Longtime City Manager Announces Retirement

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Longtime City Manager Walter Fehst Announces Retirement
Twenty-two years ago, Walter Fehst accepted a position as City manager for Columbia Heights. It wasn’t his only option at the time, but it was his favorite option. There was just something about the atmosphere, the proximity, the diversity, the spirit of the town that drew him in. More than two decades later, those feelings haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve only grown, which has made it all the harder to walk away.

Fehst, 71, announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the year, capping off over four and a half decades in city government. 

“I didn’t think I would be at Columbia Heights this long,” Fehst said. “But I’ve enjoyed the work so much, and I’ve enjoyed the people here so much. It’s been tough to leave.”

He officially turned in his resignation at the Nov 26 City Council meeting.
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Fehst moved to Columbia Heights in 1996 with his wife Linda and sons Nick and Zach, who went to school here. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Fehst got into city government almost by accident. It wasn’t his original career choice, but in 1972 when the position of administrative assistant to the city manager opened in his hometown of Joliet, Illinois, he figured the job might give him a chance to flex his skills as a negotiator and mediator.

“I didn’t expect to get the job,” Fehst said. “I had no government experience, but they wanted someone who knew the town.”

He may not have had government experience, but Fehst was no stranger to leadership positions. He was a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Defense Artillery, and a line officer with command over about 100-200 troops. He retired as a captain from the inactive reserves.

After his time in Joliet, Fehst had stints as city manager at Robbinsdale, MN, and Mountlake Terrace, WA, before taking the job in Columbia Heights.

Over the years, he has seen the City through its share of ups and downs. The 2008 recession and subsequent budget cuts were tough times, but when redevelopment picked up again, the City bounced back stronger than ever. The business district improved, a new library and public safety building opened, crime dropped, and, in 2016, Columbia Heights earned the All-America City Award as designated by the National Civic League.

These achievements wouldn’t have been possible, Fehst said, without the help he’s had from residents, elected officials, and a skilled team of employees.

“Everybody else is so competent at their jobs. I’m very fortunate that way,” he said. “I’ve always had good staff.”

One of the most important things to do as a city manager, Fehst said, is to hire the right people and then get out of their way.
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“Support them when they need it, and remove hurdles where you can, but set your ego aside.”

As for working with residents, Fehst said, it’s all about listening: “You have two ears and one mouth; listen twice as much as you talk. It’s hard to know how to make the right choices for your city and a community if you’re not hearing what people have to say.”

Fehst’s last official day on the job is Dec 31. Kelli Bourgeois, Columbia Heights human resources director and assistant City manager, will step in as Columbia Heights’ new City manager beginning Jan 1.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Fehst said. “There’s nothing guaranteed to you about this job. I appreciate the fact I was allowed to do it as long as I did. I’m really going to miss it.”