Jennifer Bergman offered Brainerd city admin job
Bergman is currently the executive director of the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority and will hopefully give the city of Brainerd the stability council members seek.
That’s what Brainerd City Council members sought as they interviewed city administrator candidates Tuesday, Nov. 19, keeping in mind whoever they pick will be the sixth administrator in the last seven years.
Stability is what they saw in Jennifer Bergman, the current executive director of the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, who ultimately got the job offer.
Council members voted unanimously to offer the job to Bergman Tuesday night after interviewing five candidates.
“Taking Jennifer away from this table tonight, knowing Jennifer from HRA, in my opinion she’s gained the respect of every person at this table before she even applied for this job,” council member Kevin Stunek said during deliberations. “But since she’s applied, she’s not only gained the respect from that, but she’s gained the respect to be ranked No. 1.”
He also noted an important qualification he wants in the next administrator is the ability to bring back trust among city employees which he believes has been lost in recent years.
All seven council members ranked Bergman in their top two candidates following the interviews.
“There has not been a problem over there that she has not solved quickly and effectively to everybody’s satisfaction,” said Council President Gabe Johnson, who is in his fifth year as liaison to the HRA. “The commissioners all trust her absolutely. Her staff all trusts her absolutely. She is just a great leader, and we couldn’t do better as far as leadership skills.”
David Chanski, the city’s community development director, ranked among the top choices as well, with Jan Lambert initially ranking him as her No. 1 choice, Tadd Erickson ranking him second, and Dave Pritschet putting him equally as high as Bergman. Council members Kevin Stunek and Dave Badeaux marked Nate Ehalt — a county administrator in Wisconsin — as their distant second choice to Bergman.
Bergman, who has a bachelor's degree in local and urban affairs, has served as HRA executive director since 2011. Prior to that, she spent five years as executive director for the city of Anoka HRA, five years as program director for the Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation and three years as the community development manager/assistant HRA director for Anoka County.
Upon coming to Brainerd from the Twin Cities area eight years ago, Bergman said she had never worked for such a welcoming and passionate organization.
“While I’ve had the opportunity to play a role in the revitalization of Brainerd … I would love to have the challenge and the opportunity as the city administrator to continue to work with the city council and department heads to continue to further, I think, all the great things that are happening.”
Communication is key
In response to several questions — including those about management style, city visibility throughout the community and teamwork — Bergman emphasized communication as a key.
As a manager, she spoke of her open door policy with staff and always listening to all sides of an issue before making a decision. She said she will always make a decision when problems arise and communicate why that decision was made.
“I think the role of the city administrator is really about communication. You’re the decision makers,” she said of the council, “and as staff our responsibility is to get you all of the information that we possibly can so that you can make a good solid decision.”
After the council makes decisions, Bergman said she sees it has her job to make those decisions and the reasonings behind them known to the public and community partners.
Positive attitude, respect and acknowledgement, she added, are other key components of an effective team, such as city staff. When people feel like they are in the loop on decisions — especially decisions affecting their departments — she said that builds relationships and a good team. Bergman said she strives to create a work environment that’s both productive and enjoyable for employees.
One rule Bergman said all her employees know is that if they come to her with a problem, they need to come with a solution as well.
With economic development as her area of expertise, Bergman said Brainerd has to be business-friendly in order to thrive in that area. The city needs to maintain key employers — such as Ascensus, Essentia Health, the Brainerd School District and Central Lakes College — and continue working with partners like the chamber of commerce and the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation.
She said the city needs to keep in mind that businesses are a large portion of the city’s taxpayers.
Bergman also spoke of Brainerd Oaks, a subdivision off Oak Street in east Brainerd. For many years following the 2008 economic recession, dozens of lots in the development sat vacant. A developer called Paxmar later entered into an agreement with the HRA — which also oversees the Crow Wing County and Crosby HRAs — to buy and develop lots. Fast forward to present day, and Paxmar has purchased and built on more than two dozen of the 83 lots in Brainerd Oaks.
Bergman said the many moving pieces to Brainerd Oaks made it the most challenging project she has worked on but ultimately considers it a success and a learning opportunity.
What’s next for Brainerd?
When asked about her priorities for the city, Bergman mentioned all the positive projects going on right now, including the Mississippi Riverfront project, upcoming reconstruction of Washington Street, downtown rehabilitation and a potential children’s museum. She said she wants to continue working on those projects and use the positive energy from them to move forward even more.
With rehabilitation efforts focused on downtown in recent years, she said that should be expanded, especially in the Washington Street area.
“What amenities does the city of Brainerd really need to be able to, not only attract new residents to our community, but also to enhance the lives of our residents now?” she said.
Regardless of who the council chose, Bergman said she would continue giving 100% to the city of Brainerd.
