St. Paul Human Rights director search took surprise twist
Here’s my latest story in the Spokesman.
St. Paul Human Rights director search took surprise twist
by Anna Pratt
Originally posted 4/22/2009
None of the finalists presented to the community made the final cut
Recently, the City of St. Paul hired attorney Luz Maria Frias to take the helm of its newly merged Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), a move that has garnered plenty of support but has also raised questions about the fairness of the selection process.
HREEO is supposed to increase opportunities for minorities, women, and people with disabilities in St. Paul. Its main goal is to “improve internal communication and coordination of contract related activities and to create a single point of accountability,” according to the original job listing.
Recently, Frias served as the City’s external affairs director, helping to secure over $27 million in supplemental funding for City initiatives, according to City information. Before coming to the City, she was a hearing examiner for the Shakopee Mdewkanton Sioux Community, chief legal officer for Centro Legal, and family court magistrate for the Second and Fourth Judicial Districts.
Frias is well respected for her advocacy efforts over the past 20 years, especially among Latinos, according to Francisco Gonzalez, an attorney and civil rights activist. “Anyone who has worked with the Latino community over the last 10 years knows her,” he said.
But critics question whether she’ll be beholden to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, though her proponents deny that. Frias twice turned down an interview with MSR, saying via email that she wants to hold off until she is more settled in her job.
Additionally, some people question whether the City adhered to the law when it hired Frias after two top candidates turned down job offers and the third finalist, Edward McDonald, was passed over. At that point, the mayor asked the selection committee for more names. It’s worth pointing out here that only half of the committee members made it to a meeting in which several more finalists were produced.
It’s unclear at this point why the mayor didn’t offer the job to McDonald, a former high-ranking City official who brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the City after his 2003 firing, which ended with a settlement. Nobody in the mayor’s office could be reached by press time, while McDonald declined to comment.
Clifton Boyd, an owner of B and L Supply who has been active on minority inclusion efforts, raised some doubts about the process. “If Ed McDonald wasn’t going to be taken seriously, then why was he in the top three?” Further, “It looks like there was no intention of considering him. He shouldn’t have been in the top three if that is the case. Since the person chosen was someone from [the mayor’s] staff, it looks as if he hand-picked her.”
City Council Member Melvin Carter III, who led the selection committee, said he couldn’t speak to why McDonald didn’t get the job, but he argued that the process didn’t sidestep any of the protocols that were outlined in the beginning. “One of the finalists would be appointed from the pool of finalists, and that is the case,” he explained. “Two of the three finalists ended up withdrawing. Because our charge was to find three to five finalists, we continued to identify finalists. Luz was one of those finalists who was forwarded to the mayor,” Carter said.
Additionally, he said Frias is highly qualified: “She’s an independent thinker and very capable of promoting justice regardless of the political framework. She’s impeccably qualified, which I think people will see more over time.”
More on the selection process
An intra-city webpage has a barebones description of the process for selecting a director, who serves a three-year term, stating that candidates “will be vetted through a community selection process similar to that for the City’s police and fire chiefs.”
Chapter 12 of the City code, which deals with the selection process for police and fire chiefs, spells out what happens after the mayor receives recommendations from a selection committee. It states that, “the mayor shall appoint one of said certified names, subject to the approval of city council. If the council does not approve the appointment, the mayor shall in turn appoint each of the remaining candidates, each subject to council approval. If the council approves none of the candidates, the candidate who has received the highest grading by the committee shall be appointed without further action by the mayor or council.’
However, according to Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny, the City used Chapter 11 for the human rights director selection process, which established HREEO, but doesn’t go into detail about that. Those sorts of things are “up to the committee,” which determines the level of scrutiny that will be applied to the candidates, she said.
Likewise, expectations for the candidates weren’t laid out up front but were explained as the process progressed, she said. If finalists are rejected, the committee can send more names, or the process may even start over from scratch, she said. “[The committee] chose to send [the mayor] three additional names,” she said via email.
City Council President Kathy Lantry said that the process was fair. “The committee has no authority. What would the mayor do? If he wasn’t going to be able to appoint his own director, I don’t know why he’d be given that authority.”
Shrinking budget had chilling effect
A shrinking HREEO budget complicated matters. One of the first round of finalists who rejected a job offer, Lynn Littlejohn, did not return MSR’s phone calls. Hope Jensen, another finalist, released to the MSR a Dec. 29, 2008, letter to the City wherein she states, “The verbal job offer I received did not match the position I applied for and discussed with you, I need clarity about how the loss of the three promised deputy positions will affect the expectations for this position. Without at least some of the tools [staff] the Hall Audit identified as necessary for success, true change and full compliance with Federal, State and local law may not be possible.”
Jensen said her concerns were flippantly dismissed: “Suddenly the need to complete the hire within 2.5 days was all-important, due to pending vacation plans.” Describing the position as highly political, she added, “My serious concern is that the new department will be created in name only.”
Asked repeatedly about her approach to the job, “Each time my answer was that the first and most important task would be to hire an effective management team,” Jensen said. “In fact, during my interview with you [the mayor], you asked about the characteristics I would look for when hiring in order to complement my leadership style.”
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP, described the process as fair and transparent, incorporating community feedback. “It doesn’t guarantee any result, but I felt good about the process,” he said. Additionally, “People need to understand that we did what we did based on concerns of contractors of color. People weren’t happy with the way things were going.”
Vic Rosenthal, who represents Jewish Community Action and who served on the selection committee, said, “I think we wound up with a strong candidate. The consensus was she’ll be good at the job,” he said, adding that “It’ll be a challenge to prove to the community” that her previous employment in the mayor’s office won’t detract from that.
Carol Rydell, a principal at Kaposia, which works to find job opportunities for people with disabilities, agreed that the selection process went well. Rydell, who also served on the committee, said that although it’s unfortunate that the budget situation influenced things, she’s pleased with the outcome.
“I think Luz Frias is a good candidate,” Rydell said. Even though others were stronger, “She was a top candidate.” Further, Rydell is relieved that “We finally have someone heading up this new department. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Additionally, James Thomas, the pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church, said, “I think the City made an effort to include everyone. The process worked the way it was projected. It followed the steps that were outlined. I’m not sure anyone expected it to turn out the way it did.”
But some observers are still confused about what happened. Donjia Johnson, a community member who had attended some of the public meetings, said that one of the original three finalists was presented as a sure thing. In this case, “It seems like politics as usual. Introducing people to the community, the assumption is that one of those three will be the director,” she said.
Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.