When Jenelle Teppen arrived in Dundas as city administrator in 2019, she brought with her over two decades of experience in local government — much of it from right here in southern Minnesota.

After receiving her public administration degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, one of Teppen’s first jobs was under Tim Madigan who, at the time, was city administrator in Faribault. From there, she went on to spend 16 years as assistant city administrator in Inver Grove Heights and, more recently, worked as city administrator in Le Sueur from 2014 to 2017.

After a brief stint as deputy director of public services and revenue for Dakota County, Teppen was eager to once again work on a smaller scale when she came on board in Dundas last year. It was also closer to home, as Teppen and her family have lived in Northfield since 1997.

"I like to be answering the phone, talking to residents, seeing residents when I walk out of City Hall and answering their questions,” said Teppen. “You just don’t get that at the county level.”

Given the size of Dundas, Teppen also gets more of these one-on-one interactions than might be typical for a city administrator in a larger community. With a growing population of just over 1,500 people and a smaller staff at City Hall, she fields myriad phone calls and hears from residents first-hand.

“Everyday, I’m here helping to answer the phones, cover the counter and get the front door,” said Teppen. “Rather than calls going to a public works director or a police chief or a city engineer, those calls will often come to me first in Dundas.”

As of Labor Day Weekend, Teppen is also working out of a new City Hall building — one block away from the old facility at 100 Railway St. N. The new space provides more room for staff and extends the downtown area, according to Teppen. The city is also hoping to sell its old offices, along with some additional downtown property, for new commercial or mixed-use development.

With continued growth in the community, Teppen added that one of her main priorities is to balance expansion with financial responsibility and responsive city services.

“I think a lot of what drives people to Dundas is the river, the Mill Towns State Trailhead right across from the old City Hall … and those recreational aspects,” said Teppen. “We’d like to keep growing that drive — whether it’s businesses, visitors or residents.”

Putting down roots in Northfield

Along with her husband and two children, Teppen herself first moved to the area in 1997. At the time, she was commuting from St. Paul to Faribault and wanted to cut down on her time in the car. After several months of house shopping, the family settled into Northfield and hasn’t left since.

When they first arrived, Teppen’s two children were just starting middle and high school — another factor that contributed to the timing of their move. Additionally, her husband had retired from his career as a pilot with the U.S. Navy and Teppen had recently finished graduate school in the Twin Cities. All in all, it seemed like a good time to put down roots in southern Minnesota.

Working under Madigan in Faribault would also prove to be the start of a lifelong professional relationship, as the two have remained in close contact. Madigan also went on to work as city administrator in Northfield, before retiring in 2014.

“When I was the administrator in Faribault, I hired Jenelle to help lead the human resources and information technology departments,” Madigan recalled. “She really proved herself and turned out to be excellent working with employees at all levels. At that time, information technology was still in its infancy … Jenelle really moved Faribault along in that direction.”

After over two decades working in communities of various sizes, and adapting to new means of communication with the rise of the Internet and now COVID-19, Teppen said the most important aspects of her role haven’t changed much over the course of her career. “The fundamental parts of this job, being accessible, responsive, ethical and encouraging of your staff — those things haven’t changed.”

New job, familiar community

Stepping into her current role in Dundas, one big personal change for Teppen is that she gets to be closer to home. Living right next door to where she works, she believes her comfort level in the area will help her communicate and engage with residents.

“Comfort makes you relate better to people in some senses — you understand the politics and the motivations and the direction that these communities are going in,” said Teppen.

Initially, one of the things that drew Teppen to public administration was the challenging nature of the work — cities are almost constantly evolving, whether it’s a new street repair project or a change in population. As city administrator, Teppen has to balance a number of projects at any given time as directed by the council, thinking both one month and one decade in advance. The fact that Dundas is growing as a community adds a unique new challenge to tackle.

“One of my main goals is balancing that growth with the level of service that the city provides,” said Teppen. Again, Madigan said he believed Teppen’s familiarity with the area would give her a head start in working with elected officials and residents.

“A lot of the issues that you’re dealing with are very similar, given that Northfield, Dundas and the surrounding area are growing,” he said. “Over the years, the leadership in Dundas has carved out its position and direction. I think they’ve got a bright future, and they’ve got a good person in that role as administrator to help move forward.”

With a new position, a new office and a new — but familiar — community to get to know, Teppen herself is embracing change. More than anything, she is enjoying being back at the city level — fielding those phone calls and answering the front door.

“Every day, I’m grateful for this job,” she said. “I just love it.”

Bridget Kranz is a freelance reporter based in St. Paul.

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