North St. Paul city manager lands job in Fridley


Wally Wysopal (then) & Wally Wysopal (now)

Wysopal chosen over 45 other applicants
 
Fridley city officials announced last week that they have chosen North St. Paul’s Wally Wysopal as their new city manager, after he rose to the top of a group of 46 applicants.

Fridley has been searching for a new city manager since its longtime city manager, Bill Burns, retired at the end of 2012. Burns worked for the city for almost 25 years. Finance Director Darin Nelson has been serving as the interim city manager since Jan. 1.

The Anoka County suburb began its search for a new city manager in November 2012. Slavin Management Consultants, based in Norcross, Georgia, conducted the search for applicants, encouraging Wysopal, a Fridley resident, to apply for the position.

Wysopal, 51, said that part of the reason why he decided pursue the position was that the issues Fridley is currently facing are aligned with his own areas of interest.

“The things going on in Fridley are very interesting to me,” Wysopal said. “It’s a lot like what North St. Paul has been going through - economic development and housing projects. I stayed with North St. Paul 10 years more than the average city manager. They’re doing very well right now.”

Wysopal added that North St. Paul’s recent selection to be the community partner with the University of Minnesota’s Resilient Communities Project was an indicator to him that the city is moving forward.

“Opportunities for city manager positions don’t come up very often in this field,” added Wysopal, who has been the North St. Paul city manager for 15 years.

Wysopal also interviewed for a city manager position in Burnsville, where he was among the top three finalists. The Burnsville council ultimately chose its chief financial officer, Heather Johnston, to take over the position.

The selection process

After the initial list was narrowed down to nine finalists, Fridley council members began conducting interviews at special meetings April 5 and April 6 at the Fridley Municipal Center. These interviews lasted about one hour each, and candidates were not given the list of questions beforehand.

The interviews were open to the public, but not for questions or input from spectators.

At a special meeting April 13, the Fridley council narrowed the list to just two candidates: Michael A. Ericson, an economic development consultant for the city of Maplewood, and Wysopal. Second-round interviews were held on April 15. After a brief discussion, the city council voted unanimously to select Wysopal to be the next city manager, pending a contract agreement.

Fridley Mayor Scott Lund said Wysopal met the criteria he and the council were looking to fill.

“He just seemed to be a good fit for what my council and I had set for our expectations,” Lund said. “He seemed to be ahead of the rest of the candidates. We’re looking forward to having Mr. Wysopal working with us.”

“Wonderful” time with North St. Paul

In an interview after the news broke about his new job, Wysopal had glowing things to say about the city where he has worked since January 1998.

“It’s been such a wonderful time for me,” Wysopal said. “The council members and mayors I’ve worked with have always had the city’s best interests in mind, which makes my job a lot easier.”

“My biggest highlight was seeing good things happening in the city, and I’ll always remember how good the city has been to me,” he added. “It’s been a pleasure, and I wish them nothing but the best.”

Focusing on urban renewal

During his tenure, Wysopal oversaw the construction of a new city hall, fire station and public works building and guided the city through the lengthy MnDOT project to realign Highway 36.

He was also manager during some key redevelopment projects such as replacement of the former Keindel’s Grocery with a three-story office building, the move of the North St. Paul Medical Center to a new spot just south of Highway 36 and new businesses coming in such as Reflex Medical Moldings.

The redevelopment push even stretched into a residential neighborhood on the west end of the downtown district. Aging, single-family homes tucked in a mature oak woods were razed and replaced with Penn Place senior condominiums and townhomes along East Seventh Avenue and First Street.

Wysopal also championed a couple of projects that didn’t go through: the “Polarnet” plan to equip the entire city with a fiber-optic communications network and a “Living Streets” plan that would have decreased runoff on residential streets by narrowing them.

Residents shot both plans down quickly.

Wysopal is also the only North St. Paul city manager ever to be quoted in the New York Times, after the electric cooperative that includes North St. Paul’s electric system purchased and installed small wind turbines in member cities to encourage alternative energy.

The turbines, which had been used in California, were apparently not equipped to withstand Minnesota temperatures. Their hydraulic and lubrication fluids froze, and North St. Paul and other small cities had static wind-turbine sculptures on their hands.

The problem was eventually fixed, but not before the Times ran “When Windmills Don’t Spin, People Expect Some Answers,” which quoted Wysopal as saying, “If people see a water tower, they expect it to stand still. If there’s a turbine, they want it to turn.”

City council, staff share kind words

North St. Paul staff and council members gave Wysopal much praise for his time with the city.

Mayor Mike Kuehn was a city council member when Wysopal was hired. “Wally is a very capable professional. The city was well-served while he was working with us,” he said.

“It’s unusual for city managers to stay with one city for so long. He will be remembered as someone who worked hard for the city, and the whole council will miss him,” Kuehn said.

Director of Community Development Nate Ehalt added that Wysopal has been a “phenomenal” city manager.

“He’s a very ethical, strong leader, and the city will be sad to see him go. He taught me and other staff members a lot.”

Council member Candy Petersen admitted that prior to joining the council, she was unaware of the difficulties the city manager faces.

“Before I was elected to city council, I didn’t know how complex his job was. Once I understood it, I was impressed. He’s always handled it with a steadiness and knows how to deal with people,” Petersen said. “He’s a bright guy, and I wish him the best.”

Council member Terry Furlong said that since Wysopal wanted to make a career change, “it’s good for him that he was able to get this position,” but Furlong added that the city would miss him.

When contacted by the Review last week, longtime city council member Jan Walczak said she had “no comment” when asked about Wysopal’s time in North St. Paul.

Search for a new city manager

With Wysopal likely starting his new position in June, North St. Paul will begin searching for a new city manager shortly.

Wysopal had some advice for potential candidates: “In general, they should be committed to doing their best and open to communication.”

Kuehn said that the city’s search for a new city manager would begin soon after Wysopal approves a contract agreement with Fridley and tenders his resignation.

“We will appoint a staff member to be our interim city manager,” Kuehn said. “We hope to have the position filled by mid-summer. We have several options: we could post the position internally or conduct a national or international search.

But hopefully, we should be able to make a (hiring) decision in June.”

Petersen said she would support an internal or statewide search.

“There are some good people in Minnesota. I’d rather not spend the money on a ‘head-hunter.’ Internally, we might look at Nate Ehalt. We’d want to compare him to some other folks as well. We want to get the best candidate possible.”

Furlong expressed a similar sentiment regarding how to conduct the search.

“I would support an internal search and also within our community or state,” Furlong said. “Maybe in St. Paul or Minneapolis.”

When asked if interested in the position, Ehalt told the Review that he is “currently focusing on his career in community development.”

Holly Wenzel contributed to this story.
Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814.

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