The ironies in the dismissal of Shakopee City Administrator Mark McNeill last month and what happened 19 years ago are startling and, we hope, revealing; we shall see if they are prophetic.
In November 1995, four people ran a coordinated campaign under the label of CART (Citizens Association for Responsible Taxation) and won election to the Shakopee City Council. Jeff Henderson was elected mayor over Michael Beard, who had been a City Council member. Jane DuBois, Clete Link and Burl Zorn won seats on the City Council. They defeated Jon Brekke, who was appointed to the City Council and was seeking an elected term, and Councilor Joan Lynch, who was seeking re-election. The other seat went to fill Beard’s councilor position. Mayor Gary Laurent opted against seeking re-election.
The four won in what was clearly retribution against the decision by the City Council to build the Shakopee Community Center without a referendum.
Three months later, City Administrator Dennis Kraft resigned. City residents cleaned house at the polls on Election Day and Kraft felt the council did not have trust in him and began looking for a new job. (He was hired for a similar position by the city of Robbinsdale.) Though he was not asked to resign, Kraft noted he wasn’t asked to stay on either. By May, six months later, Acting City Administrator Barry Stock resigned, also not feeling welcomed by the new council members. (Stock is now the longtime city administrator for the city of Savage.)
And who was hired as Shakopee’s new city administrator following the Community Center fiasco? None other than Mark McNeill.
Now, 18 years later, McNeill is given the pink slip for not attaining the “vision” of Mayor Brad Tabke and Councilors Jay Whiting and Kathy Mocol, whose 3 to 2 council majority ended McNeill’s career here. His termination, interestingly, comes at the same time the City Council ordered a study on the possibility of upgrading city facilities, including the Community Center, at an estimated cost of more than $30 million. Scuttlebutt around town is that McNeill advised the mayor that making the improvements without a referendum vote would be ill-advised, not to mention political suicide. Mayor Tabke told the Valley News that McNeill’s firing was not connected to the Community Center, and we’ll take him at his word. But the irony is gripping.
Exactly why, then, was McNeill dismissed? Ostensibly, it had to do with “vision,” though no one is quite certain what that is, including the two councilors who voted against firing McNeill — Matt Lehman and Mike Luce.
Which brings up another irony: McNeill somehow survived a host of mayors during his 18 years with wildly divergent views and personalities. He was retained because he managed the city and its staff efficiently and professionally — staff that, behind the scenes, had as much or more to do with attracting developers here as any politician.
So now where are we? Hiring a new city administrator will (or should) takes months. The city will function with its day-to-day operations handled by the capable Kris Wilson as acting city administrator. Most likely, the city will consider the findings of its Community Center study without a permanent city administrator in place and without his or her advice.
We will also face hiring a person who needs to not only have the talents to administrator a staff for a city of 40,000, but someone with the right “vision.” Of course, there will be changes in the City Council in the days to come, and that “vision” will change. Chances are good that the city administrator hired to replace McNeill will change as well, since 18 years is a rarity in that profession.
Indeed, Mark McNeill was a rarity. He lasted 18 years in a politically volatile position in a city with divergent personalities elected to run city government. He did it by responding to the City Council’s wishes, offering input if asked, and running a taut ship.
A long list of well-known leaders in our community has made it clear that McNeill’s dismissal was a mistake. Shakopee is a well-run city, blossoming with an influx of new businesses that are the envy of every city in the state. Yet for some reason, McNeill got the ax. We join the many that were shocked by the dismissal.