Building a city and a legacy

Eagan City Administrator Tom Hedges announced his retirement — effective Feb. 1 — during the Sept. 19 City Council meeting

Tom Hedges, Eagan city administrator (standing left), swore in Gene VanOverbeke (standing right) as the city’s finance director in 1981. Hedges was responsible for creating the finance, public works and community development departments during that time. – Photo submitted

After leaving his mark on Eagan, Tom Hedges, the suburb’s first city administrator will retire after 36 years.

Hedges announced his resignation — effective Feb. 1 — during the Sept. 19 City Council meeting.

“This is a great community and it has been a wonderful ride over the past 36 years,” the 63-year-old Eagan resident said. “Now I’m looking forward to having more flexibility in my life.”

Hedges said his retirement will give him an opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Debbie, who retired from nursing earlier this year, and their three adult children and four grandchildren.

Eagan City Council members, saddened by the news, praised Hedges for his work in the city and noted that he will leave a legacy.

“You helped create the Eagan culture and the Eagan way,” Council Member Paul Bakken said to Hedges on Wednesday. “You have been instrumental in so much of Eagan.”

Hedges was hired as Eagan’s first city administrator in 1976 and was handed the task of helping the community convert from a township to a city. In the following two decades, Hedges was responsible for positioning the city to accommodate significant growth.

When Hedges started in the late 1970s, Eagan was a relatively small suburb with a population of 19,000 people, which exploded during the 1980s and 90s.

Tom Hedges

“It was quite a challenge making sure all planning and acquisition was in place to stay at pace with development,” he said.

Since then, the city’s population has grown to 65,000 residents and a number of major companies call Eagan home.

As Eagan rapidly grew, it needed more city departments to accommodate larger populations and Hedges was responsible for creating those departments.

Within a few years, Eagan had a new Public Works, Finance and Community Development departments and hired directors who led them for decades.

Over the past 36 years, the number of city employees has grown from 35 in the late 70s to 235 full-time employees and 500 part-time employees in 2012.

Public service wasn’t Hedges dream job growing up. As a young college freshman at the University of South Dakota in Vermilion, he looked to pursue a career in business or economics.

But by his senior year, Hedges began to look at pursuing a job in government, and after a stint as an assistant to his government professor, Hedges was hooked.

Although Hedges initially planned to pursue other avenues, he had been fascinated by local government since childhood.

His mother took a job in the early 1960s as a deputy city clerk in Spirit Lake, Iowa. As a teenager, Hedges would occasionally visit his mother at work and quickly became fascinated with the inner workings of city hall.

Hedges started his career at age 23 shortly after completing graduate school by becoming the first city administrator of St. Peter, Minn. The tiny employment ad, which ran in the Star and Tribune, remains preserved in Hedges’ scrapbook.

“It was a great opportunity to grow in that position,” Hedges said.

Hedges has received numerous awards from his peers in city administration, including the 2001 Manager of the Year Award from the Minnesota City and County Management Association and the 2011 Minnesota Government Communicator of the Year award.

Several local reporters wrote letters of recommendation for the communicator award and described Hedges as “unfailingly accessible” and as “someone who never failed to return a phone call.”

Prior to 2002 when Tom Garrison was hired as Eagan’s communications director, Hedges was the city’s primary spokesperson.

It’s the relationships he’s built with those in the community, Hedges said is most rewarding.

“I’m all about people,” he said. “I enjoy being around my employees, and if residents have an issue, I want to be their problem solver.”

Hedges’s love for his community is evident throughout his office. A bird house decorated with an Eagan banner sits in one window sill, while two Minnesota Gophers bobbleheads stand with pride on a shelf. On another shelf, awards from a local Boy Scout council recognizes Hedges’s volunteerism and skilled skeet shooting.

Eagan City Administrator Tom Hedges (left), who announced his retirement on Sept. 19, led the city council around the then new police station in 1978. – Photo submitted

After retirement, Hedges said he plans to continue to work for the community as a volunteer. Hedges previously volunteered with local Boy Scouts, his church and other organizations.

In addition to working with reporters and residents, Hedges has taken an integral role in attracting businesses to Eagan. In the late 1970s, he was responsible for overseeing communications between the city and West Publishing (now Thomson Reuters) when the company opened a book binding facility in town.

In 1991, he worked with the company again when it relocated its corporate office to Opperman Drive in Eagan.

“It took a lot of time to get to know them,” Hedges said. “But watching that company grow is really rewarding.”

Hedges has also received several awards for his community outreach efforts, including the Career Development Award in 1985 from the International City and County Management Association and the Outstanding Mentor/Manager in 2000 from the Minnesota Association of Urban Management.

Both awards recognized Hedges’s dedication to mentoring teens and young adults who are interesting in pursuing a career in public service. Hedges has mentored more than 40 people who went on to become city managers or department directors.

This group includes Steve Mielke, city administrator for Lakeville, who said he continues to look to Hedges as a role model.

Mielke worked with Hedges as an intern between the fall of 1980 and spring of 81. During that time, Mielke said he learned not only the responsibilities of a city administrator but how to interact with the community in a positive way.

“Even when things are turbulent around him, Tom remains stable,” Mielke said. “I try to emulate that.”

More than three decades later, Mielke said he and others in the field still look to Hedges for advice on public policy and life.

“He’s just one of those guys you look up to,” Mielke said. “He always seems to have life balance, and that’s not always easy to achieve in public life.”

The city authorized Brimeyer Fursman, a Maplewood executive search firm, to begin efforts to find suitable candidates to fill Hedges position. City officials expect to select a final candidate by early 2013.

As the city prepares to hire a new city administrator, Hedges said he hopes the council selects someone who aims to keep up with new technology services, who is mindful of redevelopment needs and who strives to create volunteer opportunities for residents.

Although Hedges plans to retire early next year, he said he may not step entirely away from the field. After traveling a bit, he said, he may serve as an independent consultant.