When Jon Thiel came to Brooklyn Park as the city’s first director of operations and maintenance on Christmas Eve 1990, the city council still met in a building at the corner of Zane and 85th Avenue.
“City hall wasn’t (finished) when I got there,” he said. “… That was my first project.”
Now 22 years, five mayors and four city managers later, Thiel has retired from municipal government. His last day on the job was Dec. 31. During his last week he served as acting city manager while City Manager Jamie Verbrugge took vacation.
Prior to working in Brooklyn Park, Thiel was the public works director five years in Hopkins and four years in Circle Pines. Craig Rapp, a former Brooklyn Park city manager, hired him in all three cities. Thiel’s earliest training came from the Seabees, the Navy’s construction force, where he served active duty in Vietnam and put in a total of 24 years between active duty and the reserves.
Thiel, who lives in Coon Rapids, remembers Brooklyn Park as a very different place when he arrived. It was the very end of Mayor Jim Krautkremer’s final term in office, and the first Brooklyn Park City Council meeting Thiel attended was Jesse Ventura’s first time presiding over a meeting as mayor.
Thiel walked into a mess that then-City Manager Craig Rapp hoped Thiel could help to fix. The water treatment plant didn’t function properly, the city faced a lawsuit and the infrastructure was breaking down, Thiel recalled.
“The city manager decided something needed to change,” he said. “… The city council was not very happy — let’s put it that way — with a lot of different things.”
Under Rapp’s direction, the city created the operations and maintenance department to focus on taking care of the infrastructure and improving it. Thiel oversaw that department. Thiel was also responsible for helping improve communication among the various maintenance groups that existed in the city.
Thiel said that when he started only 40 percent of the city’s streets were considered to be in “adequate” condition, and 60 percent were “marginal” or “problem” streets. Now more than 90 percent receive the highest designation of “adequate,” thanks in part to the annual rating system Thiel implemented.
“We’ve changed the whole street system,” he said.
Initially Thiel’s department handled streets, public utilities and building maintenance. Through the years the department grew to encompass park maintenance and engineering. In the end Thiel was responsible for about 80 year-round employees and 30-40 seasonal employees, making his department the second largest, following the police department. His total department budget — including the operating budget and capital project expenses — was $35-45 million a year, he said.
Of all the projects he finished during his tenure in Brooklyn Park, Thiel was most proud of the upgrades to the water treatment plant and the improvements to the street system.
He said the most challenging part of his job was adapting to numerous changes in leadership.
“That’s a big challenge every time we changed over,” he said. “… I’d say the biggest challenge was to continue on with what we were doing, to make it work with whatever administration was there.”
Because of his longevity, Thiel became someone whom people regularly asked questions.
When Thiel received the Public Works Director of the Year award from the Minnesota Public Works Association in 2008, then-Mayor Steve Lampi joked that it seemed Thiel could reach into his briefcase and pull out a report on any topic imaginable.
“After that, of course, I was given a lot of abuse about my briefcase, like it was a magic briefcase,” Thiel said.
The joke was so persistent it found its way into a proclamation honoring Thiel the city council approved at its last meeting in December.
“… Jon Thiel’s briefcase represents a national treasure as an amazing repository of information, history and knowledge that is unparalleled and deserves to be enshrined in the Smithsonian Institute,” it stated.
Thiel also received high praise from Mayor Jeffrey Lunde, other council members and City Manager Jamie Verbrugge.
“It was like going to school every time Jon sat in my office or I sat in Jon’s office,” Verbrugge said. “Just to learn at the knee of the master of public works. … Jon’s about the best there is in the metro area.”
Verbrugge described Thiel as having a “get-it-done” approach. When Verbrugge asked what kind of sendoff Thiel wanted, he replied, “I came in without any fanfare. I’ll go out the same way.”
According to Verbrugge, that epitomized Thiel’s usual approach.
“There’s no flash. It’s all substance,” Verbrugge said.
Although Thiel has retired from municipal government, he’s not going into hibernation. He plans to do consulting work for Rapp, his former boss, and be more actively involved in running a small business his brother started on family land in North Dakota.
“I’m not retiring,” he said. “I’m cutting back, I guess, and doing something with more variety.”
But he’s satisfied with his work in Brooklyn Park.
“It was not an easy place to work, but it was rewarding,” he said.