Fischer lands hybrid position with Elk River

by Jim Boyle


The Elk River City Council reached a consensus on a candidate for its newly devised community operations and development director and has since offered her the job and she has accepted.

Members of the council zeroed in on Suzanne M. Fischer, an executive management analyst for the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) in San Antonio, Texas.

She was one of two finalists council members interviewed for the position. The other was Jeremy Barnhart, Elk River’s planning manager.

Fischer has 25 years’ experience in the public sector including the last 14 with SAWS, where she advanced through the water utility after starting out first as the manager of the environmental and education division.

Fischer moved to San Antonio from Zimmerman in 1997, and she has been looking for opportunities in Minnesota because she aspires to return to the state.

“It’s very different there (in Texas), and I miss Minnesota,” Fischer told members of the council during a Nov. 5 interview. “I do feel I have many of the experiences and qualities you are looking for in an individual.”

After four years in Texas she was promoted to special assistant to the president and CEO, and later to an executive management analyst post that she’s held since 2004.

She provides lead support for the vice president of the operations services group of a municipal water utility serving 1.7 million people in San Antonio, several suburban municipalities and adjacent portions of Bexar County, Texas.

Her current job requires her to work with a city council, county commission and board of trustees that is appointed by the San Antonio Council. Her world includes balancing budgets, data analysis, process improvements and performance metric in her efforts to lead seven different departments within their group. They include security, facilities, real estate, capital improvements, water quality, storm water permit program and an environmental lab.

“I have a nice diverse base of experience in a lot of areas,” she summarized.

That especially captured the attention of council members Nick Zerwas and Matt Westgaard.

“As we have been sitting around saying how can we possibly find someone who can take six diverse divisions and oversee all that, she’s doing seven right now on a much larger scale,” Zerwas said.

Elk River Mayor John Dietz, who expressed some level of reservation with each candidate, said the staff’s support of Fischer was enough to influence him to get behind her.

Council Member Paul Motin favored Barnhart and, like Dietz, questioned the relevance of Fischer’s experience in a utility when the city is looking for someone to lead public works and economic development.

The Elk River post is considered a hybrid position, one part public works director and another part economic development director. Areas of responsibility will include planning, economic development, environmental, waste water, engineering and street maintenance.

Fischer edged out Barnhart, who has made his mark in the city primarily through his involvement in the 171st Avenue FAST Study and his work with the Downtown Task Force.

The consensus of the council was that what  Fischer lacks in experience in the public works arena and in economic development aspects of the newly crafted job, she makes up with sheer management experience and confidence in her leadership abilities and skills.

Cal Portner, Elk River’s city administrator and chief architect of the hybrid post, was directed to finish the necessary reference and background checks and to offer her the job.

Fischer was top choice of two interview panels, which included one comprised of the management team and another of directors that was supplemented by former interim city administrator  Bob Thistle, White Bear Township Public Works Director Dale Reed, Council Member Nick Zerwas, Fire Chief John Cunningham, Police Chief Brad Rolfe, Finance Director Tim Simon, Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hecker and Elk River Municipal Utilities General Manager Troy Adams.

Portner said he’s confident either Fischer or Barnhart could do the job. He said Fischer is on one of end of her career and Barnhart is in the earlier stages of moving through the managerial ranks.

Portner said he likes how Fischer has progressed in the organization, showing she’s both capable and loyal.

Portner also said from what he has seen of Barnhart, he will be able to progress.

“He’s had a limited scope of authority,” Portner said. “It changes the dynamic when you’re holding more cards.”

Coming back to Elk River will be a homecoming of sorts for Fischer. She grew up on a farm in Redwood County and lived just north of Elk River before moving away.

“I could not believe how the city has progressed and how proactive it has been with smart growth,” she said of Elk River, praising how it has maintained its natural resources and environments and the level of community engagement.

Before leaving Minnesota,  Fischer spent two years as an assistant director for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District in Minneapolis and five years as a district manager for the Anoka County Conservation District.

As for Elk River, she says it is evident that people take care of the community.

“They are proud of where they live and they respect the environment,” she said. “There’s a commitment to not letting it be destroyed. That’s the easier way to go, but this community (has not done that). That’s the kind of community you want to be part of.”

Now that Fischer is hired, the city will work to fill a new deputy director post. The city’s goal with the deputy post will be to balance out the needs of the department with someone who has complementary skills.

The hiring is part of an overall administrative reorganization.

Portner foresees a more efficient and effective management team. He says the council has been gracious to fund new positions and be supportive of a plan to pare back a senior management team that previously numbered 14.

The management team has grown as directors have left and managers have pulled up chairs to the administration’s senior management board room table.

The new organizational chart will provide a tighter span of control, with each director having between four and eight reports. There will soon be only eight at the table. That will include Portner, directors of finance, parks and recreation, and the director and the deputy director of community operations and development, as well as the police chief, fire chief and the city clerk.