Amid complaints of a racist work environment raised by city employees and with a Human Resources investigation underway, a divided Minneapolis City Council approved the mayor’s nomination of Heather Johnston for city coordinator on June 16.
Johnston has served as the interim city coordinator since August 2021 and previously worked as city manager for the cities of Burnsville and Chanhassen. She also worked as the director of management and budget and interim chief financial officer for the city of Minneapolis in the early 2000s.
The city coordinator’s office works with every other department in the city and the city coordinator oversees hundreds of staff from several departments, including, 311, 911, communications, emergency management, finance and property services, human resources, information technology, intergovernmental relations, neighborhood and community relations, sustainability, and race and equity.
During a public hearing on May 23, 13 people spoke in favor of her appointment. This included former council members Elizabeth Glidden and Robert Lilligren, former Mayor R.T. Rybak, Downtown Council CEO Steve Kramer (also a former council member) and former Minneapolis Chief Financial Officer Pat Born. Those speaking in favor also included two former city employees, both women of color, who praised Johnston for her leadership, support and mentorship. Latoya Green, who was supervised by Johnston in the city’s finance department, said, “A great city coordinator needs to be trustworthy, respectful, ethical, approachable, have utmost integrity and build partnerships within and outside the city. But most of all that person needs to be held accountable and hold others accountable. Ms. Johnston has all those attributes.”
Most of the concerns raised by 23 people who spoke against Johnston’s nomination echoed those that were outlined, along with a timeline, specific examples and a list of demands, in a document written by current and former staff that was circulated earlier in the week. It described “building frustrations about ongoing harm caused to current and past City Coordinator Office (CCO) staff, particularly Black and Brown staff.”
“This harm stems from a toxic, anti-Black work culture that has been perpetuated by past and current city coordinators, both interim and appointed, for several years,” according to the document.
One of the authors of the letter and current staff person, Gina Obiri, listed the main requests that came from those opposing the nomination. “Update the job qualifications,” Obiri said at the hearing. “Conduct a competitive search process that Mayor Frey promised and partner with us to start meeting our other demands to address the racist city culture that we endure.”
When Frey nominated Johnston to serve as the interim coordinator in July of 2021, the city’s press release said, “The city will undertake a competitive search for a permanent replacement in the weeks and months ahead.” That never occurred.
While there were examples of objectionable behaviors, including staff being subjected to offensive language and images by some (not Johnston) in managerial positions, the fact that the concerns were ignored seemed the most problematic. Amy Livingston, a former city employee, said that when Johnston was first appointed interim director in 2021, “Their demands started out as single requests, brought to a new leader, a plea for a fresh start. Those were ignored, obscured, delayed, and papered over by Heather Johnston and Mayor Frey.”
“Choosing to not do anything subconsciously for nine months perpetuated harm against Black and Brown staff,” said Civil Rights Department staff Malaysia Abdi.
“For over two years I sat in on meetings with staff and department leadership where I was continuously ignored and belittled,” said former employee, LaLinda Xiong. “We in the division of Race and Equity were invited to the table but were never listened to. We were a prop to the city.”
“If a transparent search process is not implemented,” said Xiong, “staff will continue to leave the city in a mass exodus and the city will fall short on meeting community needs.”
“This problem is deep-rooted, and not something that can be fixed without sponsorship, support, and enthusiastic drive from the highest level,” Livingston said. “City employees are literally pleading for that support. Council must demand a national search for a city administrator who will treat racism as the institutional crisis it is, not as a lower priority.”
Johnston spoke following the hearing and answered questions from council members. When asked to respond directly to the concerns and the issue of so many staff resigning, she said, “What I am hearing is that if the culture doesn’t improve, we will continue to lose Black and Brown employees. That’s what I’ve heard repeatedly today. So, we need to start that work to improve the culture and that’s my commitment.”
Some council members were clearly moved by the testimony of city staff. Ward 1 Council Member Elliott Payne called it “unprecedented.”
“I was going to vote yes on this appointment. I am no longer doing that,” said Ward 9 Council Member Jason Chavez. “If we are going to push this through, that is the system of White supremacy in action.”
After the discussion, the committee voted to move the matter forward to the full council without making a recommendation.
At that council meeting, on May 26, Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano said, “I would like to make a motion to confirm but I am not going to do that. During Ms. Johnston’s relatively brief time here she’s proven herself to be an effective and committed public servant at every level.” After adding that she was “excited personally to support Ms. Johnston for the permanent position of city coordinator,” she moved a postponement at that time “so that we can all continue to have conversations.”
There was some discussion that followed about the human resources investigation that Johnston had already initiated. Ward 12 Council Member Andrew Johnson suggested that waiting for that to conclude might be useful.
The group that drafted the document of concerns, however, has little confidence in a human resources department led investigation. In it they noted that “Many CCO staff have filed ethics complaints citing toxic, racist, and unhealthy workplace environments perpetuated by the city coordinator. A review of those complaints will show that many were dismissed and closed without any investigation or conversation with the complainants, leading us to believe that the same would happen with the complaints outlined in this document. Per the policies of the city of Minneapolis, all complaints filed against the city coordinator are handled by the chief human resources officer, Patience Ferguson, in collaboration with an external consultant. Since the chief HR officer reports to the city coordinator, CCO staff felt that any HR complaint process would inadequately support our concerns given this conflict of interest.”
In May, the council voted 11 to 2 to postpone the item with council members Wonsley and Chughtai voting against postponement.
On June 16, council members Payne, Wonsley, Ellison, Chavez, and Chughtai voted no on the appointment, with the remaining eight council members voting yes.
Before taking the final vote Ward 9 Council Member Jason Chavez said, “ I want city staff to know, I hear you. I support you. I believe you stories, and I will be voting no on this today. He continued, “to the white elected officials on this body, I will just ask you to not let the people of color on this body be the only ones to vote no on this.”
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