Minnesota Cities Magazine

League Recognizes City Leaders

By Marisa Helms

The 2015 C.C. Ludwig and Leadership Awards were presentedSO15BellandAndJohnson on June 25 during the League of Minnesota Cities Annual Conference in Duluth. The C.C. Ludwig Award for elected officials and the 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.

Judy Johnson: C.C. Ludwig Award winner
Plymouth City Councilmember Judy Johnson likes to say she is drawn to the toughest challenges “like a bug to light on a hot summer night.” So, if she’s presented with a thorny infrastructure project that many people say can’t be done, she’ll take it on as her mission, and make it happen.

“I’m a cheerleader at heart,” says Johnson, who served as the 2004-2005 League of Minnesota Cities president. “I want to be there to say: ‘yes we can.’ It’s all about relationships, building consensus, and moving people forward to get great things accomplished.”

SO15JudyJohnsonJohnson’s passion and tenacity is evident in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s decision in 2014 to add a third lane to Interstate 494 in Plymouth. For more than a decade, Johnson, along with other Plymouth officials, had been asking repeatedly for state and federal assistance to add the lane, citing safety concerns and increasing traffic congestion in fast-growing Plymouth. Johnson’s persistence, and that of her colleagues, paid off. Previously, her consensus-building skills also led to the installation of a median barrier on I-494 in Plymouth to prevent crossover accidents.

Aside from Johnson’s focus on transportation and infrastructure, she’s also passionate about housing, redevelopment, and environmental stewardship. Over the years, she has supported major initiatives to preserve Plymouth’s green space and extend the regional trail system. She also organized an outdoor sleepover to draw attention to homelessness and the importance of protecting Plymouth’s affordable housing stock.

“[ Johnson] understands the issues facing our city and cities across the state,” says Kelli Slavik, Plymouth’s mayor since 2006. “As a strong communicator, she is able to carry those messages to elected officials at other levels of government, as well as to the public and the media.”

Unconventional beginnings
Johnson discovered her love of advocacy and politics in 1988, when she was a young mother and college student. She was invited to attend a precinct caucus meeting by her neighborhood community council in Minneapolis, and Johnson says the support and camaraderie of the caucus experience excited her, so she jumped in to help the candidates get elected.

In 1993, Johnson and her family moved to Plymouth. When an at-large seat came up on the City Council in 1997, she ran for it and won. She later served as Plymouth’s mayor from 2003 to 2006, and then, after choosing not to run for re-election in 2006, she made an unsuccessful bid for her district’s state Senate seat.

Johnson says she doesn’t regret the decision to run for the state Senate, but she prefers local government and doesn’t see herself running again for higher office.

“I think the highest office is local office,” says Johnson, who has been in her current Ward 1 Council seat since 2008, and is serving as deputy mayor for the second time during her tenure on the Plymouth City Council. “To see from start to finish the quality of life go up in a community—that’s what keeps me going over the years.”

Encouraging participation
Across all the issues Johnson advocates for, and even in her own political campaigns, she’s more interested in collaboration than party politics. “That’s fundamental,” says Johnson.

Also fundamental for Johnson is the idea that political communication is primarily about listening to citizens. Indeed, Johnson is recognized as a persuasive advocate for government transparency and for bringing citizens into the decision-making process.

In 1998, Johnson created a Plymouth Youth Council that remains active today, and she’s always on the lookout for talented people who may want to run for office.

But when citizens tell Johnson they don’t have the qualifications to get involved in community issues, Johnson will take it as a challenge and point to what she calls her own “unlikely background.”

“It doesn’t matter what you do in life,” says Johnson. “Whether you’re a hard-working stay-at-home mom— whatever you are doing—you can still find time to get involved in government, or even run for office.”

SO15BellandEd Belland: Leadership Award winner
A plaque with the words of a famous poem, the anonymous “Policeman’s Prayer,” hangs on a wall in Medina Police Chief Ed Belland’s office. Belland displays the inspirational verses next to his educational certificates and degrees, and photos of his family.

The second stanza reads:

Please give me understanding with both the young and old.
Let me listen with attention until their story’s told.
Let me never make a judgment in a rash or callous way,
But let me hold my patience, let each man have his say.

Belland, a veteran officer who has spent the past 18 years as Medina’s chief of police, explains why “Policeman’s Prayer” resonates with him.

“My desire is to help people,” says Belland. “That’s truly why I became an officer. I have a lot of empathy for people, and there’s a fulfillment in helping others that you just can’t get by doing anything else.”

Leading by example
Belland’s drive to serve others extends to his law enforcement colleagues. Overseeing a department of 10 officers, one community service officer, and two administrative assistants, Belland’s leadership has translated into high retention rates for the Police Department. Medina police officers enjoy a good relationship with the growing, increasingly diverse city of 6,800 people as well as the 600 residents in the neighboring City of Loretto, which they also serve.

Medina Mayor Elizabeth Weir calls Belland’s leadership “exceptional,” and credits Belland with achieving excellent continuity in the Police Department.

“[ Belland] leads with his heart,” says Weir. “He cares about the community of each of his police officers. He trains them in ethical management to deal professionally with difficult and often provocative circumstances.”

Training and collaboration are top priorities
Belland received his police training in his home state of Wisconsin. He came to Medina 24 years ago as an officer, after serving the City of Lino Lakes as a community service officer. Over the years, Belland’s commitment to policing led him to earn a master’s degree in police leadership in 2011 from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. And in 2013, Belland was chosen to attend a prestigious 13-week executive leadership program at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

As Medina’s police chief, Belland’s other notable achievements include becoming an early member of the West Metro Drug Task Force. Since it began in 2003, Belland has collaborated with this investigative unit, which has taken millions of dollars worth of drugs off the streets and has seized guns and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Addition-ally, Belland served as chair of the task force from 2013 to 2014.

In January 2014, Belland was appointed Medina’s public safety director. That means his responsibilities have expanded to include coordinating fire service with four different fire departments. But, the title also makes official the work he has taken on since 1997, when he helped establish the Lake Minnetonka Emergency Management Group, a collaboration among 20 neighboring cities. Belland say the group continues to meet monthly and has worked together to pass safety ordinances and coordinate regional emergency planning.

Making a difference
The 50-year-old Belland says when the time comes to retire from policing, he will no doubt stay involved with some aspect of community service. He says continuing with emergency management has some appeal, as does teaching others his philosophy of policing in the community.

“In law enforcement, we often see people at their worst—the most troubled time of their life,” explains Belland. “But if we can come up with a resolution to make life a little better for them, and they can say, ‘Wow, I was treated fairly by the police, and I’m better because of it,’ then we know we made a difference in somebody’s life.”

Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

Read the September-October 2015 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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