Amid debate, Columbia Heights chooses next city manager

November 17, 2018

After 22 years and mounting nods to retirement longtime City Manager Walt Fehst is stepping away from his job at Columbia Heights City Hall.

The announcement of his Dec. 31 departure stoked debate among City Council members this week, with some criticizing the process that unfolded to choose his successor as rushed and lacking transparency.

City leaders voted 4-1 during a special meeting Thursday to offer the job to Kelli Bourgeois, the citys assistant city manager and human resources director. She accepted.

Fehst, 71, hasnt yet officially submitted his letter of resignation, which has become a sticking point for some.

I dont see how we can talk about filling a position that isnt technically open yet, said Council Member Nick Novitsky, who voted against making the offer, at Thursdays meeting. Im not saying no to Kelli. Im saying no to how this all happened.

The topic came up as an added item on Tuesdays agenda. Bourgeois recently became a finalist for the city manager job in Richfield, and several Columbia Heights officials said they wanted to keep her there by making her an offer for Fehsts position once he retired.

We could lose her this weekend, Council Member Connie Buesgens said Tuesday. She knows the city. She knows the staff ... she could jump right in and run.

Fehst said he told the council of his intent to retire a year ago and had hired Bourgeois four years ago with the hope that she would one day take over.

She might be one of the best employees Ive ever had, Fehst said Thursday. Its not a typical kosher way to go about it but honestly, this is life. This is what happens. People get offers.

City leaders reconvened Thursday on the subject, where tempers flared behind the dais. Some city officials criticized Fehst for being unclear in his timeline for retirement.

I have never worked for any place that can even post a position until a resignation is submitted, Mayor Donna Schmitt said at the meeting. Its frustrating for me.

Several community members also sounded off on the sequence of events as lacking transparency and expressed a desire to open the position to other candidates before making a decision.

The City Council can make an offer contingent upon the retirement of the existing city manager, City Attorney James Hoeft said at the meeting. Nothing wrong with that.

City officials met behind closed doors Thursday to discuss the offer before voting to tap Bourgeois for the position.

Bourgeois, who also worked for the city of Becker, Minn., in various roles, has been offered a $140,000 salary, plus $5,000 in deferred compensation, according to the city.

Were doing great things, Bourgeois, 47, said Friday. And now we can just keep on going.

Fehst, who said his salary is about $156,000, plans to submit his resignation letter by Dec. 1, meeting the required 30-day notice.

During his tenure, Columbia Heights was named an All-America City for 2016, which Fehst described as the single biggest thrill of his time with the city.

Hannah Covington 612-673-4751

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