Matthew Van Steenwyk starts each day much the same. Before he leaves at 7:30 a.m. he sits down to have breakfast and talk with his wife, Lori, and daughters Alexandria (8) and Gwendolyn (10). It’s a little routine that’s important to him.
“You know, at some point I’m going to die,” Van Steenwyk said. “Hopefully, my kids will have positive memories of their dad ... not just dad yelling at them about cleaning their rooms.”
Then he steps out of their rural home west of Grantsburg and drives the 20 minutes to his job as city administrator for Pine City. Some days he’ll check on a road construction site or other public works project before making it to his city hall office. But on this particular Thursday – the last week of the month – there was a morning city council meeting and he got in early to prepare.
At this meeting, the council talked about curbs. Certain curbs in the city are painted yellow to indicate no parking. However, there are other spots where people have taken it upon themselves and painted a curb yellow so that no one will park there. And then, city workers – assuming the curb is supposed to be that color – repaint it yellow in the spring, year after year. The council directed Van Steenwyk to fix this.
So, after the meeting, he is in his office on the phone with Public Works Director Maury Montbriand trying to figure out how to make that happen.
Do they paint over the curb? Do they scrape it off? The city doesn’t own a industrial scraper, so they would have to rent one. And once they do, how often will they have to check to make sure it isn’t painted again?
It’s an interesting problem. That’s one of the things he likes about the work.
“It is a nonstop job,” Van Steenwyk said. “It’s very diverse. I don’t know how the day’s going to go every time I show up and what the priorities are going to be.”
From Alaska to Pine City
Van Steenwyk’s life and career have been diverse as well. He and Lori grew up in the Detroit Lakes area, married in 1999 and moved to Alaska. They spent 12 years in Juneau, where Van Steenwyk took a job with the state of Alaska and started studying accounting. That led to an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and then master’s. In the meantime he moved from being an auditor for the state to overseeing the Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
They now had two children and decided to move back to the Midwest to be closer to family. In 2012, Van Steenwyk took a budget analyst job with the city of Cedar Rapids, then switched over to accounting for the Iowa Interstate Railroad. But the family found themselves wanting to head out of the city and move north.
“When I saw the [treasurer] job in Pine City, I thought, ‘perfect location,’” he said. “It seemed like a good fit.”
In December of 2016 he was hired as the city’s treasurer. In December 2018, after the departure of then-city administrator Ken Cammilleri, Van Steenwyk was hired as interim city administrator.
In April, the city council made the position permanent. This was the first time in decades, and may be the only time in Pine City’s history, that the council hired a city administrator without a formal search process first.
“Pine City has always had a challenge to get and retain good people to run city operations,” said Pine City Mayor Carl Pederson. “You need people who can deal with people effectively. We felt Matt had those qualities. He’s still growing in the position, but he’ll get there.”
The city administrator acts as oversight for all the city departments – administration (including city finances and budget), community development, fire, planning, liquor, public works and parks and recreation – and reports back to the city council.
So once he gets to his computer, Van Steenwyk starts out by checking his email (“to make sure nothing’s on fire”) and then goes on to try to get things done – to either coordinate the immediate tasks the council has set out for him, to check on the progress of department projects or to develop city budgets and financial reports.
“That’s a lot of what my day is – just responding to [council directives] and the undertow of stuff that needs to get done on an annual basis,” he said.
But there’s rarely a lot of time to focus on any one task. Spend a couple of hours in Van Steenwyk’s office and you’ll see there are interruptions, a lot of interruptions. He may have to stop to sign forms, to meet with a resident at the front desk with a question or to pull staff together to deal with a fresh problem.
Van Steenwyk currently shares an office with Pine City Bookkeeper Mark Steffen, who took a break from configuring the city’s computer network to offer his own thoughts on the role of the city administrator.
“Your position is to facilitate the will of the council,” Steffen said. “You can have your opinion on it, but you’ve got to enforce what they tell you to do.
“That’s something that the public doesn’t always get,” Steffen continued. “They kind of think he’s supposed to be the counterpoint, a balance to the council. That’s actually not the case. He’s just the facilitator to make sure that what they want is done.”
Van Steenwyk agreed. “I can’t hire or fire a single person without council approval. I could not fire Mark.”
“At least wait until I set up your computer,” Steffen responded.
Van Steenwyk noted that one of his tasks is to make sure that city council directives are not actually in violation of the city’s own ordinances. And that can be a tricky business.
