New concerns over Minneapolis mayor's city coordinator choice ahead of vote

As the Minneapolis City Council prepares to vote Thursday on Mayor Jacob Frey’s nomination to have Heather Johnston for city coordinator on Thursday, the city employees who have opposed the move are once again speaking out, raising new concerns over how the process has been handled and the potential impact her confirmation could have on staff morale. 

Johnston, a deeply experienced administrator who previously worked as the city’s director of management and budget from 2004 to 2011, has been serving as interim city coordinator since August. In June, Frey nominated her to take the coordinator position "permanently" - with the caveat that she would become the city’s Chief Administrative Officer under the city’s new governing structure. 

In response, more than 70 current and former city workers signed a letter saying her leadership style had fostered a toxic workplace environment and that BIPOC staffers often felt that Johnston didn’t take their concerns around workplace culture and COVID-19 protocols seriously while disregarding their input on policy. 

The letter set the stage for a dramatic day of often emotional public testimony both for and against Jonson when the council’s committee of the whole first considered her nomination on May 24.

Employee retention 

One of the city employees who testified against Johnston’s appointment, Toni Hauser, a supervisor in Emergency Preparedness and Response, told FOX 9 that if the council confirms Johnston, she fears many of her colleagues will quit and morale will plummet. 

"What I think is going to happen is all of the amazing staff that we have in the city coordinator's office that has been impacted by this are going to leave, and the city can't afford that," she said. "But also to it to come forward in such a public manner and talk about such personal experiences like this and then have city leadership basically say, ‘Your experiences don't matter, we're going to do this anyway’ is abusive."

Hauser said that while she doesn’t work with Johnston directly, an exodus of employees would make her work at emergency preparedness more difficult, as she depends on relations across departments. 

City Council member Andrew Johnson asked Johnston about employee retention during the May 24 meeting. "For those of us who are considering your appointment, it feels like it is your or some of our employees in this because we have heard about someone of our employees who have left," he said. 

Johnston acknowledged there was an issue, saying, "If the culture does not improve, we will continue to lose Black and brown employees," she said. 

She reiterated a promise not to retaliate against employees and added, "I appreciate the fact that we are hearing these concerns, that we heard these concerns from the time I started. It’s a challenging issue, and I do want to work on it and make it better. We’re starting a process, and it will be a long process. But the way we move forward is we bring people forward and have conversations, and then we develop a plan to make it better."

However, Johnston’s commitment to "have conversations" and "develop a plan" did not satisfy the staffers in the office who signed the letter. They say they first approached her about their concerns shortly after she was nominated for the interim position in July of 2021, but that she told staff she didn’t want to start a long process to address workplace culture as she didn’t plan to stay in the role. 

"And so, at some point that shifted, but she still failed to engage with this. So it just feels like it was disingenuous from the beginning," Gina Obiri, a program manager in city’s Office of Performance & Innovation, told FOX 9 in an interview. 

City staff in the city coordinator’s office who testified described the experience in stark, personal terms. Kelly Muellman, a sustainability program coordinator, noted that most those in spoke in favor of Johnston tended to be either her peers or established figures like former mayor R.T. Rybak. "It felt very defeating… What chance do we have to get our message to be heard? Who is going to really pay attention to us, their frontline staff?"

LaTonia Green, the Finance Director at the City of Brooklyn Park, worked under Johnston for eight years in the city’s budget office, and was the one former staffer who testified in favor of her nomination. She described Johnston as a mentor who had provided constructive criticism when she needed it and worked to open up opportunities for her. "Even though she had those high expectations, she was never far from rolling up her sleeves and being willing to help us through whatever difficult task that we had before us," she said. 

An experienced administrator 

Those who spoke in favor of Johnston at the meeting tended to highlight her experience as an administrator and her skill with managing budgets. 

These included Steve Cramer, CEO of the downtown council, who said she had already "proven herself," Chanhassen Mayor Elise Ryan, who said Johnston "leans in" to change and Elizabeth Glidden of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, who praised Johnston for her humility. "She will make mistakes, but she will own them," she said. 

Rybak focused on her ability to manage budgets. "This city is in a dramatically 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 Heather Johnston," he told the council. 

Maggie Rittenhouse, a director at the voting rights organization Common Power, saw it differently. "Heather Johnston may be a very talented manager in some aspects, but she’s not right for this position today," she said during her testimony. 

Addressing staff concerns 

The city staff FOX 9 spoke to said that since they released their letter, the city has said they will hire a consultant to review their concerns over the office culture and conduct a workplace assessment to address staff concerns around COVID-19. 

"And so what we have seen here is that things can move quickly if people have the incentive to do so… none of these things have happened while we’ve been bringing stuff up for months because it was not a priority," Obiri said. 

Obi pointed to a section of the city’s declaration of racism as a public health emergency, passed by the council in July of 2020, that said the city would "Build a workplace culture that promotes racialized repair" and "shift the burden" of addressing racism off BIPOC staff. 

"And it's like you have BIPOC city staff telling you that it's not a good environment, and we put together a list of solutions to try to make this better and tell you we want to work alongside you to improve it," Obiri said, addressing the city. "And even though you can memorialize this in a resolution, the actual work, you're not willing to stand behind it. And that is s often what Black folks are asked to accept — just symbolic things," she said.