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Citing ‘Toxic’ and ‘Racist’ Workplace, Workers Want Frey’s City Coordinator Pick Gone

Heather Johnston should not "be retained in any leadership role with the City of Minneapolis," according to her subordinates.

Jimmy Emerson via Flickr

When Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced his nomination of Heather Johnston to the permanent role of city coordinator, the Mayor’s Office rolled out the standard PR fanfare.

“When you need something done in City Hall, you call Heather,” Frey said of Johnston, who’s currently the interim city coordinator, in a May 9 press release. “She has built strong relationships across departments, [and] cares deeply about our workforce.”

That last part felt like a knife twist to many of the roughly 40 members of the City Coordinator’s Office workforce.

“It’s tough at times to come to work everyday,” says one of two workers who spoke with Racket on Tuesday. “Ultimately, if you want staff to come back to work, make the environment, especially for Black staff, safe, positive, welcoming, and don’t undermine their ability to do their job.”

Late last month, 17 current and former COO workers emailed Johnston a long list of grievances, including charges that “a toxic, anti-Black work culture” had been upheld by past and current city coordinators. Additional employees helped craft the letter, a worker tells Racket, but later requested their names be removed over fear of reprisal. Workers Jonathan Williams-Kinsel and Track Trachtenberg offered first-hand accounts of feeling “disrespected and undermined,” as did an anonymous worker. The letter’s signatories demanded a “clear” set of return-to-work policies, creation of an “anti-racist agenda to guide the departments operations,” and an overhaul of hiring policies to achieve “a nondiscriminatory and more inclusive workplace.” (You can read the entire letter here.)

Johnston was asked to help create a written plan to address those demands by May 6. On deadline day, she acknowledged the letter and said she’d like to work together on the issues raised, the signatories say. That same day, however, an email from the city’s HR department struck a different chord. “The City has decided to enlist a neutral, outside party to investigate the concerns raised in the letter,” an HR exec reportedly wrote.

“This isn’t just about Heather. Heather’s imminent appointment creates a sense of urgency, but there’s been a history of very toxic, racist, and harmful behaviors in this office,” one of the signatories tells Racket. “We’ve heard nothing from her on that, despite continuing to bring up those issues up to her. There were never meaningful actions from Heather. We’ve consistently felt like we’re screaming into a void.”

Frustrated by the “insufficient response,” the signatories passed their letter up the chain on May 9 to Mayor Frey, Council President Andrea Jenkins, and every other councilmember. (Johnston’s four-year appointment is dependent the council’s approval; her nomination will be formally submitted Thursday.)

“I don’t think any of us necessarily wanted to go with this approach,” says another signatory, adding that the city coordinator role is one of the highest unelected positions in local government. “But we felt like we were backed against a corner, and then time became of the essence. It’s about our care for the city, and our belief in what we do. We wouldn’t be going this far if we weren’t committed.”

The signatories made their wishes abundantly clear to Frey, Jenkins, and the council: “CCO staff do not believe that Interim City Coordinator Johnston should be retained in any leadership role with the City of Minneapolis, including a permanent appointment as City Coordinator.”

Frey announced his nomination of Johnston that same day.

“The City takes the complaints in the letter very seriously,” City Attorney Jim Rowader told Racket in a statement Wednesday. “Our team is in the process of securing an outside expert to look into the work conditions, like return to work expectations, and issues raised regarding former and current leadership. Because this is an active and open matter involving private data, there’s nothing more we can say publicly at this time.”

Over the past two years, nearly every worker at Minneapolis’s Division of Race & Equity quit. Their complaints sound almost identical those being voiced by COO workers.

“The city runs good people off,” a former Race & Equity worker told Racket in March. “It has nothing to do with the people who are trying to make a change.”

Their COO colleagues can relate.

“You’re going to see more talented staff leave the city, you’re going to see more Black and Brown staff leave the city, because it’s a hostile place to work. You already have: The COO has a wild amount of turnover… how could people stay?”