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Firing of resources commission director may produce another black eye for GOP

The attempted firing of the director of an organization that most Minnesotans probably have not heard of may create another black eye for Republicans.

Susan Thornton, director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) was fired Monday.

Most believe that the firing — or attempted firing — came at the hands of House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who is chairman of the Legislative Coordinating Commission, the umbrella organization for a wide range of state commissions.

But it’s not at all clear whether either Zellers or the LCC has the right to fire Thornton. No one, by the way, is suggesting that Zellers/LCC is dismissing her based on poor performance. Rather, it was suggested to her that the LCCMR is going in “a new direction.”

Dismissal shocks commission members
That new-direction business comes as a profound shock to the 17-member commission. At the commission meetings, there never has been any discussion of a “new direction.”

Get past the tangled web of government acronyms and this is a story covering everything from global warming to hyper-partisanship to what may be over-reach by Zellers and the LCC in believing they had the power to fire Thornton.

Start with this: The LCCMR, which was formed in 1963, is a nonpartisan outfit that makes recommendations on how money from the Lottery trust fund should be used in bettering the Minnesota environment. That amounts to about $25 million a year.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers
House Speaker Kurt Zellers

A 17-member commission — five state senators, five state reps and seven citizens appointed by a combo package of the Senate, House and governor — recommends, by consensus, to the Legislature how the money should be spent. Typically the funds have been used to do everything from purchasing land, to mapping, to paying for environmental education programs, to funding institutions studying the effects of global warming.

Legislatures of the past have “tweaked” funding.

But when Republicans took control of the Legislature, the tweaks turned into major changes. Funding for projects that might involve such issues as global warming was slashed, according to some commission members. Those funds then were used to backfill budget areas that were being cut by the Legislature.

Thornton, according to commission member Jeffrey Broberg, was warned by Republican legislators that “she wasn’t working closely enough with the caucus.”

Broberg said that Thornton responded by saying that the commission is nonpartisan and that it was her job to work on behalf of Minnesotans.

“I think they [Republican legislators] want to take a partisan, anti-science approach,” said Broberg, a longtime citizen member of the commission. “Anything that has to do with environmental education or global warming is being slashed.”

Broberg would seem to have credibility in all of this because he’s been appointed by both a Republican (Steve Sviggum) and a DFL (Margaret Anderson Kelliher) House speaker.

Officials not talking
Zellers is not commenting on what has been unfolding or why he thinks he or LCC Director Greg Hubinger has the power to fire Thornton.

“We do not comment on personnel matters,” a House spokesman, Kevin Watterson, said.

He did elaborate a bit in talking to the Star Tribune, telling the paper that “authority on such a decision is ‘undetermined.’ The Republican leadership believes that ‘in a roundabout way’ it has such authority over all unclassified legislative employees, he said.”

Hubinger, too, said he could not comment on personnel matters.

Thornton referred calls to attorney Vince Louwagie, whom she hired recently when it became clear she was on thin ice with Republican leadership.

Louwagie, like members of the LCCMR, questions whether the Zellers-led LCC has the right to fire Thornton.

Under his reading of the organization’s bylaws and statute, the LCCMR has the power to hire — and therefore fire — its director.

“We don’t think anybody but the commission [LCCMR] itself has the authority to hire or fire her,” Louwagie said.

Sen. Linda Higgins
Sen. Linda Higgins

Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the commission, agrees with that assessment. She noted that the LCCMR made the decision to hire Thornton, who had been on the commission’s staff, as the director in 2008.

Higgins is convinced that partisan politics is behind all of this.

“At the very beginning of the session, it was being made pretty clear that the Legislature wouldn’t pass the recommendations if they contained funding for things like climate change,” Higgins said. “I felt really sorry for the citizen members. They’d worked their tails off to come up with consensus and balance.”

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, says that not “all” funding for programs dealing with climate issues were cut by legislators.

“Some programs didn’t end up being funded,” McNamara said. “There was an effort [by the Legislature] to put more of the money on the ground.”

But Broberg, the citizen member, says the actions taken by the Legislature and the ham-handed effort to fire Thornton without so much as consulting the commission undermines the very purpose of the LCCRM. “We were formed to be nonpartisan,” he said.

Legislators differ on motive, authority questions
McNamara, who became chairman of the House environmental committee when Republicans took control of the House, does seem to have a different view of the function and autonomy of the LCCRM. Although he has not studied the issue, he believes that there was no reason that the LCCRM should have been consulted when the decision was made to fire her.

“I believe it’s the LCC that has ultimate say,” said McNamara, adding that at this point that means Zellers is in charge.

The job of being chairman alternates each year between the House speaker and the Senate majority leader, a job that is currently vacant.

McNamara dodged questions about whether he knew in advance that Thornton was to be fired. He said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on what he thought of Thornton’s work.

“It’s an advisory committee,” McNamara said, adding that he had told other members of the commission that as chairman of the House environmental committee, he’d be “evaluating the recommendations” made by the commission.

“This is coming out of the blue,” said Broberg. “She has the support of the commission. We’ve worked hard to stay nonpartisan; there’s a commitment to deal with issues in a scientific way.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/21/2011 - 10:19 am.

    When you don’t think government has a legitimate place in our society, then there is no reason to care about competence. Conservatives don’t want government to work, so they make sure it doesn’t.

  2. Submitted by Erik Granse on 12/21/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Well, after all, what good is an advisory body if it doesn’t advise you to do what you’ve already made up your mind to do?

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/21/2011 - 12:17 pm.

    An advisory committee is just that. They obviously had their recommendations to fund left-wing causes rubber-stamped in the past and now are put out because the republicans stopped that nonsense.

