By Mary Jane Smetanka
The 2018 C.C. Ludwig and James F. Miller Leadership awards were presented on June 21 during the League of Minnesota Cities Annual Conference in St. Cloud. The winners were Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland and Waconia City Administrator Susan Arntz. 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.
Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland says she’s an optimist, and to prove the point she tells the story of being an enthusiastic 8-year-old at a fishing derby. Seconds before the contest ended, she caught the biggest fish and won a bike.
“I’m from a family of nine kids, and I never would have had my own bike,” Hamann-Roland says. “The first lesson is believing it and doing it and winning.”
That optimism and focus have fueled her rise from the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School Board to later becoming the mayor who was concurrently president of both the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Mayors Association, and subsequently had leadership roles at the National League of Cities.
Within three years of moving to Apple Valley, Hamann-Roland's husband passed away. “I had no family here, but the children loved their teachers and friends. We laid down deep roots, and this community became our family,” says Hamann-Roland, who was elected mayor in 1998. “It makes me want to do the best for this community.”
Apple Valley City Administrator Tom Lawell says Hamann-Roland’s leadership in founding an environmental studies high school in cooperation with the Minnesota Zoo is indicative of her passion and commitment.
“She has abundant energy and works hard every day to make our city a better place,” Lawell says. “She gets the value of partnerships at all levels. She knows if you can leverage your resources, you can do a lot for your community.”
Lawell says that as Apple Valley developed over the last 20 years, the city had to work with businesses and the Chamber of Commerce to navigate those changes. Hamann-Roland was a good partner in that process, listening to people, determined to find solutions, and always optimistic.
“She talks with everyone she meets and is a very supportive individual,” Lawell says.
Hamann-Roland believes that differences in opinions and perspectives contribute to stronger outcomes. “Groupthink is not a good idea,” she says. “We’ve learned to work together, and it’s helped us achieve success,” including two AAA bond ratings and an ISO rating of 2 for fire department service and water quality, which puts Apple Valley at the top 2 percent of cities in the nation.
In 2003—when it was clear that Apple Valley was going to lose its state local government aid— Hamann-Roland helped lead an effort to build collaboration among Dakota County cities with the aim of improving services and saving money. That led to the creation of the High Performance Partnership (HIPP), which she co-chaired.
A direct outcome of HIPP was the Dakota Communications Center, which consolidated six 911 answering points operated by five cities and the county. A second result was the HIPP Dark Fiber Committee, which she co-chaired, and from that a broadband board was created to help advance broadband service and the interconnection of all cities in Dakota County.
Hamann-Roland was also part of the drive to draw rapid transit bus service to Apple Valley. The service began in 2013. “We got our foot in the door and were able to achieve an urban partnership agreement that was only one of five in the country,” she says. “It was critical to inform people about how important the service was.”
Apple Valley is unusual among Twin Cities suburbs in paying for street reconstruction through its property taxes, with no individual assessment of homeowners. “We made road reconstruction a priority and funded it,” she says.
One of the things Hamann-Roland is passionate about is the Apple Valley Arts Foundation, which she founded when she was still on the school board. The foundation sponsors 10 summer concerts in a park and gives away bikes and bike helmets to children.
“It’s a way to use the arts to build community,” Hamann-Roland says. “In Apple Valley children are heard and seen as growing leaders.”
Her own children are grown and on their own now. “I raised the kids by myself and a lot of times they came with me to meetings and community events. They learned so much and now they are community builders,” she says.
“I’m passionate about local government and about our kids, and I want them to live in a world worth living in,” Hamann-Roland adds. “Whatever we focus on is what we achieve in this life. The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Susan Arntz was in her 20s when she got her first job as a city administrator in Waconia. Seventeen years later, she’s still there, managing a city that’s doubled in size and population since she started in 2001.
It would seem easy to grow comfortable in the job. But Jackie Schwerm, the city’s assistant city administrator, says Arntz hasn’t lost her drive.
“She definitely has that get-it-done attitude,” Schwerm says. “She’s incredibly organized. Her knowledge is so vast, from human resources to public services, that she’s touched it all. Yet she’s great at letting department heads do their thing. She’s hard¬working and puts in more hours than anyone I know, but she has a fun side to her and wants everyone to enjoy their work.”
Arntz says she’s been lucky, with forward-thinking, curious City Council members and a staff that’s not afraid to try new things. Back in 2002, city staff began dropping paper records in favor of digital storage. Today file cabinets are rare at City Hall.
“We’re not risk-averse. We’re risk-aware and willing to try something,” Arntz says. “But we don’t make rash decisions.”
Waconia, which now has about 12,500 residents, grew even during the recession. Much of that growth was through care¬fully planned development. Under Arntz’s guidance, the city began doing a 20-year financial plan each year, looking not only at anticipated infrastructure needs and other expenses but the staffing needs that go with them. The city has achieved an AA+ bond rating, the highest possible for a city its size.
In 2004, Waconia opened one of the first multi-purpose city halls in the state. It includes a library, sheriff ’s department substation, city heritage group, parking, and senior housing. Arntz is proud of the facility, which contains public meeting rooms and has become a community gathering place.
In recent years, the city ventured into new territory again, arranging for a private firm to manage the city’s community center and ice arena. It had been losing money, but Arntz and other city officials considered it an important amenity and wanted to see if the company could help turn things around.
Since that agreement in 2016, operating losses have declined, and new programs are being offered even as the city retains ownership and makes final decisions about operations.
“We’re delivering a better product and starting to see the benefit,” Arntz says.
Schwerm says Arntz works very well with other people. She guides the council through difficult decisions by summarizing discussions, presenting alternatives, and artfully steering the group toward a conclusion.
“I love people, and I think I’m a good communicator,” Arntz says. “A big part of what I do is spend time educating people, not only staff, but residents. I look at myself as more of a connector. Most of the time when people come to the city, they’re trying to solve a problem, so I find out what they need and who they need to talk to. Sometimes it’s not someone at the city but at a school or business.”
She extends those connections to children, teaching elementary Junior Achievement classes about local government. “I see kids I taught long ago who still remember those concepts,” she says. And conscious of how much she needed a strong mentor when she was starting her career, she helped start a program to mentor young city employees through the Minnesota City/ County Management Association.
Arntz tries to keep the atmosphere at City Hall creative, engaged, and fun. An accomplished cook—“It is one of my passions,” she says—she enjoys bringing her edible creations to the office.
Her family tells her that she never makes the same food twice. At City Hall, though, she gives in to staff demands. “The office loves blueberry buckle,” she says.
Arntz started potlucks to mark holidays and introduce new employees. The Halloween potluck features costumes.
“It’s engaging, it’s different, it’s relaxing,” Arntz says. “I want to create a place where people want to come to work every day. We’ve tried to [make working at City Hall] a little more engaging and fun, and that fuels their energy.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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