In 1993, Schwerm became Shoreview city manager. The suburb, which now has about 25,000 residents, developed mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, the city built the Shoreview Community Center, which is still the heart of the city. Schwerm is passionate about the center. Around 2000, the city undertook a multi-million dollar expansion and renovation of the center, adding a state-of-the-art fitness center and additional banquet space. “This is the cultural, social, and recreational hub of the community,” Schwerm says.
Under Schwerm’s leadership, the City of Shoreview has taken on progressive projects, like adding pervious paving near lakes to help absorb stormwater. It has also added a new park and expanded its trail system. In addition, Shoreview has raised its bond rating twice during Schwerm’s tenure, to AAA, and maintained that top rating for about seven years. Schwerm’s contributions to public service extend beyond the boundaries of Shoreview. He has served on several area boards, including that of the Ramsey County Contract Cities Joint Committee and the Lake Johanna Fire Department. Additionally, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Municipal Legislative Commission, an organization that advocates for policy issues shared by 17 metro communities.
Schwerm describes his management style as “curious” and says he’s usually “bouncing around from department to department.”
His office door is rarely closed, and he says he wants input from city employees regardless of where they are in the hierarchy.
Though his manner is laid back, he talks enthusiastically of everything from picking new streetlights to attending a night meeting to see what residents think of a playground design. “The key thing with Terry is that he creates an atmosphere with staff that they can be creative and innovative, and that’s been key to Shoreview’s success,” says Martin. “He really seeks consensus. Department heads stay here for 30 or 35 years even though they have a chance to go to bigger cities with bigger responsibility. But they like it here.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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