Meet Sack Thongvanh, Falcon Heights’ new city administrator

Sack Thongvanh
Sack Thongvanh

Managing a city staff and being an FBI agent may seem like completely opposite careers, but to Sack Thongvanh, they have at least one thing in common: helping people.

Thongvanh, 35, Falcon Heights’ new city administrator, says he always knew he wanted to help others, but wasn’t sure in what role. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota, he considered working for the FBI or going to law school before settling on entering the master’s program in public administration at Hamline University.

“Really, it was passion to help people,” Thongvanh says of his entry into local government. “I didn’t know exactly which avenue I was going to take.

“[But] I just fell in love with the MPA program at Hamline. A lot of my instructors were city employees ... so that really helped me rework my direction toward government.”

Laos to Aberdeen

Thongvanh (pronounced “tong-von”) is from Aberdeen, South Dakota, by way of Laos. His family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s when he was 4 years old.

“During that time ... the country was very unstable ... my parents basically escaped Laos at the time during turmoil,” Thongvanh explains, adding his mother is a “huge advocate” of telling his family’s story of coming to the U.S.

He says his parents, along with his older brother, traveled through the jungles of Laos at night, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps for 2 1/2 to 3 years before they were sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Aberdeen.

The culture shock of moving to a new country—and non-tropical climate—was something to which Thongvanh’s family had to adjust.

“A difficult part was ... that we came later [in the year], when it was colder. It was a culture shock for my parents.

“The church really, especially in the first year, introduced us to the culture and helped us out through that process,” Thongvanh says.

Aberdeen to the Twin Cities

Thongvanh lived in Aberdeen until he headed off for college. He entered the master’s degree program right after receiving his bachelor’s from the U, and got his start in local government as an intern with the city of Northfield, Minnesota.

“That was kind of my first exposure to city management and government,” he says.

From there, he held city administrator positions in Sherburn, Minnesota—a town of 1,100—and Eagle Lake, Minnesota—population 2,400.

He then jumped into an assistant city manager position in Albert Lea, a significantly larger city than his previous two with a population of 18,000.

He says there are pros and cons to both large cities—higher-profile projects, but with less involvement in each—and small cities—limited staff, but heavy involvement in each step of a project.

Falcon Heights, with its population of 5,300, seemed to Thongvanh like a happy medium.

“One of the main draws of the community for me was the fact that there were certain individuals in departments, but also that it’s small enough to make it seem more of a small-town feel,” Thongvanh explains.

Acclimating to Falcon Heights

Thongvanh started his new job on April 27, and says he’s spent the last couple weeks learning about different city projects and processes.

“I’m just evaluating things right now, until the council determines which direction that they would like to move forward,” he says. “I’ll have to work with the council some more to see what their vision is and go from there.”

Thongvanh lives about 30 minutes away in the Farmington/Lakeville area, but his commute is mercifully less than half of his former hour-and-a-half drive to Albert Lea, he says.

He is married and has a 3 1/2-year-old son, Tyler. He says he spends most of his free time with his family, adding that “it’s nice to finally be able to communicate” with his son, who has reached the toddler milestone of being able to talk with more than grunts and crying.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.
 

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