“Someone was asking to have a fee waived,” he explained. “It’s a very simple request. But the reality is, it’s in our fee schedule ... and so technically, that would require a public hearing and then an amendment to the ordinance. The depth of every one of these decisions is more than you think it would be.”
‘They have the right to be heard’
Another big part of the city administrator job is dealing with the public, responding to the concerns of residents and local business owners who either call or visit city hall looking for answers. Van Steenwyk said that he tries to defuse hot-button issues and find common ground with the people who approach him.
“They took action to come here and talk to somebody, which is a large step for a lot of people,” he said. “They have the right to be heard.”
He recalled one resident who recently called the city unhappy after receiving a bill for a fire call. He said he tried to see the situation from their perspective.
“Nobody has a plan to have a fire call charge,” he said. “I told them I don’t have a whole lot of leeway in that instance, but we do have the ability to take payment arrangements and to work with them.
“The city isn’t out to be the bad guy. It’s not a cold machine. We’re just trying to do our jobs. My job is to give customer service and to treat them politely.”
Making an impact
Van Steenwyk’s background is in accounting, budgeting and managing people – but he’ll be the first to tell you he has much to learn about the details of city operations.
“I’m not an expert on a lot of these deals, I’ll admit,” he said. “I defer to our department heads quite a bit. Maury [Montbriand] knows more about public works than I could pretend to know. Same thing with Lezlie [Sauter] over in community development. She’s living and breathing these projects every day.”
But he does have goals. He said he’d like more community engagement at meetings, to carry out a city hall remodel in a fiscally responsible way and to invest in projects to extend the life of Pine City roads. He noted that there are several development projects in the works that will change the face of Pine City if they go through.
“If a developer ... wants to develop a project somewhere, I want to be supportive,” he said. “The council decides. The project might not go through, but I don’t want to be a hindrance to the process.
“It’s huge for the city, and ... I can be a part of those things,” he added. “That’s why I like the idea of city government. I think the closer you get to the people, the more impact you can have.”
Shrink or grow
“I think Pine City is growing well,” Van Steenwyk said. “We’re not trying to destroy the fabric of what this small town is, the small town feel. We’re just trying to enhance it. The reality is, time moves on. Cities are either going to shrink or grow. Very seldom do they stay static. If we shrink, amenities have to go away.”
Van Steenwyk said he regularly asks staff who are Pine City residents how a change would impact them.
“It’s not lost on me that I don’t live in Pine City,” he said. “I tried to find a house here and it didn’t work out. But I try to keep in mind what it would mean if I did live here.”
But some quirks of Pine City still throw him off – for instance, when furniture appears on city sidewalks on the Wednesday before a Saturday event.
“The most confusing thing is all the chairs going out for the [Pine County Fair] parade,” he said. “I’ve never seen that in my entire life. I’ll give props to the residents – nobody’s stealing them.”
‘A pretty good place’
After four months with Van Steenwyk as city administrator, Pine City’s mayor is happy to give praise – qualified praise – for his work so far.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place right now with Matt,” Pederson said. “He’s very good at taking direction. He’s very timely, very responsive. He does a really good job with staff to get things done. I see much more proactiveness and responsiveness in the day to day operations. He’s got some learning to do [but] I’m pleased with the performance.”
“I’m hoping I can do a good job in the position,” Van Steenwyk said. “I pride myself on my good customer service and my fairly even temperament. Councils can change. Especially if political tides change you can have a whole new council. I think I’m good working with pretty much anybody. We’ll find out as we move forward.
“I don’t have a desire to move up anymore,” he added. “My goal is to find a place where I can work and provide for my family in a nice, small community. I like walking down the streets and seeing people I know.”
The city hall office in Pine City closes at 4:30 p.m., but that doesn’t always mean Van Steenwyk gets to leave. If there’s a meeting in the evening he’ll work straight through until then. But every day, no matter what, he makes sure to text Lori about whether he’ll be home on time or if he’s going to be late.
Because whatever he does for work, the focus of his life is on his family. Van Steenwyk’s mother died when he was 20, and he thinks – all the time – about how he’d like to ask her for recipes, tell stories and have her spend time with his own children.
“I never got to be an adult with my mom, and that’s ... one of those things,” he said. “I think I’m probably a better parent for it. Every morning I kiss my kids goodbye. And then ... aside from council meeting nights, I’m at home tucking them in bed every night. Even when they’re grumpy at me. It’s simple.”