When the longest-tenured city manager in the state retires in February after 36 years with the city of Eagan, he'll leave a hole that few could hope to fill.
Tom Hedges, the only city administrator in Eagan's history, is so well known, so well liked and respected, that other city managers applaud his career and city officials only reluctantly accepted his departure.
"I truly feel sorry for the person who has to succeed Tom Hedges. It's not going to be easy," said Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan, who worked with Hedges for 21 years as an Eagan council member and mayor.
The city administrator is the top non-elected official in city government, often likened to the CEO of a city. Riding out 30 years of changing mayors and council members, Hedges presided over Eagan's growth from rural farm fields to a booming suburb.
The politics weren't always easy, "but Tom was always the calm, cool, collected voice of reason," said Edina City Manager Scott Neal on his blog. "You can't stay in this line of work for 36 years in one town if you're not all those things -- and more."
"He has just done an outstanding job," said Maple Grove City Administrator Alan Madsen. "Tom is a very ethical man. Very principled. He sets the bar very high for the rest of us."
Because of his legendary length of service, the task of finding his replacement is drawing more attention than the typical city manager search. The city council hopes to hire someone by February, and many people are curious to see who steps onto the stage.
"There is no other Tom Hedges out there," said Tom Colbert, who retired last year after 34 years as Hedges' public works director.
Hedges is a natural people person whose warmth defuses conflicts and brings people to consensus, Colbert said. "His ultimate gift is getting people to work together."
Thinking of himself "much like the pastor of a church," Hedges extended his role beyond City Hall. Whether coaching kids' sports, going to church, attending the Rotary or doing his grocery shopping, Hedges always wore his city manager hat and talked city business with residents wherever they found him.
He was just 27 when hired as Eagan's first administrator. He knew going in that the community's development would be his to manage and saw at once that he would have to secure freeway access if the community was to grow properly.
Digging in, he presented plans and arguments that persuaded the Minnesota Department of Transportation that Eagan was not a sleepy, drive-by rural area needing only a couple of freeway exits, but an up-and-coming community worthy of multiple access points to interstates 494 and 35E and Cedar Avenue. Hedges remembers winning that point with MnDOT as a key accomplishment. After the freeways opened, Eagan's growth exploded.
"The entire city was open for development," said Colbert, thinking back to the 1980s. City Council meetings regularly stretched to 1 or 2 a.m. as people poured into city hall to contest the loss of open land and assessments for roads and sewers.
As a measure of how high the growth pressure was, Egan remembers that on a single evening the City Council approved 1,200 single-family lots. "That was the kind of pressure we were under. You needed someone with Tom's style to control things."
Businesses and commercial-industrial builders demanded attention to their applications as well, Egan said. He credits Hedges for having the presence needed among senior managers at West Publishing to encourage the company's expansion in Eagan. The firm, now Thompson Reuters, is Eagan's largest employer.
One feat Hedges did not pull off was bringing the metro horse-racing track to a 500-acre site in northwest Eagan. Council members wanted it, so Hedges waded in. But in the end, Shakopee landed the track. The happy ending was that the time spent studying and preparing the site made it attractive to major businesses, including Northwest Airlines, which brought jobs and tax base to the city, Egan said.
Openness and honesty have been key to Hedges' success, said Lakeville City Administrator Steve Mielke , who started out as a young intern for Hedges. "This is a profession where over time you have to say no to people. You can't say yes to everything. Tom has the ability to communicate with people in a way that they end up respecting him, even if they don't like the answer."
Hedges, the only son of Charles and Rosemary Hedges, was born and raised in Spirit Lake, Iowa. His interest in city government began at age 12 when his mother worked for a time in the city clerk's office. He enjoyed hanging out at City Hall with the police chief and utilities superintendent. "It was a very positive influence on me," he recalled.
After playing every sport the high school had to offer and captaining the football team, Hedges moved on to college as a business major at the University of South Dakota, where he was drawn to classes on government administration in between accounting and economics. While there, he met and married his wife, Debbie, who earned a nursing degree.
After graduating from the business school in 1971, he considered law school but was lured into a master's program in public administration when offered a paid teaching fellowship. With his new degree in hand, he was drawn to Minnesota by a tiny ad in the Star Tribune for a city clerk/administrator in St. Peter. "I thought 'Well, what the heck?'" he said.
At the age of 23, Hedges became St. Peter's first city manager and remains "forever grateful" to St. Peter for giving him his start in the field.
The best, most satisfying part of the city administrator's job has been inspiring and motivating staff and watching them succeed, Hedges said.
At 64, he feels it's time to retire because he and his wife want more flexibility to travel and spend time with their children, grandchildren and aging parents.
Having encountered most every challenge a city has to offer, Hedges plans to consult after he retires. Other managers have sought his advice confidentially for years.
As the City Council looks for his replacement, Hedges is thinking about how to assist the new administrator without upstaging him or her. "I will be forever supportive," Hedges said. "What I don't want to be is the other pastor in the sanctuary."
Pleased that a recent community survey found residents happy with life in Eagan, Hedges said the challenge for the new administrator will be to "keep that energy moving."
Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287