South St. Paul city administrator prepares to say goodbye

courtesy of Steve King • Steve King, left, is wrapping up a 15-year career in South St. Paul, and more than 30 years as a city administrator, at the end of the month. His replacement is Joel Hanson, who most recently served as city administrator of Little Canada.

After 30 years in public service, South St. Paul City Administrator Steve King is looking to the next chapter of his life — retirement. The 67-year-old, who has worked for South St. Paul for the past 15 years, announced his retirement plans to the city council in April of this year.


A long career

King earned a liberal arts degree from Gustavus Adolphus College before going to the William Mitchell College of Law in 1976. By the time he passed the bar exam 1980, he’d been exposed to the idea of local governance, having worked as a law clerk for the City of Minneapolis for almost two years.

“I had learned about this world of work involving both local government and public administration, but not in the typical public administration, rather geared toward small cities,” King says.

After graduating from William Mitchell, King went to Mankato State University, which had an urban and regional studies institute. King got his master’s degree there in 1984. 

The second part of the program at Mankato State was a year-long internship, which he spent in Burnsville. 

The internship turned into a job, and King was hired by the City of Burnsville, where he worked until 1989. After his time in Burnsville, King became city manager of Montevideo until 1994. He was city administrator of Savage from 1994 until 2002, landing in South St. Paul that next year.


Making the change

Savage was going through a tough time with a lot of conflict and gridlock between council members, King says. The opportunity to work in South St. Paul came up, and it was entirely different than the communities in which he’d previously worked — it was an older, inner-ring city that had its own set of challenges. 

“I happened to walk into South St. Paul ... [when it] was in the middle of a huge economic disaster in terms of the need to cut taxes and cut spending,” King says of his arrival in the city in March 2003.

There were a couple years where King says it was a horrible time trying to make ends meet and getting things to a point where there could be budget predictability. 

He said upon his arrival in 2003, the city had not fully recovered from the meat packing plants and stockyard closings decades earlier. There was a sense of up and down in how people viewed the community.

King says it has been in the past four or five years that things have turned the corner.

“People still have very vivid memories of the past, but there are enough new people who are in town and there’s enough progress being made that I think there is an optimism these days that’s much different than when I came here,” he says.


Preparing to 

say goodbye

King says he stayed in South St. Paul for so long because of the quality of opportunity in the city. He says there was so much he was able to do and get involved with to make a difference.

“Once I got engaged here, it was very easy for me to stay,” he says, adding he built good relationships with the council, and that over time, he was able to build a team that was very strong and able to tackle some major challenges.

King says, besides his family, the thing he is most proud of is that throughout his career he has been able to build such good teams. He said he has been fortunate to have people come on who dared to dream and do things the right way.

“I honestly feel like I made a difference,” King says. “That’s a satisfaction thing I like.”

King says his wife retired two years ago, and there are things he has put on hold for a long time because he was still working. 

He says it has been years since he played golf. He and his wife recently bought a cabin that he wants to spend time at. They want to do more traveling and spend more time with their family, which includes grandchildren.

King says he has some regret over leaving — not in an emotional way but simply because he feels there is more he could do.

“Part of me would love to do that, but then the other part of me realizes I have other things I want to do as well, so it’s time to take a different approach and entertain some of those other interests,” he says.


Meet the new admin

King’s replacement, Joel Hanson, 61, the former city administrator of Little Canada, came on board June 25. 

Hanson’s first job in the public sector was as city administrator for Rush City, his hometown, which is north of the Twin Cities up Interstate 35.

He says he’d “literally just taken a job as an underwriter” with Federated Insurance when the job in the city, then of around 1,400 people, opened up. He was there for a decade.

Though he got a bachelor’s degree in public administration from St. Cloud State University and a master’s degree from Hamline University, Hanson jokes he got a “doctorate from the School of Hard Knocks,” based on various experiences on the job.

“I ran the hospital the last three years [in Rush City],” he says. “It was interesting.”

Hanson worked for 28 years in Little Canada. He says the nearly three decades were marked by city staffs and councils that worked well together, which isn’t always the case. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he says, pointing out people from both sides always put the good of the city ahead of their personal agendas.

Hanson says he’s most proud of the staff development he oversaw in Little Canada over the years.

He says he’ll be staying in he and his wife’s Little Canada home and commuting to South St. Paul, which he says, like the city he served for so long, has a good sense of community.

“South St. Paul may take it up a couple notches,” he jokes, pointing out the city’s unique situation having shared boundaries with its school district.

King’s last day with South St. Paul is July 27.


– Mike Munzenrider contributed to this story. Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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