Yesterday the City Council voted to delay an official vote on whether to approve Mayor Jacob Frey’s nomination of Heather Johnston to fill a four-year term as city coordinator. On Tuesday, the Committee of the Whole voted to pass forward Frey’s nomination to the City Council without recommendation. Frey nominated Johnston as interim city coordinator after Mark Ruff left the position in August 2021.
“This position should not exist in just a few months’ time,” Palmisano said. She argued that with the new government structure, voted in by Minneapolis voters last year, the position will be changed to the chief administrative officer position soon.
Palmisano said she wanted to vote on Johnston’s nomination at the City Council meeting but also wanted to give the council more time to process the public hearing on Tuesday.
“She has every quality a city should want,” Palmisano said as she spoke in favor of Johnston’s nomination at the City Council meeting. “She’s shown her ability to step up and tackle important issues…She does this work with an emphasis on equity and bringing departments together for the benefit of every Minneapolis resident.”
Councilmember Elliott Payne suggested the appointment vote be delayed until after the Human Resources investigation in the city coordinator's office is complete. At Tuesday’s public hearing, multiple people referenced the HR investigation currently underway that was initiated after former and current city staff sent Johnston a letter about creating a more inclusive workplace. Those workers also testified at Tuesday’s public hearing.
“What we experienced in the public hearing Tuesday was unprecedented in this institution,” Payne said yesterday. “To see so many staff speak up about the conditions of what it’s like to work here.”
Payne said he was amenable to revisiting delaying the vote due to the HR investigation at the next City Council meeting.
Frey joined the City Council meeting to say he supported the delay in the vote and the HR investigation. “Heather has devoted her entire life to public service,” Frey said.
Tuesday’s public hearing
During the public hearing, 13 speakers spoke in favor of the appointment and 23 speakers spoke against the appointment. People who spoke in favor of Johnston worked with her in various capacities and spoke to her strengths in the workplace, including developing leadership skills and opportunities for her staff.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke in favor of Johnston’s appointment. “This city is in a dramatically better financial position today than it was a decade ago… and one of the very big reasons is actually Heather Johnston.”
Rybak also referenced her intelligence, morality, and clarity. Her workplace demeanor came through when Rybak recounted working tirelessly on seemingly “insurmountable” financial and budgetary challenges. “She made me damn uncomfortable…and that was her job.”
People who spoke against Johnston’s appointment were current and former city staff, community members, and people who volunteered to read statements on behalf of staff who couldn’t make the meeting.
Kelly Muellman, the City’s Sustainability Program coordinator, spoke against the appointment of Johnston.
“I'm here to ask for your leadership to take the concerns of black employees seriously,” Muellman said.
During the public hearing, a narrative developed that the toxic work environment existed before Johnston’s arrival.
“I've been through four coordinators now in my seven years at the city. Staff attempted to raise questions and concerns at every turn,” Muellman said. “We hoped that Coordinator Johnston would be different. However, the response staff have had from coordinator Johnston to our concerns over the past nine months has not only been lacking, but harmful.”
According to Muellman, Johnston told staff in a meeting that everyone “should be polite in the workplace” in response to concerns about race-based microaggressions in the workplace.
After two years of our city’s “racial reckoning,” Muellman said staff was “facing yet another leader who is not equipped to lead us through these challenging times.”
“A vote to confirm Heather, in the face of an active HR investigation and without a competitive search process, is a vote for the status quo,” Muellman said. “It is a vote that co-signs the harms perpetuated by past and present city coordinators, that so many of you have acknowledged as real.”
Public testimony against Johnston often focused on the systemic racism that is embedded in the City of Minneapolis enterprise.
“White people are not the future of this city,” community member Angela Williams said. “If you Black, you know the system, the propensity of the culture of racism under the leadership of Jacob Frey.”
Williams also reiterated that the people testifying against Johnston’s nomination were focusing on the workplace culture, not her ability to perform specific tasks.
“This has got nothing to do with no budget,” Williams said, referencing Rybak’s accolades of Johntson’s capabilities. “This has got everything to do with how people, Black people, people of color are being treated in the system that is supposed to work for everybody”
Brian Smith is the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation director and Johnston is his boss. During his testimony, he said he is also filling the role of interim director of strategic management, because an employee left their job. Smith added, “for context,” the strategic initiative director had also left. At this point in the meeting, Smith was presumably referring to the repeated fact that many people of color have left their jobs with the city.
“This makes me the highest-ranking Black person in the coordinator’s office,” Smith said.
“My relationship with Heather is tricky, at best. Everything that everybody got up here and said today, in support of the city coordinator staff, is absolutely correct and I would do nothing more than repeat it with more antidotes, which happen daily.”
A few speakers that spoke critically about the nomination of Johnston, including Smith, said they didn’t deny the positive things that people shared about her, such as working well with other departments and getting financial work done.
But to Smith, this was personal.
“It's personal because all of the work that I've done, the [the Office of Performance and Innovation] staff have done, Sustainability has done, has all been about this city and its residents. And people are benefiting big time from the work that we do,” Smith said.
Smith said the only thing that this city “can be proud of and that residents say they trust is the work we’ve done.”
“I want people to know that if you can use us in that way, knowing this is a sometimes horrible place to work, but you can brag on our work, but still want us to remain unseen, unheard, disrespected and put in the background like some slave–it can't continue,” Smith said.
Smith said his focus was on the lack of leadership Johnston has demonstrated when it comes to moving the organization towards a more equitable and fair working place.
In Johnston’s interview with the City Council after the public testimony she was asked about her diversity and equity work. Her answers focused on what she wants to do in the future.
“I plan to support antiracist work,” Johnston said.
It was clear from testimony that people assumed they’d be retaliated against for speaking up about their working conditions.
“I'm proud of my staff, I’m proud of sustainability, I'm proud of others for taking the risk that they have taken,” Smith said. “I know this may be the very last day that I speak to any of you, it just might be that way.”
Later in the meeting multiple councilmembers expressed concern that staff would be retaliated against for speaking up. Councilmembers also thanked staff for coming forward.
“Thank you for speaking your truth, unapologetically, in a place that has been widely documented to be racist, to be violent, to be silencing,” Councilmember Robin Wonsley Worlobah said, directly to the staff who testified at the meeting.
Councilmembers also expressed their willingness to approve Frey’s nomination.
Councilmember LaTrisha Vetaw said that Johnston knew about the culture she was stepping into, and accepted the interim position regardless.
“I asked her how I can best support her and she brought up the same concerns that are outlined in the employee email and asked me for help on how to make the coordinator’s office a better environment for her team,” Vetaw said.
“It’s obvious she can take criticism,” Vetaw added. “I appreciate you going through this very vulnerable process.”
Due to the council’s vote to delay the process yesterday, the City Council will discuss and potentially vote on Johnston’s nomination at their next meeting on June 16.