Three Minneapolis department heads approved; disputed city coordinator decision postponed

26 May 2022

The Minneapolis City Council promoted three interim department heads to four-year terms Thursday with praise for their contributions to the city. They postponed a vote on the fourth — Heather Johnston, Mayor Jacob Frey’s nomination for city coordinator — after several former employees testified against her appointment earlier this week.

Andrea Brennan was named director of Community Planning and Economic Development, Saray Garnett-Hochuli director of Regulatory Services and Rebecca Malmquist as city assessor for four-year terms which began on Jan. 3 All three have already been serving in those positions in a short-term capacity following midterm departures of their predecessors in recent years.

“These two jobs, Regulatory Services and CPED, sit in a very difficult place and a place of great emotion and a place where there’s great opportunity,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman of Brennan and Garnett-Hochuli. “Everything from renter protections to working with the unsheltered homeless population to dealing with rental licensing … these two women have led the way with incredible teams of workers.”

The council voted to delay the matter of Johnston’s appointment for one cycle.

“We’ve all gotten a tremendous amount of feedback from the public and from others on this appointment, and I suggest that now we honor this moment and give us as policymakers that space with one another to confer for a bit of additional time,” said Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, who called Johnston an “effective and committed public servant at every level.”

Palmisano noted that as the city continues the process of restructuring its government, the city coordinator’s position likely will cease to exist in just a few months.

After Minneapolis voters changed the city charter last November to allow a “strong mayor” form of government, Frey started working on changing the way city departments are organized. Under the former government structure, the mayor had sole authority over the police; he and the City Council had joint power over the other chartered departments, and a city coordinator oversaw all the other internal management departments such as communications, human resources, information technology, 911 and 311.

In March, Frey proposed a new cabinet that would have four positions answer directly to the mayor: a chief administrative officer, city attorney, chief community safety officer and chief of staff. Most city departments would fall under one of those positions. The city coordinator position would disappear.

The proposal still needs City Council approval.

Frey said on Thursday that he supports the delay and an independent investigation into staff grievances against Johnston, but urged the council to move quickly on appointing her for the permanent role.

“I’m insisting that we move expeditiously to get us to a point where I can do my job as well as I possibly can,” Frey said. “If in fact you care about the day-to-day operations of our city, then we need to have a city coordinator in place that can help coordinate and administer our government for the next several months until the next structure of government is ultimately decided on.”

Allegations that some city staff have brought against Johnston are that she failed to follow up on a staff survey from six months ago, find an outside consultant to address workplace culture issues, allow remote work during the pandemic, and incorporate an equity assessment applied to proposed policies similar to a fiscal analysis.

City spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said the city is in the process of hiring an outside expert to investigate those allegations.

Those employees are demanding a competitive search for a replacement.

The City Council on Thursday also passed their revisions to the mayor’s proposed uses for $43 million in remaining federal COVID-19 relief money.

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