Impassioned supporters and opponents of interim city coordinator Heather Johnston gave a Minneapolis council committee an earful Tuesday before the panel forwarded her permanent appointment to the full council.
The 8-4 vote by the Committee of the Whole sent the nomination to council without a recommendation. The move followed nearly two hours of testimony, including calls from a group of former and current city employees asking them to reject Johnston's appointment. They say she hasn't addressed their concerns of discrimination and a "toxic" work culture.
"Some of your testimony was difficult to receive, and I think we need a couple of days to really sit with this testimony," said Council Vice President Linea Palmisano. "This is not a positive or negative recommendation."
Johnston's supporters included former and current colleagues, including former Mayor R.T. Rybak and the mayor of Chanhassen. They described Johnston as a tough but approachable and trustworthy leader who works across departments.
The full council could take a vote on Johnston's nomination Thursday. If approved, Johnston will be the third person to serve as city coordinator in the past four years.
Johnston has served as the interim city coordinator since August. Mayor Jacob Frey nominated her for permanent position earlier this month.
Shortly after Frey announced the nomination, a group of current and former employees in the Minneapolis City Coordinator's Office sent a letter to the mayor and the council, asking them not to select Johnston. They said the department has a history of "toxic, racist and unsafe workplace conditions" and Johnston hasn't done enough to stop it in her interim role.
The group wrote that the city hadn't provided enough support to Black employees after police killings and other traumatic events in the community. They said they were not given enough opportunities to work remotely to minimize exposure to COVID-19 and microaggressions from the public and fellow city workers, and felt dismissed and disrespected when raising concerns about government operations.
At a morning news conference and at the public hearing, the group reiterated the message and said they had forwarded their discrimination complaints to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to prompt an investigation and gain protection for employees who speak out.
"Heather has consistently and intentionally chosen not to listen to our complaints of discrimination and has directly committed harms against Black staff," said Gina Obiri, who works as a program manager in the city coordinator's office. "A vote to confirm Heather is a vote to deny our humanity and dignity."
Johnston's supporters lauded her budget chops and her courage to work under difficult circumstances.
"This city is dramatically in a better financial position today than it was a decade ago. And there are lots of reasons for that, but one of the very big reasons is actually Heather Johnston," Rybak said during the hearing.
Johnston previously worked as the city's budget director and interim chief financial officer, and held posts in Burnsville and Chanhassen and state and federal agencies.
On Tuesday, Johnston addressed the public for the first time since the allegations surfaced. She said she's committed to continuing to work on helping change the racism that permeates in the city's systems and developing "a culture that is inclusive, innovative, anti-racist and equitable for all of our employees."
"Culture change takes time and cannot be done by one person," Johnston said, noting repeatedly that she was not going to retaliate against employees who spoke out.
"I believe that the best way to tackle the tough issues facing the city is to work together, learn from our mistakes, build trust and create a better Minneapolis even with the hard work ahead," she said.
In Minneapolis, the city coordinator is one of the highest-ranking, non-elected positions and serves as an adviser to the mayor and City Council. About 40 employees work in the office, but hundreds of employees work in additional divisions that also report to the city coordinator, such as communications, emergency management, human resources and finance. The position comes with a salary ranging from $182,111 to $228,774 and in recent years has experienced a high level of turnover.
Asked how the search for the city coordinator was conducted, Frey's office said there was no formal search process, though the mayor had "informal discussions regarding other candidates for the role."
During her 10 months serving as interim city coordinator, Frey "has been impressed by Johnston's leadership, character and commitment to her team," said Katie Lauer, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office.
At the public hearing, the group and others criticized the mayor, saying the mayor had failed to conduct "a transparent, equity-focused" recruitment process for the city's high-ranking position and that there are few leaders of color in top posts. In Minneapolis, three out of 10 department heads are people of color, according to the mayor's office.
In a previous interview with the Star Tribune, Frey lauded Johnston for her efforts to rebuild the city's Division of Race and Equity, help manage a variety of labor issues, and coordinate departments as they set up the new government structure voters approved in November.
On Tuesday, the mayor urged council members to be reasonable and fair, noting "the tough issues that we're experiencing are bigger than Heather, and certainly bigger than any one person would be able to handle in the nine or so months that she's been in this active role."
Some council members disagreed and questioned the legality of moving forward with Johnston's nomination amid the city's review of the allegations and a possible investigation by the Department of Human Rights.
"I do not even understand why we're even having this conversation," Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah said. She urged the council and mayor to delay Johnston's appointment until the investigation ended.
Wonsley Worlobah and council members Elliott Payne and Jason Chavez cried at the council meeting, saying the employees' testimony resonated with them.
"I'm going to be watching like a hawk so that the day you show up five minutes late, you're not being fired for that," Chavez said. "I was going to vote yes on this appointment, but I'm no longer doing that."