Kelli Bourgeois doesn’t have far to go to move into her new office; it’s just down the hall from her previous one. Nor will she have to go through a big learning curve as she trades her position as human resources director and assistant city manager for her new position as city manager of Columbia Heights. In fact, she says, residents probably won’t notice much difference between her and her predecessor, Walter Fehst. The same goes for city employees. “I’ll be a little more hands-on than Walt,” she said, “but not much. We’ll just continue what we’re doing.”
At the end of November, Bourgeois found herself a top candidate for the job of city manager in Richfield. Fehst had announced his retirement at the end of December, but hadn’t turned in his final notice. After 22 years, the Columbia Heights City Council was suddenly in the position of needing to hire a new city manager with a well-regarded candidate already in the wings, but who was looking elsewhere. It took a special council meeting, part of which was closed-door, to get the offer out on the table.
On November 15, 2018 the council convened a special session to consider making an offer. Fehst was present, Bourgeois was not. Fehst expressed that his intent when he hired Bourgeois was that she would be capable to replace him. The council members all sang her praises, with the only no voter, Nick Novitsky taking issue with the lack of process, not the person. There were also residents who spoke on both sides. Bourgeois accepted an offer the next day.
Asked how it felt to be part of a bidding war, Bourgeois chuckled. “It was unusual,” she said. “And most exciting.”
She added, “Columbia Heights is where I wanted to be. My professional goal has been to be a city manager. To be able to do this in the community that I have come to love with staff I have grown to respect, makes it all the better.”
Bourgeois has been interested in civic administration for a long time; she received a BA in local and urban affairs from St. Cloud State University in 1994. She worked as a senior planner for the South Eastern Council of Governments, Sioux Falls, SD, for nearly four years before she returned to Minnesota and worked as assistant city manager and commercial development director for the city of Becker, a position she held for 16 years. She began working as Columbia Heights’ assistant city manager in 2014.
She said Becker, 50 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, and Columbia Heights are similar, but different. “Becker is a small town, but there’s a disconnect between that city and the metro area. Columbia Heights is still a small town, but it’s very much a part of the metro. We have the best of both worlds.”
Bourgeois said she became even more interested in city administration shortly after she received her law degree from Hamline University in 2013. “I planned to go into private sector law,” she said, “but I found I like serving the public. I like to see the impact that I can make in people’s lives.”
One of her first priorities is to get staffing “back to the level it needs to be.” Recent retirements and moves have taken their toll on city staff. She spent the latter part of December talking with union leaders and the public works department. Community Development Director Joe Hogeboom is leaving, so she’s interviewing candidates for his job. At some point, she’ll have to hire someone to take her position as human resources director, but it’s also a position that “can wait” as she takes hold of the reins of government.
She said she’s committed to retaining not only city staff, but city businesses. “It’s great to get Hy-Vee finally here, and the Central Avenue corridor is a big priority,” she said. “But we need more local businesses. We want to make sure that we have really good commercial growth. Keeping current businesses healthy and working with them in any way we can is also a priority.”
She cited the recent grant program that encouraged business owners to apply for grants to fix up their storefronts as one way the city can invest in businesses. The city also needs to invest in itself, from security cameras on Central Avenue to a new city hall.
She noted that Columbia Heights has a lot of rental property. “Overall, our property owners do a good job, but we have some that aren’t so good. We need to make sure they respect their neighbors.”
Bourgeois also plans to open up more lines of communication, upgrade the city’s website and make better use of social media. “We want to have two-way communication versus just pushing information at people,” she said. “We need feedback. We have to interact with the people, meet people from all over the area and ask them, ‘What can we do better?’ What services should we provide?’” She noted a Town Hall meeting coming up in March that will give Columbia Heights citizens the opportunity to express their views.
“I want to hear from people who are willing to share their ideas, and know they are heard and able to connect to the larger community.”
It’s an ambitious undertaking, and with four years experience in the city, Bourgeois appears up for the task.
Below: Kelli Bourgeois, right, interacted with library staff Dec. 1.