Longtime city administrator reflects on career, life in Cloquet
Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger got a standing ovation at the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce awards banquet earlier this month, and it was blessed torture.
Because Fritsinger is that guy, the one who likes to organize and run things strictly behind the scenes. In his role as city administrator, Fritsinger has quietly been making the city of Cloquet a smooth, well-oiled machine for nearly 18 years with as little fanfare as possible.
... Until he decided to leave and take a job as deputy county administrator with St. Louis County, a move that became public at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting. Then all heck broke loose, leading a landslide of public praise for the longtime public servant.
Citizens, city staff, past and present city councilors and other officials have been saying all kinds of nice things since the announcement.
Cloquet Community Development Director Holly Hansen said he was the best boss she's ever had, and that it's been an honor to work for him.
City Finance Director Nancy Klassen called him an ethical leader, and noted "he was very committed to making Cloquet a great place to live" ... and that he likes muffins.
Former Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said he considers Fritsinger one of the "best city administrators anywhere."
"Brian is serious, smart, inventive, futuristic and never acts without knowing his subject matter," said Ahlgren, a former president of the League of Minnesota Cities.
High praise, indeed.
Fritsinger said all the comments (and the applause) are much appreciated, even though they force him out of his comfort zone.
"It is hard to describe the impact some of these comments have had on me," he said. "I can only describe these last few weeks as very humbling, heartfelt and meaningful. I cannot thank everyone enough for that support."
IN THE BEGINNING
With a double major in business management and geography and a focus on city planning, Fritsinger is a planner of all things. Case in point: when he was hired in 1999, Fritsinger had actually been looking for a job in or around Cloquet for close to 10 years, ever since his wife, Sheila, had worked for the Esko School School District as a sign language interpreter for a year in 1989.
"We both really liked it up here," said Fritsinger, who grew up in Coon Rapids, married his high school sweetheart, Sheila, and worked in Arden Hills as city administrator before Cloquet. "But I couldn't find a job so we kept an eye out for openings. As Larry (Cloquet's first city administrator Larry Gustafson) neared retirement, I reached out to some folks that I knew were involved in the hiring process and here we are."
When asked what he thinks are the best things about Cloquet, the first thing Fritsinger says — with the voice of experience — that is that it's a good place to raise a family.
When Brian and Sheila moved here, their children were still quite young, with two (Cam and Asha) in elementary school and one (Tanner) still in diapers.
"We spent a lot of time with sports and education, as you can imagine," Fritsinger said. "And between them, our kids covered the full spectrum of sports offered here, even ski jumping."
Fritsinger coached many different sports over the years, and said he thinks it's important that parents and families stay involved with their children and be there to give to other kids who may not have that same support at home.
It was a win-win situation for him, even if they didn't win.
"Coaching allowed me to step away from being "the City guy" and be involved and give back to the community in a whole different way," Fritsinger said. "A hug from a kid or a comment from a single parent on the role you are playing with their kid is what it should be all about, not about turning a team into Division 1 players. Watching the smile on a kids face after scoring a goal when they know they aren't the best player on the field or ice is something you never forget."
He also feels fortunate because he was able to coach a couple of his kids in hockey with his dad coaching by his side, after his parents moved to Cloquet to be closer to family.
"It was a rare opportunity that I hope that my kids never forget and had some impact on other's lives," Fritsinger said. "I am a much better person as a result of the kids I worked with and the other coaches who taught me my own life lessons."
After they moved here, Sheila went from being a sign language interpreter to teaching special education at Washington Elementary School, which she loves doing and still does. When there was time, the family liked to fish and camp, and ride ATVs.
Now all three kids have flown the nest — Cam is in the Twin Cities and Asha in North Carolina — although Tanner is still at university in Mankato.
Other positive things about Cloquet include the quality education, the hospital and healthcare system, the college, industry and the size of the city.
"We've got it all," he said. Then he smiles.
"Well, it doesn't have a Target though, does it," he adds with a chuckle.
"It's been home, no doubt about it. There's a lot of places to involve yourself, there's a lot of need for volunteers, and if you have interests you can find something to do and that's what I think you want in any community."
RUNNING THE CITY
Fritsinger was the youngest guy in the building when he replaced Gustafson. Under Gustafson, the city had begun the process of changing from a city clerk form of government to having a city administrator. Fritsinger completed that process.
