It's possible that no bureaucrat's departure from City Hall has attracted as much attention in recent years as Susan Young's pending last day on Friday.
That's because Young has operated as no ordinary bureaucrat in her role as the city's director of solid waste and recycling.
Or as she introduced herself around the city and in online chats, "the trash lady."
Now she's the one getting dumped after 19 years in her job.
In a typical year, Young attended at least a hundred community gatherings, meeting Minneapolitans on their own turf, in park buildings and community centers.
She won respect even from people on the other side of issues.
Margie Siegel is one of the neighbors who was fighting tooth-and-nail against the household hazardous waste and recycling facility that Young, the city and Hennepin County want to build in her Holland neighborhood.
Yet despite that divide, Siegel praised Young in an unsolicited testimonial as forthright and transparent in her dealings with those opposing that proposal.
Siegel questions the decision of Public Works Director Steve Kotke to replace Young in a search that he said will begin immediately.
Respect from labor
Another person whose job often put him at odds with Young on specific issues also praises her. He's Mike O'Donnell, a business agent with Teamsters Local 320, one of the bargaining units that Young has dealt with.
"I have a bunch of guys who want to go down and give 'em heck [over Young's removal]," O'Donnell said. "It's not often that union guys feel that way about their boss.'' Young stood up for them and she was tough but fair, he said.
Bob Miller, who heads the Neighborhood Revitalization Program in Minneapolis, also is often critical of City Hall bureaucrats. But Young may have rivaled him for the amount of time spent out in neighborhoods meeting city residents.
"She's a consummate public servant. She believed in working with the communities. She believed in leveling with the communities. She was respectful," Miller said. "I don't understand this one."
Kotke, the man who removed Young, has become a magnet for discontent over his decision from both employees and community residents upset about Young's replacement. But he's not explaining much.
Early one morning last week, in the cool morning air before crews hit the alleys to swelter through their daily routes, Kotke met with about 90 city workers who collect garbage, recycling and more specialized trash. He praised Young's work. He said the decision was his alone. He called it one of the most difficult he's made in a long time. But he wouldn't go into specifics on why Young is being replaced.
"There were some components missing that I'm not going to get into, that I felt I had to make a change," he told an audience of skeptics. "I know you all thought very highly of Susan."
Translation: There are lots of skills that make up being a solid waste director and Young wasn't the complete package, despite 19 years on the job after working her way up through the ranks in Tulsa, Okla.
That's about as much as Kotke is willing to say, and for that he's been excoriated by some in the online Minneapolis Issues Forum, where Young periodically responded to trash and recycling questions, for a lack of transparency and accountability.
Young said she also has been given no specific reason by Kotke for making this change. But she also said she's understood since Day One on the job that she serves at the pleasure of the public works director, and Kotke is her fourth.
In case you're wondering, Mayor R.T. Rybak told us he "strongly supports" Kotke's decision. Sandra Colvin Roy, who heads the City Council's public works committee, also said she trusts Kotke's judgment.
Kotke did say he plans no other major changes in public works with his post-Young trash director. He said there are no plans to privatize garbage service beyond the existing split of city households -- half of which are served by city crews and half by a consortium of private haulers.
To be sure, Young could be a tough taskmaster who set high standards for workers in making the city cleaner and subsidiary duties like dealing with graffiti. "She's proud of her workforce and proud of her work there," said Austin Gillespie, business manager for laborer Local 363, the workers who hang off the back of the trucks and muscle carts and bins through snow to their trucks. "She's really willing to listen to the other side. That's just hall-of-fame management."
"I've been around the city a long time," Gillespie said. "This one is just inexplicable to me."
For her part, Young said she's tried to improve customer service and to run a cost-effective operation. "A Clean City is Job One" has been her mantra.
"Minneapolis has given me an incredible ride," she said of her tenure. "We were able to prove that city-run services can be cost-effective."
The city has been under pressure from the county to increase its recycling rate, something that's not as easily done in a place with high renter populations and a high poverty rate. Some on her crews doubt that it's possible for a central city to match suburban recycling rates.
Nevertheless, the city is experimenting with changes in its current recycling regimen of having households divide recyclable items with multiple sorts. Pilot efforts will test the efficiency as well as the extra costs posed by allowing households to throw all recycling into a single bin, or making a single sort between containers and fibers. There's also a pilot to separately collect household organic garbage in nine neighborhoods, although earlier results found it to be a money-losing venture on a per-ton basis.
And city officials are moving to better police recycling by checking performance on the billing credit residents get for recycling. The council also recently mandated that commercial and larger apartment buildings provide opportunities for their tenants to recycle.
Young also presided over the first competitive process for awarding the private side of the city's garbage-hauling business since 1971. Although the consortium that long held the business emerged as the victor, it agreed to cut rates.
A horse person
The first clue that Young might be a different kind of solid waste director came when she began attending community meetings -- sometimes two in an evening -- with her then 1-year-old daughter Gwendolyn wrapped up in her mom's coat and sleeping through her presentations.
Young has lived a kind of bifurcated life. She's a horse person, and when she arrived in Minneapolis innocently inquired on the possibility of purchasing a brownfield site to pasture her animals. No way, she was told by co-workers, who recalled the long fight to chase the last donkey off Nicollet Island in the 1970s under the city's ban on keeping hoofed animals.
Living in Forest Lake, which allows her to raise her animals, she still enrolled Gwendolyn in Minneapolis schools, starting with Pillsbury school, and used city latchkey child care. "The neighborhoods have watched her grow up," she said. That arrangement allowed Young to blend work and family obligations. Gwendolyn is now 16 and heavily involved at North High School.
Although Young's ouster set up shock waves, she had a ready quip when asked if she has any hot job leads:
"Would you like fries with that?"
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438