“I’m here. I am not going anywhere,” she said. “This is where I’m going to retire, whether I’m fortunate enough to be the city administrator or whether I stay at the Brainerd HRA.”
David Chanski is about a year into his post as Brainerd community development director. Before coming to Brainerd, he spent a year as a management assistant for the city of Alvin, Texas and a year and a half as a management analyst/zoning administrator for the city of Amery, Wisconsin.
He told council members that his ultimate career aspiration is to be a city administrator and emphasized that he and his wife have made Brainerd their home over the last 11 months. Because Brainerd is now his home, the place his daughter was born, he said he wants to continue moving it forward in the capacity of city administrator and plans to stay in Brainerd for the long run.
“I want people to know that when I’m making a decision, it also is going to affect myself,” Chanski said, noting he is the only of the five candidates who lives within Brainerd city limits. “It’s going to affect my family in some way, shape or form, not just the people of Brainerd, because I am one of them.”
Over the last year, Chanski said he has built relationships within the city and with city partners and would work to continue building partners as city administrator. He spoke of continuing to build the brand of Brainerd and working to get the public to understand the city’s visions and goals so they become the goals of everyone, not just the council.
He spoke of seeking organizational efficiencies and offering professional development opportunities for staff members to make sure the city is not only hiring the most qualified employees but also helping them to better themselves and, in turn, the city.
“I want people to know that I truly care about them and that I truly care about the Brainerd community,” Chanski said.
After placing Chanski as her top choice and Bergman as her second, council member Lambert said she worried that Bergman’s expertise is specific to the HRA and economic development, which is only a portion of the city administrator’s job.
Council member Erickson said he had that same thought at first as well but felt that toward the end of her interview, Bergman spoke more of how her expertise could benefit the city as a whole.
Council member Pritschet said he chose Bergman and Chanski as his top two because of their passion for Brainerd. He said he liked how Chanski spoke of an individualized approach to leadership and mentioned Bergman can apply her HRA experience to many areas of the city.
Council member Badeaux said he was most impressed with Bergman’s leadership skills, and President Johnson said, in his opinion, Bergman was the only candidate who is not a flight risk and will not likely leave the city in a couple years.
“She is dedicated to this community, has been for a decade, will be for another decade,” Johnson said. “I don’t get that from anybody else.”
Mayor Ed Menk, who does not vote except in the event of a tie, gave the council one piece of advice: Make your choice, stick with it and make it work.
Stunek ultimately motioned to offer the job to Bergman and work with David Drown and Associates on a contract. Pritschet and Kelly Bevans simultaneously seconded the motion, which the council unanimously approved.
The council will likely have a contract drawn up for its next council meeting Dec. 2.
Nate Ehalt has been the county administrator for Burnett County, Wisconsin for the past six years. He also spent several years in the city of North St. Paul, working as assistant to the city manager for three years, community development director for two years and interim city manager for two months.
With his kids already living in Brainerd with their mother and attending school of St. Francis of the Lakes, Ehalt said he is committed to making Brainerd his long-term home.
Good communication and transparency are two qualities he said would make him an effective city administrator, along with building trust among employees.
Ehalt spoke of a regular newsletter he started in Burnett County that has been an efficient communication tool and could be used in Brainerd as well.
When asked what his biggest priority would be for Brainerd, Ehalt said he honestly didn’t know but would first listen to council members and hear about their visions for the city before deciding on any priorities.
Joe Gaa has been the city administrator in Dickinson, North Dakota for the past year.
Previously, he spent four years as city manager for Chariton, Iowa; more than four years as city administrator/public works director for Woodbine, Iowa; and more than three years as parks administrator of the Sebastian County Parks Department in Arkansas.
Gaa described himself as a team player, cited financial success with the last city he worked with and said he enjoys going to events and becoming a part of the community. He said business retention is crucial for economic development.
A couple priorities Gaa mentioned if he were hired were maintaining city infrastructure and making use of a multi-year capital improvement plan.
Steve Kil has served as town manager for the town of St. John, Indiana for the last 18 years. St. John is a town of about 15,000 in northwestern Indiana. Prior to that, he spent seven years as town manager in Schererville, Indiana.
Kil said he has been coming to Brainerd every year since 1988 on the way up to Big Pine Like with his family, which is what drew him to the position. He emphasized communication, said he is very visible as city manager in his current community, and noted actively engaging city employees as a key to retention and success.
With a high volume of rental properties downtown, one priority Kil said he would have for Brainerd is to transition the housing market into more owner-occupied properties. Ownership, he said, tends to create more of a pride in property versus renting.
Kil said he would be committed to Brainerd, has no ties preventing him from coming to Brainerd and has a proven track record of not jumping around from job to job.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.