New administrator brings diverse experiences to the job
by Joni Astrup
Cal Portner has served in the Air Force, worked for a congressman and been on the staff of two Twin Cities suburbs.
Now he’s in the top position at the city of Elk River, as the new city administrator.
“I’m ready for it. I’ve felt for some time I was ready for it,” Portner said of being a city administrator.
He came to Elk River from the city of Plymouth, where he was the administrative services director.
Portner describes himself as a generalist. In the past, he said he’s managed people, projects and programs. “That’s where my strengths are,” he said.
Early in his career, Portner spent nearly nine years in the Air Force and traveled around the world.
He operated generators at a base in California that tested missiles, was stationed on a tiny Alaskan island and was in an intelligence unit in Germany. He was serving at Zweibrücken Air Base in West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
His last stop in the Air Force was at a communications site in Nebraska.
After getting out of the military in 1992, Portner planned to be a teacher. He got a degree in political science and history from the University of Minnesota, but ended up working for U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad after doing an internship in his office.
Portner worked for the congressman for six years. He described him as a “wonderful, wonderful man.”
It was while working for Ramstad that Portner got a close look at how one city was trying to redevelop a downtown, build an arena and do other things.
“I was just amazed at what they had planned and their vision for the community and their passion. And I thought, ‘I’d like to do something like that,’” Portner said.
He went on to complete a master’s degree in public administration at Hamline University and was hired as the assistant to the city manager in Brooklyn Park.
Portner started work in Brooklyn Park in December 2001. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks the economy had tanked, and Portner was involved in some tough decisions.
In the end 34 positions were eliminated and a number of areas of city government were restructured.
Going forward, Portner said they developed an ability to adapt to change and accept it, and had a work force that was willing to try anything at least once.
His last stop before Elk River was the city of Plymouth, where he worked for four years. He began work in Elk River Oct. 17.
Portner said what he’s seen so far at the city is a very strong organization. “Financially the house is in order,” he said.
He described Elk River’s city staff as very high energy, bright, innovative and not afraid to look for new ways to do things.
He hopes to open lines of communication and build a lean, adaptable and proud organization that fosters trust.
He said the best thing about Elk River is nothing is broken.
“There may be some areas that we can polish,” he said.
A native of New Ulm, Portner lives in Andover.
He and his wife, Penny, have been married for 26 years. She teaches special education in Forest Lake and also is a New Ulm native.
They have three children: Brianna, 24, is a surgical technologist at Mayo in Rochester. Taylor, 19, is playing junior hockey in St. Cloud and Sidney, 13, is an eighth-grader and multi-sport athlete.
While growing up, Portner played hockey and baseball. After that he played adult softball and while stationed in Germany, played hockey and softball.
He has coached youth hockey for 14 seasons and run some summer programs. He also has coached baseball and fast-pitch softball.
“That’s my hobby,” he said. “I’m not a hunter, fisherman, golfer. I like working with kids.”