FAIRMONT - The news that he'd received the League of Minnesota Cities Leadership Award came as a surprise to Jim Zarling, Fairmont's city administrator, partially because of the timing.
Last week, a media person stopped by City Hall to ask him for a scoop after being misinformed that Zarling was retiring this month.
"Maybe you know something I don't," Zarling told the journalist, joking that his annual performance review was coming up soon.
But later that week, Mayor Randy Quiring and Councilman Harlan Gorath informed Zarling they wanted to meet with him, and Zarling did start to wonder ...
As it turns out, his job is well assured - and he isn't retiring for another year, by the way. What he did learn was that he was to receive one of the highest recognitions for appointed city officials in Minnesota.
Each year, two leadership awards are given to city officials, one for those in cities with a population below 10,000, and one for cities larger than 10,000. Zarling received the latter.
On Thursday morning, Zarling traveled to Rochester for the League's Annual Conference to accept the award. By Thursday evening, he was back at work, still at his desk after City Hall had locked up its doors.
"I'm not the type of person who needs this type of stuff," he said. "The thing that means the most is to be eligible for this award, the local council has to initiate the application. It's rewarding to know the council appreciates the work we do enough to submit that."
On its website, www.lmc.org, the League said Zarling was cited for "being instrumental in the occurrence of more than $250 million in new development in the value-added agriculture and renewable fuels businesses since 2002.
"Zarling also was lauded for his role in the construction of a new wastewater treatment facility, and for his prudent financial management. Under his leadership, Fairmont has maintained a healthy bond rating and a modest debt load."
As a young man, Zarling began working for the city 27 years ago, starting as the manager of accounting and data processing. Four years later, he was promoted to finance director, and, in 1997, he was appointed city administrator.
"It's just been a joy," Zarling said. "I love everything I do here. Although it's not always easy, it's always been a pleasure, and we work very hard to make Fairmont better."
One wall of his office is covered in plaques that recognize the city for excellence in financial reporting every year since 1991, plus a Dr. Robert A. Barrett award for management excellence. And now Zarling can add a framed, signed artwork from the League.
"It's been a good run," he said. "... Every time we receive an award, I say it's just a reflection of the absolutely fantastic staff we have at all levels. ... One person can't do it. The reason I've been successful is because I have such great support staff. All the employees are very dedicated to their jobs and the city of Fairmont. They all take pride in what they do."
He lavished praise on the council as well: "It's not an easy task to be on City Council. Everything we do serves competing interests. ... It can sometimes be a thankless job to be an elected official. I really appreciate their good working relationship."