From corrections to county commissioner

Meet Commissioner Mike Opat

Meet Commissioner Mike Opat

In 38 years at Hennepin County, Commissioner Mike Opat has seen great change.

Opat started at Hennepin County as a corrections officer in the Hennepin Adult Corrections Facility in 1981 while working his way through college at the University of Minnesota. He worked intermittently through his two years of graduate school at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

During his 26 years on the board — including nine as chair — Opat has focused on issues ranging from preventing teen pregnancy to leading the effort to build Target Field. Light rail has also been a key issue for him.

“It's been quite a journey," said Opat.

Family and work experience spark interest in government

Growing up, Opat's mother was interested and involved in politics and passed that along to him. Opat's family got involved in special education and the Minnesota Special Olympics as a way to help his brother, who has a developmental disability. That sparked his interest in human services.

Opat was working at the Adult Correctional facility when he decided to run for commissioner in 1992. Working in corrections helped him see that people who were incarcerated needed to gain skills and habits to prepare them for jobs. He became the first advocate for the Productive Day Program.

Opat said his early years on the board helped him see the need for rejuvenation in deteriorating neighborhoods, including a mix of market rate and affordable housing. Hennepin Community Works was an answer to that need and included the Midtown Greenway and still-under-development Humboldt Greenway.

“What's surprised me the most about being a Commissioner is the incredible variety of things we do," Opat said.

Areas of focus

To Opat, Hennepin County's greatest challenges are in human services. He is proud of the county's work that has helped reduce the number of teen pregnancies from 1,152 to 431 a year, a 59 percent decrease. Of late, he's spent a great deal of time on the county's shift from child protection to emphasizing child well-being. The progress to date is one of the things that excites him most.

Just a couple years ago, “staff received calls reporting child abuse or neglect 55 times a day. That's 20,000 cases a year," Opat said. “It is an astonishing number. The Board has had to begin a massive reform effort. We've hired more than 175 additional staff. It's an unprecedented commitment of tax dollars for one human service area. More work is needed, however. Keeping families from getting so deep in turmoil has to be the ongoing focus."

Opat credited Hennepin County's staff with the county's success.

“I think they should know their work is important," Opat said, adding he understands it can feel thankless at times.

Opat said he thinks Hennepin County's greatest strengths include the board's solid decision-making, adding the members aren't afraid to make tough decisions. During his tenure, commissioners voted to integrate library systems and plan for light rail.

“I feel very fortunate to represent the inner ring suburbs," Opat said.

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