From Hennepin County detention deputy to head of county corrections and now operations, Chester “Chet” Cooper’s 34-year government career has had what he sees as a unified focus: raising the boat.
To him that means helping county residents lead better lives. He’s done the work through various programs.
Four years ago, Cooper took over leadership of corrections. Recently, he was elevated to chief operations officer and assistant county administrator for operations. In his new post, he will oversee county efforts to reduce economic and racial disparities.
“It’s not an initiative, it’s the way we’re going to do business in Hennepin County,” Cooper said.
He will focus on seven domains: education, employment, health, housing, income, justice and transportation. A good education and a livable wage drive the others, Cooper said.
Hennepin County is the state’s most populous county with a government second only to the state’s in size. As the county grows larger and more diverse, Cooper will oversee efforts to ensure that the workforce of 9,000 employees reflects the people it serves.
The goal is as much about the bottom line as it is about equity. Cooper said that getting disenfranchised populations into the workforce will save money on what he describes as “costly back-end services,” such as courts, jail, child protection, housing and health care.
“When you’re hired, you have insurance, you have income, you’re paying taxes,” Cooper said. “You feel good about yourself.”
Every month the county has from 340,000 to 380,000 active cases that represent at least one individual receiving some form of social service, from nutrition programs to Medicare. And about 15,000 people are on probation in Hennepin County.
Cooper is not new to efforts to achieve diversity even though he’s worked almost exclusively in corrections. He cited the success of the cadet program he initiated to recruit and guide women into the department and up through the ranks.
He cited another example: The staff at the county’s walk-in service centers is more diverse than ever with employees on-site who speak multiple languages. In the past, Cooper said the county would have to bring in interpreters from other parts of the workforce at a cost.
Cooper started out working at the St. Joseph’s Home for Children, he said, because he wanted to make a difference. After a couple of years there, he doubled his salary when he took a job as a detention deputy in Hennepin County, commencing a 23-year ascent in the department. Cooper became a sworn deputy, then a sergeant, lieutenant and captain before joining upper management as the inspector of administrative services.
Six years ago, he moved to county administration as the head of adult services in the corrections department. Cooper came to Minnesota from his native New Jersey to play wide receiver for the Gophers. He and his wife raised two daughters in Brooklyn Center.
County Administrator David Hough said Cooper already has been “instrumental in developing our long-term strategies and vision around disparity reduction.”
Hough said the county needs to change how services are delivered and that Cooper is up to the job. “We want to move people out of poverty. It’s the right thing to do and it makes fiscal sense,” Hough said.
Cooper said, “We will never be perfect … but you will hear about us making progress, not perfection.”