Dennis Johnson, who has overseen the city’s growth since well before the start of the Bakken oil boom, said Monday during a regular city commission meeting that his position on the MDU Resources Group board of directors has created a conflict that is forcing him to choose between either remaining Dickinson’s city commission president or keeping his spot on MDU’s board.
Johnson has served as the Dickinson city commission’s president, commonly referred to as the mayor, since he took office in July 2000. His last day will be Oct. 31. Commission Vice President Gene Jackson will take over as commission president and mayor on Nov. 1.
New York Stock Exchange rules and regulations state that a board member of a company traded on its exchange cannot be employed by another company or serve on a government entity that does more than 2 percent of its business with that publically traded company.
Knife River Corp., a subsidiary of MDU Resources, was awarded a city contract exceeding $8 million for the north State Avenue construction project in 2015. That amount exceeded the New York Stock Exchange’s 2 percent threshold.
“I knew early this year that MDU was getting close to that 2 percent threshold,” Johnson told The Press in an exclusive interview Monday morning.
Johnson said he had always abstained from voting on issues relating to MDU Resources and its subsidiaries, and never let his board position interfere with his city commission role.
He said the decision to step down was difficult, and thanked the community for trusting in him and “the good fortune” of working with a talented group of commissioners throughout the years.
“It’s been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding positions I’ve had in my whole career,” he said in the interview.
Johnson said his time in public service is likely complete, and that he’ll be focusing more on his position as CEO and Chairman of TMI Systems Design as the company continues to grow.
“I never had political aspirations beyond being a local mayor,” he said.
He said it was unlikely that he would have sought re-election in 2016.
Johnson, a Tioga native, moved to Dickinson in 1974 to work for the manufacturing company. He became the company’s president in 1982, and took over as CEO in 1999. He is also a former director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and has served on numerous boards and foundations.
Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel said though he has known for a while that Johnson was facing this possibility because of the city’s ongoing growth and business dealings with MDU Resources, he believes Dickinson’s leadership is in good hands.
“I’ve known about this potential for some time now, and it doesn’t get any easier thinking about a transition,” Kessel said. “… There’s always a silver lining and, to me, it’s that Commissioner Jackson will become commission president, and thereby mayor.”
Kessel said, by city ordinance, the commission must wait 15 days from Johnson’s resignation date to decide how it will move forward with filling his position. In that time, if 5 percent of citizens who voted in the 2014 election submit a petition requesting a special election, the commission must abide by it.
If not, the city commission will decide between either holding a special election, appointing a commissioner to complete Johnson’s term, or leaving the seat vacant until next June’s election.
Kessel said the city has calculated that a special election would cost as much as $5,000.
Jackson said he “can’t say enough” about what Johnson has accomplished during his time in office, and praised his leadership.
“When he sees something that needs to be done in the city, he’s not afraid to take the lead in it and not wait for it to happen,” Jackson said. “He shows true leadership that way.”
During Johnson’s time in office, Dickinson has changed greatly.
“While things were booming here, it was a pretty significant challenge,” he said.
Dickinson had about 16,000 residents when Johnson was elected. It now has an estimated 27,000 permanent residents, many of whom moved to the city in the past five years because of energy industry and the variety of other work it spawned.
The city has also made or been a part of millions of dollars in significant infrastructure expansions and growth.
“When I first ran, I had no idea I would stay as long as I did, and I had no idea I’d enjoy the position as much as I did,” Johnson said. “There’s always work to be done, but I think Dickinson is well-positioned.” Asked whether he thinks he did a good job as commission president, Johnson responded “that’s for others to decide.”