by Jeffrey Hage
The pages of the calendar seem to have moved slowly in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
May 26, 2020 seems so long ago. That was the day Monticello City Administrator Jeff O’Neill announced he would be retiring on March 1, 2021.
When longtime city staff member Rachel Leonard emerged as the top candidate to fill O’Neill’s position, a successful succession plan brought an end to O’Neill’s career as city administrator sooner than he planned.
Now with Leonard at the helm of city staff leadership, O’Neill has just one turn of the calendar left before he can see his last day of work on the wall- and a scholarly-sounding title as city administrator emeritus.
For the next seven weeks or so, O’Neill will serve as a sounding board for Leonard and serve the transition from himself to the new city administrator. It was a new position 34 years in the making.
Jeff O’Neill began his career in government in 1980 when he took a job as an administrative assistant for a police chief and city administrator in Coon Rapids.
“That gave me experience in a larger, growing community where I had good mentors,” O’Neill said.
Two years later, O’Neill was completing his Masters degree in urban and regional studies and was ready for a new professional challenge. He landed in the small Carver County city of Watertown where he accepted the position as city administrator.
“In Watertown, I learned everything about local government in a small town,” O’Neill said.
Two years later, in 1988, O’Neill became intrigued by a position opening about 40 miles from Watertown in Monticello.
“It was on the freeway. It was vibrant. It was growing. It looked like an exciting place to be,” O’Neill said.
“I really wanted to be a part of that,” he said.
He was hired in March 1988 as Monticello’s assistant city administrator and community development director. He worked closely with City Administrator Rick Wolfsteller.
“Rick and I worked on so many projects togerther, until he retired in 2005,” O’Neill said. In 2005, O’Neill was promoted to Monticello’s city administrator.
When O’Neill arrived on the scene in Monticello, there was hardly a development on the south side of Interstate 94.
“The only building south of I-94 was the Monticello Middle School,” O’neill said of the building that is now Eastview Education Center.
There was no Oakwood Industrial Park, Cardinal Hills development, no Carlisle Village development. There were very few cbusinesses south of the freeway and there were no homes at all, except for the Meadow Oaks neodevelopment, O’Neill recalled.
The sites of every one of today’s housing developments and most of the businesses south of I-94 was all farmland, O’Neill recalled.
The same can be said for the east side of Monticello, where there was no River Hills community or Sunset Pond development.
“To be honest, the city was about one-third of what it is today,” O’Neill said.
The population of Monticello in 1988 when O’Neill arrived on scene was about 3,400, he said. Today, the population is approaching 14,000.
The Monticello City Council long ago had the vision of building Monticello up as a regional center, O’Neill said.
He says it was a great experience to work with progressive community leaders who shared a vision for the future- for what Monticello could be.
O’Neill and his team at city hall worked hand in hand with the city council to a create what O’Neill calls a well-connected community.
The city positioned itself to be ready and set up well when new residents migrated northwest from the Twin Cities.
“Our comprehensive plan reflects what the people of the community wanted,” he said.
City leaders also prepared long ago for the great businesses that now call Monticello home.
It wasn’t something that was done today, O’Neill said of building the infrastructure for Monticello’s great manufacturing and retail base.
It’s something that began to be planned for 20 years ago to prepare Monticello for “today.”
“Progressive planning served the city well,” O’Neill said.
That includes building a trail system and parks system.
O’Neill says high points of his career was the planning, building, and opening of the Monticello Community Center- a center that is the city’s crown jewel and the envy of many communities.
“The new fire station location and facility also turned out great,” he said.
While there have been many memorable achievements within the city of Monticello, its some of the more subtle projects that have made O’Neill most proud.
One of those is the creation of Otter Creek Park.
“It’s become a nice little park that has really taken advantage of the setting there,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill is also proud of the trail system that has been established throughout the city.
He applauds the current and past city councils for committing to keeping the trail systems going as subdivisions continue to be built.
Another milestone for the city that O’Neill is proud to have been a part of is the purchasing of the former YMCA land and creation of Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park.
“People call it a one-in-a-lifetime project,” O’Neill said.
“I say its a one-in-five-lifetimes project,” he said.
O’Neill mentions the Fallon Avenue roundabouts, the Fallon Avenue overpass, and the Chelsea Avenue reconstruction as projects of good planning ethics.
As O’Neill moves from the public sector of employment to the private sector of retired living, he can proudly look upon the work of the Central Mississippi Regional Planning Partnership (formerly the Highway 25 Coalition) as a group that is shaping the future of area communities, as well as the productivity of both the city’s department of motor vehicles, the municipal liquor store and the work Fibernet has done to fight for the rights of city residents in the name of competitive Internet services- both in terms of technology and pricing.
The city’s development of an arts program is also something Monticello successfully achieved that opened the eyes of many other communities.
As March 1 approaches with just one more turn of the calendar before O’Neill’s last day is pictured before us, he reflects on the end of a great run as Monticello’s city administrator.
“The position comes with many rewards, but after 34 years with the level of responsibility, long hours and late-night meetings, it’s not as easy as it once was to keep pace,” O’Neill said.
It’s also more difficult to keep the single-minded effort needed to do the job right, he said.
“I’m looking forward to turning it down a notch re balancing with family, friends, and new and interesting pursuits,” O’Neill said.
But at the end of the day, the world that has been Jeff O’Neill’s life for the past 34 years will surely be missed.
“I’m so thankful for having had the opportunity to work with so many in moving Monticello forward,” O’Neill said.