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Honoring four Minnesota public leaders — we need more like them

Critics of government often denigrate those working in government. This is a real injustice.

Critics of government often denigrate those working in government. Public service is given a negative connotation. This is a real injustice because there are bright, capable public officials trying hard to make government work better for all of us.

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Leading in the public sector requires not only exceptional management skills but also special leadership capabilities. A public consensus needs to be developed to make change occur in government. Change can’t just be ordered.

Minnesota is fortunate to have numerous outstanding public leaders who are able to develop public consensus and improve government dramatically. The following is a description of four of these leaders who were in the news in 2013:

Kathleen O’Brien

Kathleen O’Brien

O’Brien retired from her position as vice president of university services for the University of Minnesota after 11 years. She led functions that “shovel the snow, serve the food, patrol the streets, heat the buildings, renovate facilities, monitor lab safety, and house students.” O’Brien’s group was noted for continuous improvement, reducing costs, and outstanding service. She also led the university’s effort on the Central Corridor Light Rail Line and with Joel Maturi the construction of TCF Bank Stadium.

It was the second stint for O’Brien at the University of Minnesota. She had been the chief of staff for former U of MN President Nils Haselmo from 1994 to 2002 when she was noted for her quick grasp of issues and collegial approach.

Prior to her time at the university, O’Brien was elected from the university ward to three terms on the Minneapolis City Council. In between her positions at the university, she served as the Minneapolis city coordinator. During her tenure, Governing Magazine named the city one of the best managed in the country.

Howard Bicker
Howard Bicker

Bicker, who also retired in 2013, had been the executive director of the Minnesota State Board of Investment for 32 years. Bicker was responsible for investing $65 billion of state pension funds. In the last 10-year period, the state funds outperformed their benchmark, ensuring that pensioners would be paid and tax support kept in check.

During his tenure, Bicker urged the board to invest in international securities, alternative investments, and indexed funds while managing the risk of the portfolio overall. He also followed state mandates to avoid investments in liquor and tobacco companies and in companies doing business in places like South Africa, Iran and the Sudan.

Interestingly, Bicker could have made multiple times more money than what he made in his public service. But he was dedicated to it — exemplified by his training of many fine investment managers who are now working in the private sector.

Kit Hadley

Kit Hadley

Hadley has had a noted career of “firsts”: She was the first woman to lead the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, the first nonlibrarian to lead the Minneapolis Public Library System, and the first leader of both the Minneapolis and St. Paul libraries. She is a lawyer by training but possesses a rare fiscal acumen and adept people-management skills.

When Hadley took over the Minneapolis libraries, they were in dire financial straits and employee morale was low. She rebuilt the libraries, but warned of future cutbacks that would result from reduced state aid. Hadley courageously proposed that the Minneapolis libraries merge with the Hennepin County Library.

What was most impressive was that Hadley knew she would lose her job in the merger. Yet she pursued it with vigor because it was best for library users in Minneapolis. Now she is providing strong leadership for the St. Paul Public Library as “a cornerstone of St. Paul’s learning network.”

Peter McLaughlin

Peter McLaughlin

It is difficult to think of light-rail transit development in the Twin Cities without thinking of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. He has been the leader as chair of the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and as chair of the five county Transit Improvement Board. As McLaughlin once stated, “The best way to improve our community is by active participation, rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in problem solving or launching a good idea.”

And transit isn’t the only thing on which McLaughlin has “rolled up his sleeves.” He led the Hennepin County Board on the consolidation of the Minneapolis Library System. McLaughlin is a leader of the Phillips Partnership and its Health Careers Program that has trained the disadvantaged to work in the health-care industry. He also is working on an initiative to ensure that all Hennepin County youth graduate from high school.

We are fortunate in Minnesota to have dedicated public leaders such as O’Brien, Bicker, Hadley and McLaughlin. Our task ahead is to make sure we are developing the next generation of public leaders. This entails leadership training, adequate public compensation, and respect and appreciation from the public they serve.

Jay Kiedrowski is a senior fellow and faculty director of the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.


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