    Life in the big city.

  4. Submitted by Patrick Steele on 12/21/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    I don’t know if this behavior is more sad or disturbing, but it’s certainly no longer surprising.

  5. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 12/21/2011 - 12:41 pm.

    Not that they deserve to be linked, but first Amy Koch, then Susan Thornton. What do Republican men have against competant women in leadership positions?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/21/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    “Anything that has to do with environmental education or global warming is being slashed.”

    By linking environmental education (a good thing) with global warming (a scam) Broberg has given me all the information necessary to conclude that a new direction is much needed.

    So, to who ever initiated the firing, I pass along a hearty “Bravo Zulu”.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/21/2011 - 01:50 pm.

    “We’ve worked hard to stay nonpartisan; there’s a commitment to deal with issues in a scientific way.”

    No wonder she had to be fired. No Republican can tolerate those things. Don’t they know science is supposed to be fact-checked for compliance with conservative dogma?

  8. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 12/21/2011 - 03:26 pm.

    Anyone who has worked with Susan Thornton surely knows that she is a hard working, thoughtful person who understands the mission and values of her Agency. Accusing her of “advancing left wing causes” is just nonsense. Global warming and climate change are not partisan issues. One can speculate about the causes and disagree on the policy solutions but calling it a “scam” is just more nonsense.

  9. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/21/2011 - 03:48 pm.

    Just when I think I have seen the ultimate in dumb something like this comes along.

    From what I have observed the staff is professional and nonpartisan. Director Thornton is generally the epitome of tact and diplomacy. Frankly if I had their job I would be a bit surly.

    From what I have seen some of the most crack pot criteria and causes come from some of the legislative members, who are on a mission to feel good and making emotional not rational decisions. The global warming issue not really being a state issue is an excellent example.

    Mr. Swift and Mr. Tester clearly don’t understand the process because the Director doesn’t set the direction the commission members do. It seems to me if the legislature wants different outcomes from LCCMR then it has a process in place to do that through it’s appointments to the committee.

    This looks like a power play by someone who doesn’t know Minnesota Law, or a power play for the LCCMR funds which are generated independently of legislative action. At any rate it sounds like current legislative action as reported here may want to be reviewed in light of MN. Statute 116P.03.

    Perhaps the Director pointed that out.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2011 - 05:54 pm.

    Mr. Tester is somewhat correct. Having served on several advisory commissions, I can vouch personally for the fact that commission recommendations, no matter how sensible, cost-saving, or scientifically accurate, no matter how broad-based and ecumenical the commission, mean little or nothing if they don’t fit the views of the people who have the legal authority to make and enforce the rules. It’s “life in the big city” when policy recommendations run up against contrary ideology. Republicans are now in control of the legislature, and they seem less interested in governing than in ruling, which is something else altogether.

    Mr. Swift has once again demonstrated that his understanding of science leaves quite a bit to be desired. Just about all the reputable climate scientists think global warming is *not* a “scam,” but more to the point, it’s quite dishonest to suggest that environmental education should not include a treatment of global warming. Even if Mr. Swift were correct about global warming – and he is not – it ought to be included in any environmental education simply because most environmental scientists happen to think it’s quite genuine. ‘Twould appear that, much as it would have happened were we still living in the Middle Ages, ideology has trumped science in the Swift household.

    His “Bravo Zulu” is misplaced.

  11. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/21/2011 - 06:14 pm.

    #9 – Unfortunately, you’re probably right about that last. Nothing infuriates ideologues like inconvenient truths. (Pun intended)

  12. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/21/2011 - 08:16 pm.

    It is always amusing to see people like Mr. Swift repeat the falsehood that global warming is a scam. It seems to be so engrained in the right wing mentality that not even facts are offered to back up such an outrageous claim.

    Meanwhile the evidence continues to accumulate that global warming is a severe problem about which we had better do something.

    A particularly amusing recent development is the affirmation by a Berkeley prof that the phenomenon of global warming is real and not a scam. The fact that this research was funded by Kochs makes it especially ironic.

    For those who are interested in facts rather than baseless assertions, please see:

    “Koch-backed study confirms warming trends, and more.”

    link: http://bit.ly/sTCidl

  13. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/21/2011 - 09:46 pm.

    From my experience in having worked on an LCCMR application (which was not approved), it is completely ridiculous to describe projects which are funded as “left wing causes”. Maybe the process has changed in the last ten years but if Thornton is the person who was in charge for the past 17, I doubt it. Projects are funded on a scoring basis by the members of the Commission. I assume most of the Senators and Reps. appointed are Republican. If so, then projects which they favor can get more votes and points.
    Firing the administrator who sees that the process works to go in a new direction looks like the usual Republican tactic: when you can’t win fairly by the rules, work the refs until they agree with you, get rid of them if they don’t, or change the rules or all three. Zellers must want someone he knows will approve more creationist education, to take kids minds off larnin’ science and stuff.

  14. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/22/2011 - 06:51 am.

    It’s hard to believe that the Republicans could trash the strong position they held after the last election. But they are doing it. A mix of hypocrisy and an ignorant assault on science is contributing to a now likely reversal in November 2012.

  15. Submitted by Roger Iverson on 12/23/2011 - 05:50 am.

    Republican partisans who want to control a non-partisan public commission and then hide behind “no comment on personnel decisions” are, in my opinion, cowardly and power hungry. Kurt Zellers, needs to back off and the let the commission do its work without fear of partisan meddling. We do not need a “new direction” away from scientific studies that impact environment education and climate studies. Thoughtful, respectful and effective legislative leaders do not do arrogant acts to intimidate others.

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