Twenty-three years after he got the job — and six months before he leaves it — Mark Bernhardson still sounds surprised that he became city manager of Bloomington.
“It’s amazing how things work out,” he said. “The average tenure for a city manager is five or six years. … I wouldn’t have stayed that long if it wasn’t as good as I expected.”
Bernhardson, who turns 65 this year, will retire at year’s end. He says it’s been a good ride for a preacher’s kid from Nebraska.
“In my 50s I thought I should find something else, but I never found anything else as interesting,” he said. “I had the best city manager job in the state of Minnesota.”
Bloomington, the fifth-biggest city in the state, is also the largest with a city manager. Bernhardson is the city’s chief executive, working at the pleasure of the City Council. City employees work for him.
Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, has known Bernhardson since the Bloomington manager was an assistant city manager in Edina more than 30 years ago.
“I would say he’s had an incredibly successful career,” Miller said. “If you were to randomly survey people in the profession in the state and country, you would get smiles and they’d say he’s the personification of what the profession is about. He’s highly respected and regarded.”
Miller said Bernhardson’s quiet demeanor serves him well.
“He’s not someone who overreacts to situations; he can deal with very sensitive and controversial issues,” Miller said. “I don’t think he takes himself too seriously, though he takes the job seriously. He understands the difference.”
Bernhardson has the reputation of running a tight ship, which is something of a tradition in Bloomington. Preceding Bernhardson in the job was another strong city manager: John Pidgeon, who according to former Bloomington Mayor Neil Peterson once tried to annex the Black Dog power plant in Burnsville.
“It didn’t go anywhere,” Peterson said with a laugh.
Peterson was mayor when Bernhardson was hired away from the city of Orono. If Pidgeon was something of a bull in a china shop, Peterson said, Bernhardson was low-key but in control. Council members almost never challenge or question Bernhardson in public.
“He’s done marvelously,” Peterson said. “I think if people were to critique Mark, they might take issue on the style, but not on the substance. He has total control of that job. … He’s a man of great detail, extremely organized.”
A host of achievements
Bernhardson grew up in the Midwest, mostly in Nebraska. He came to Minnesota for college, graduating from Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter with a degree in economics. It was there that he met his wife, Ivy, who is now a Hennepin County district judge.
For a while he laid sewer and water pipe in Nebraska — a job that taught him a lot about public works, he said — and then went to Naval Officer Candidate School and became a supply corps officer on a ship for 2½ years.
When his Navy stint ended, he got a graduate degree in public affairs and public administration at the University of Minnesota. He was a volunteer firefighter in Golden Valley, assistant city manager in Edina and then city administrator in Orono for six years before taking the Bloomington job.
The Mall of America opened and expanded during Bernhardson’s tenure, and after threatening to move, the airport stayed near Bloomington’s border. Light-rail service came to the city.
Bernhardson said he is proud that single-family homes have been protected even as the city encourages denser housing. He said communications with residents have improved with the resurrection of the city newsletter, and that has helped people understand what services they’re getting for their taxes. The city’s finances have strengthened, and ratings with all three bond rating agencies are AAA — as high as they can go.
He said challenges remain for the city, including what to do about small commercial centers that are struggling and single-family homes that may be functionally obsolete because of difficult locations.
“There will be lots of opportunities 20, 30 and 40 years from now where older industrial areas will redevelop,” he said.
With his kids grown and gone — a son is in medical residency and a daughter is heading toward the foreign service — Bernhardson said he isn’t sure how he will use his retirement. He has six more months to puzzle that out, but said he’s been told by others he probably won’t figure it out until he’s left work behind.
He plans to split his time between a home in San Diego and — no surprise — Bloomington.
“I’ve loved it here,” he said. “What’s not to like in Bloomington?”