Moorhead city manager 'earned his stripes'
MOORHEAD - Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger was not a familiar face when he took a lead role at the city's televised flood briefings, especially when compared to the old hands on the other side of the river.
The first impressions were inevitable, said Councilwoman Lauri Winterfeldt: "They look at each other and say, 'Did they let him out of school for this?' "
Redlinger turned 30 a couple of months back, and though he's already taught undergraduates, he could still pass for one. Meeting with department heads each morning during the flood, he was - as he's been so often - the youngest person at the table.
"Mike looks young. Mike is young," Winterfeldt said. "Fortunately, he's incredibly competent. That becomes readily apparent after you listen to him for a few minutes."
Don't feel bad if you underestimated Redlinger. He's done it himself, too. Yet after his performance as the city's even-tempered fact dispenser during the flood - one that's drawn praise from city staff, his bosses on the council and even strangers in the grocery store - he may be leaving his whiz kid status behind him.
City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said Redlinger's work in the flood erased any doubt that he was up to the task of leading the city. "In my opinion, he really earned his stripes through this whole event," he said.
Calming as the coach
Redlinger shies away from direct credit. Talking about the response to the record flooding this spring, he strikes the same note he always does when explaining city government: the team, the team, the team.
"It's the team that gets the job done. It's the team that does the heavy lifting. It's the team that wins the fight," he said.
He does allow that he's the team's coach. The coach's main goal in the flood, he said, was to project a reassuring calm designed to let residents know that matters are in hand - even when, as it did, the city's flood handbook ballooned on the fly from 60 steps to 180 steps.
"Demeanor is everything," he said.
The plan worked, by Mayor Mark Voxland's reckoning. "For his years, you got the feeling he was totally in control," Voxland said.
Winterfeldt said the only glimmer of worry she saw from Redlinger during the flood was when news broke about the forecast calling for a potential 43-foot crest, more than 2 feet above the eventual 40.82 feet peak.
"For a split second, you could kind of see a, 'What?' in his eyes if you knew what you were watching for," she said.
The tranquility wasn't just at the office. The nights before and after the first crest, when he'd get as little as three hours of sleep, Redlinger wouldn't be fazed by late calls, said his wife of nine months, Pam Redlinger, a middle school music teacher.
"Someone would always say, 'I'm sorry, did I wake you?' He'd always go, 'Oh, don't worry 'bout it. What do you need?' " she said.
They slept soundly the night several days after the crest when the work cell phone finally returned downstairs for the night.
An even keel always
Radiating relaxation was no stretch. Composure is Redlinger's calling card.
"It isn't just for the cameras. That's how he lives the rest of his life," Pam said. She said he doesn't even really get angry. His impulse is to talk about what's bothering him before it gets that far.
Bruce Messelt, who held the city manager position before Redlinger and is now Oak Grove Lutheran School's president, said he doesn't distinctly recall ever flustering Redlinger, who was his assistant city manager for four years.
"Maybe, maybe I saw him rattled once," he said.
Redlinger already had his measured, careful tone when he arrived in 1997 at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said his adviser back then, political science professor Andrew Conteh.
The freshman from Watertown, S.D., was studious and no-nonsense, never the type to fudge on deadlines or make excuses, Conteh said. "Michael didn't come here to boogie," he said.
Conteh was so impressed he immediately put Redlinger on the MSUM Model United Nations squad. That didn't sit well with the team's juniors and seniors.
"The investment did pay, but the group was not happy that I took that rookie on the team. They were not happy with him, and they were not happy with me," Conteh recalled.
It wasn't the first time that Redlinger was higher up the ladder than his age would suggest. He was a student representative on the Board of Trustees that oversees Minnesota's colleges and universities. And he's the youngest member sitting on MSUM's Alumni Foundation Board.
Hesitant no more
That's why it surprised many when Redlinger did not apply, at first, for the job he now holds despite already being in the post in an interim capacity. "I told him I was disappointed. I really thought he should apply," Voxland said.
But Redlinger didn't think about it much and was more concerned about being able to work under whoever was hired, Pam said. "If he did, it was a passing thought," she said.
After the first round of finalists was scuttled due to confusion about salary, the city took applications again. This time, Redlinger did apply. Conteh figures the hesitation was caused by the same humility Redlinger showed when he was the underclassman on the Model U.N. team. He kept silent, trying not to ruffle feathers of older members.
"Michael is modest with his knowledge. Maybe that's why he waited a little bit," he said.
There's certainly no time for hesitation now. Cuts might be needed in the 2010 budget because of state deficits, and there are flood protection measures to put in place to keep the crisis from repeating again. Just preventing the storm-sewer overload that flooded Moorhead's streets will cost about $20 million, Redlinger said, and the price tag for permanent valleywide flood protection has been put at as high as $1 billion.
That's years of work if not decades, a long-term struggle Redlinger may not see through. As fast as he's climbed the career ladder, it's no shock that he plans to move on at some point.