He joined Jim Prusak, Bob Norrgard, Alice Anderson and Debbie Johnson, all veteran staff members.
"They were the history for me; they were able to help me understand Cloquet better, as well as the decision making that had been done over the years," he said.
He describes the job of city administrator as being a "jack of all trades," and was involved in every aspect of city operations. He loved the diversity of the job, and the constant learning, and the people he worked with.
"The best part of the job was pretty simple: seeing and making a difference in people's lives, hopefully in a positive way," he said. "In terms of least favorite it is when you have to make a difficult decision or take a position on a subject that you know is unpopular but because of circumstances, laws or rules you have to make recommendations that will be upsetting to individuals."
Former Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande was Deputy Police Chief when Fritsinger was hired.
"Brian is a true professional and one of the best public employees that I have ever served with," said Lamirande. "He is dedicated, often arriving at city hall hours before the office opened to the public and stayed hours after it was closed. He always had an open door policy for both the public city employees. He built positive working relationships with city staff and the business community."
Ahlgren was on the council when Fritsinger was hired, and they worked together 16 years.
"Bruce was very supportive and great to bounce ideas off of," Fritsinger said. "He was always willing to listen and give feedback."
Fritsinger also praised all the different city councils over the years, noting they were all very good to work with, even though they were each unique as well.
"Even though we have a ward system, for the most part, they're trying to look out for the whole," he said, pointing to a row of city council photos that line the wall in the conference room at City Hall. "I could go through every one of them, from Neil Nemmers, in terms of the community and a more conservative approach to government, to Herb Johnson, who was the nicest guy in the world and was going to do whatever he could to help his ward. Kelly Riihiluoma and Deb Hill, Tom Proulx ... Dave Bjerkness is the longest serving councilor now. They've all been good. They've treated me fairly. Hopefully I was able to give them what they were looking for over the years, and do a few things that people were happy about."
Fritsinger leaves the city as the person at City Hall with the most years under his belt — although not the oldest in age — and with many fond memories.
"The hardest part is just leaving the people," he said. "There's a great staff here. I've enjoyed everybody."
CHANGE IS HARD
Hansen informed the crowd at the Chamber banquet of Fritsinger's departure with heartfelt words, and a few tears.
"As city administrator for Cloquet, he has provided tremendous professionalism, humble leadership, integrity, competency, and has tackled complicated issues, gaining the respect of this community," Hansen told the gathering of business and community members before they gave him a standing ovation. "He elevated the importance of business development, bettered the city's parks, generated solid budgets, crafted policies on human resource issues and formed positive relationships.
"There is simply nothing he can't do," Hansen added, after rattling off the various initiatives and endeavors he helped lead, including the local option sales tax, the Cloquet Business Park, the Cloquet Area Fire District, the Cloquet Centennial celebration and all class reunion, locating the Carlton County Human Services Building in downtown Cloquet and working with the Secret Service on John Kerry's visit to Cloquet, among other things.
For his part, Fritsinger is factual about his accomplishments but always points out the other people who made something happen: Lorna Mangan for the Centennial. Jim Langenbrunner and Kevin Schroeder for the Cloquet Area Fire District. Nancy Klassen and department heads for the budget plans that extend out for five and 10 years into the future.
"I have come to work each day to simply try to do my best and frankly without the help of a lot of co-workers and staff who are much smarter than I or knew how to make their knuckles bleed to some crazy idea that I had, along with a supportive Council, very little of what I tried would have been successful," Fritsinger said.
But the timing was right for a change, he said, noting that his new job is an opportunity for him to broaden his skills and experiences.
"I am a strong believer in change being good for organizations and the souls of people," he said. "When I came to Cloquet initially it was meant to be in my opinion, and I would never have changed a thing in making the decision to come here. I have loved every minute of working for the residents and businesses of this community.
"This opportunity feels the same way to me — like it was meant to be. As difficult as it is to leave this job which has given so much to me and my family, it is just an exciting opportunity that I need to be part of and can't pass it up."
Fritsinger's last day with the city will be March 17. After some persuading, city staff and elected officials will hold a gathering at City Hall from 2-4 p.m. that day, to honor Fritsinger and send him off on his new adventure.
They may have to pry him out of the office, but there's no doubt he'll be there.
That's just the kind of person he is.