The top two applicants for Rochester’s next city administrator were interviewed by the Rochester City Council, as well as by future council members, on Thursday, with plans to extend a job offer by the end of the year.
The contenders for the position are Mankato Deputy City Manager Alison Zelms and Maple Grove City Administrator Heidi Nelson.
Here are a few of the issues addressed during the interviews:
What trends will municipal organizations need to address to recover and build in the coming year and next decade?
Zelms: “I think some of the important trends are somewhat continuing, but it’s also how we use new technology and use new tools and techniques to really get to people. It’s that community-building aspect — not just infrastructure, but connecting people differently than maybe they have before.”
She added that connecting with people to solve problems is important so all residents can have a voice in the community.
Nelson: “I think some of the trends and concerns that we are going to have to address as a municipal organization looking ahead into the next 10 years likely focus around how the real estate market will shift and change, so what are going to be the long-term impacts to retail, restaurants and office-type users in our community.”
She said the city will need to determine how the impact could become tax concerns in the community, but it also needs to consider how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping how the city delivers services in the future to reach more people.
Describe your approach to building relationships with the City Council.
Zelms: “At its highest level, I think it’s important that pretty immediately, we get together and have some of those strategic advance meetings to talk about how our relationships can be effective, which is an individual thing, but also a group thing.”
She said each council member may have specific needs for a ward, but it’s also important to discuss the bigger picture to ensure council members are aware of needs throughout the city.
“I’ve found it important to stay in pretty close contact,” she said of trying to work with council members who have differing approaches to problem solving.
Nelson: “I try to make sure I have an individual one-on-one relationship with each member of the council and get to know them and understand what their concerns are for the community and what their goals are as a council member.”
She said frequent individual conversations will reveal some goals, but a city administrator must also gauge the ability to reach enough council consensus to address a policy issue or concern.
How would you frame and establish issues that could become controversial for the council?
Zelms: “If we are doing big things, we are probably going to encounter controversial issues, and that’s the nature of doing hard work, and doing the hard work of local government and making the community a better place to live.”
She said the goal should be to monitor community feedback, including social media, to identity concerns throughout the city as a way to understand which issues are spurring potential controversy so it can be presented to the council.
Nelson: Nelson said having a strategy around how the city engages the community is important, whether it’s a ward issue or a communitywide concern.
“Early communication about what the issue is and how the city is attempting to address it, and bringing people along in that discussion” is key, she said, adding that residents should be engaged to limit surprises.
What is your philosophy and approach for managing city finances and ensuring long-term financial health?
Zelms: “Dollars are not the most important thing, but they are very important because it’s difficult to effectively move forward unless we know we have the resources to solve a problem, and solve it consistently and keep it moving forward, so my high-level view of city finances is that we can do anything, but we can’t do everything.”
She said the budget must be a reflection of the city’s values, with prioritized funding targeted to fulfill the city’s vision. She added that it’s also important to effectively communicate how the work is being done while maintaining stewardship of the city’s finances.
Nelson: “In terms of managing city finance, I probably take a pretty conservative approach fiscally to municipal operations. I see myself as a steward of the city’s resources and a fiduciary of the city, and I really try to take that conservative approach. I think there is value in thinking ahead about the budget and needs of the city.”
She said Rochester appears to be on a good track in recent years with a move to start the budget process early each year and considering future budget impacts, which allows the council to address its priorities in the annual budget.
What is your experience with addressing diversity and equity issues?
Zelms: “This is something we’ve been working on for a long time in the city of Mankato.”
She said the work includes building relationships with a variety of groups to address issues from accessibility for people with disabilities to racial inequities, which has been a key goal for some of her recent work in Mankato.
“We lead with racial equity in Mankato, because it’s the thing people are least comfortable talking about. It is not a comfortable conversation to talk about, which is why we rarely talk about it, because we don’t want to make mistakes, we don't want to accidentally offend someone, we don’t want to sound wrong,” she said, adding that listening to people affected by inequities is important.
Nelson: “In the communities where I have served, the issue of equity and inclusion hasn’t necessarily been a policy or resource priority. However, I have always made a point in my work to make sure the issues of equity and inclusion are addressed internally in the organization from a training perspective, from a culture perspective and then how our hiring practices look.”
In Maple Grove, she said she encouraged involvement in a community partnership, including the school district and neighboring city, which was working to address race issues and engage different perspectives.
“Through that program and through those partnerships, I think we really expanded those opportunities in the organization to listen and hear those perspectives, and I think those have played through in the work we do,” she said.
How would you approach your first 90 days as Rochester city administrator?
Zelms: “I think it’s important for me to absolutely very quickly get on all your calendars, and frankly it would be helpful to me also to meet with the council members who are going to be off of the council, because you have a lot of information, history — maybe you might think if it as baggage — over what you’ve handled over the last 10 tor 12 years.”
She said the first months will be needed to establish context for the work that needs to be done, since all cities are different and face unique challenges. She added that it will involve meeting with staff as well as community members.
“I’m not coming here to change Rochester,” she said. “I’m coming here to make Rochester even more of what it wants to be.”
Nelson: “For the first 90 days, I think my focus would be to listen and learn the organization, get to know the community better. In a process like this, you try to do the best you can from the outside, learning the organization by reviewing the website and watching council meetings and watching candidate forums and all those kinds of things to become familiar the best you can, but it really does take three to six months to really kind of get to understand the organization, its culture, the people and the work you are doing.”
She added that she would be ready to tackle any issues needing immediate attention, but she’d also be looking to attend board and commission meetings to get a better grasp on local issues and what the community expects.