Burnsville’s top budget-cruncher chosen as city manager

Heather Johnston, Burnsville’s chief financial officer and director of administrative services, was chosen Tuesday as the next city manager.

Heather Johnston
Heather Johnston

City Council members picked Johnston over two other finalists with many years of city manager experience — Mark McNeill of Shakopee and Walter Wysopal of North St. Paul.

Council members made quick work of the selection after holding hour-long interviews with each finalist Tuesday afternoon.

Johnston was the unanimous first choice to replace Craig Ebeling, who retired March 29 after 10 years as city manager. McNeill, who was city administrator in neighboring Savage from 1983 to 1994, was frequently mentioned as the second choice.

Despite having less experience than the other two, Johnston has the talent and “passion” to be city manager and will bring  a “refreshing style of leadership” to Burnsville, Council Member Dan Kealey said.

“I think she had to hit it out of the park to beat Mark, and I think she did,” Kealey said of their interviews.

A contract with Johnston, yet to be negotiated,  could be ready for a vote by the April 16 council meeting, said Dave Unmacht of Springsted Inc., the city’s search consultant.

The salary range for the city manager of the metro area’s sixth-largest suburb is $135,000 to $151,000.

Burnsville is a “phenomenal city,” Johnston said in brief remarks after the council called her back in to deliver the news.

She came to Burnsville from Minneapolis, where she had directed the Management and Budget Division of that city’s Finance Department since March 2004. Johnston also served  as Minneapolis’ interim chief financial officer in early 2011.

The 42-year-old Eagan resident hasn’t been a city manager but she’s steeped in government finance experience at the city, state and federal levels.

She worked for Minnesota Management and Budget’s Budget Services Division from 1999 to 2004 as executive budget officer and senior executive budget officer.

She worked in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget from 1996 to 1999 as a budget preparation specialist and a program examiner.

In 1995 Johnston was a legislative affairs intern for the National Performance Review — the “reinventing government” project  of President Bill Clinton’s administration.

She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and communication from Augsburg College in Minneapolis and a master’s in public administration  from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In addition to being Burnsville’s chief financial officer, Johnston also oversees the city clerk’s office, communications, community services and technology.

“In government today, financial pressures are always going to be among us,” Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. “She can hit the ground running. She knows how we are.”

And Johnston knows technology, Council Member Bill Coughlin said.

“Mark admitted that was not something he knew much about, and we are running down that direction in life and city government,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin suggested that McNeill’s stated intention to serve no more than seven years if hired wasn’t a point in his favor.

It was “a little bit of a red flag to hear that he’s looking at this as his last hurrah, so to speak,” Council Member Suzanne Nguyen said.

McNeill has “great credentials,” but Burnsville needs a leader who doesn’t put a cap on his or her career, especially as the city tackles long-term challenges such as redevelopment of the Minnesota River Quadrant, Kautz said.

McNeill has been city manager in Shakopee since 1996. He was city manager in Mason City, Iowa, for two years after leaving Savage.

Wysopal has been city manager in North St. Paul since 1998. He previously held positions in St. Louis Park, including assistant city manager.