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GOP’s firing/unfiring of Susan Thornton shows ‘growing pains’ of handling legislative power

The entire Thornton fiasco appears to involve efforts to turn a historically nonpartisan, independent body into one that would kowtow to the wishes of Republican leaders.

It was the independence shown by Susan Thornton and the majority of the 17 members of the LCCMR commission that irritated some of the legislators.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
It was the independence shown by Susan Thornton and the majority of the 17 members of the LCCMR commission that irritated some of the legislators.

Most were surprised when just before Christmas, Susan Thornton was told she was being fired as the director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

Most were even more surprised when late Friday, Republican legislative leaders said, “Oops,” and sent her a letter saying that the dismissal has been “suspended.”

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This is an Abbott and Costello moment brought to state politics: “What’s going on? Is anybody in charge? Who’s on first?”

This much is certain. Just a year ago, the new Republican majority promised the Legislature “will do things differently.”

That’s a political pledge that’s been fulfilled, though probably not in the way those new leaders once had in mind.

The firing — and current un-firing — of Thornton is the latest show of Republicans stumbling over themselves as they learn how to use — and not use — their newfound power.

Although details have yet to emerge, the entire Thornton fiasco appears to revolve around an attempt by a handful of mostly Republican House members to turn a historically nonpartisan, independent body into an operation that would kowtow to the wishes of such Republican legislators as Rep. Tom Hackbarth, a co-chairman of the LCCMR; Rep. Denny McNamara, who is chairman of the House environment finance committee and a member of the LCCMR board; and House Speaker Kurt Zellers.

Thornton, commission members fought back
The problem with the bullying effort is that Thornton and citizen members of the LCCMR fought back.

Thornton hired a lawyer.

The citizen members, many of whom were appointed by a Republican governor, turned to the media and their friends in environmental organizations to protest the firing.

A quiet little firing turned into a high-profile embarrassment.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem

Cooler heads, presumably led by new Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, looked at the unnecessary and potentially costly situation and called for the “suspension of the dismissal.”

It’s not certain how Thornton will respond to this strange “suspension” letter that was signed by Sen. Michelle Fischbach, who is president of the Senate, and Zellers. Her last day on the job was supposed to be Tuesday.

Thornton’s lawyer, Vince Louwagie, and Thornton are attempting to figure out what’s going on.

“I’m not sure what that means,” said Louwagie of the suspended dismissal. “They still provided nothing to justify their conduct these past few weeks. Ms. Thornton was treated horribly. While the letter vindicates our position that they never had authority in the first place, it doesn’t do anything to make up for what they have done.”

Some basics: Something called the Legislative Coordinating Commission exists in state government as a sort of umbrella group over all the various governmental commissions. Greg Hubinger is director of that body and, in alternating years, the House speaker and the Senate majority leader act as chairs of the LCC board.

Zellers was chair in 2011, and Amy Koch was to take over this year.

Koch, as it turned out, made other choices, blurring the handoff from Zellers to Senate leadership.

A ‘new direction’?
It was Hubinger, apparently at the urging of Zellers, who notified Thornton before Christmas that she was being dismissed because leaders wanted the LCCMR to go “a new direction.”

By all accounts, Thornton had served the LCCMR honorably for more than 20 years, first as a staff person, and, since 2008, as director.

At the time of her dismissal, both Zellers and Hubinger hid behind that old phrase, “We can’t discuss personnel decisions.”

Speaker Kurt Zellers

Speaker Kurt Zellers

But apparently it was the independence shown by Thornton and the majority of the 17 members of the LCCMR commission — a combination of legislators from both parties and citizens — that irritated some of the legislators.

The LCCMR makes recommendations to the Legislature on how trust funds from the State Lottery — about $50 million per biennium — should be spent. Up until this year, the Legislature had tended to make very few changes in those recommendations.

But the new majority was looking to spend the money on “boots on the ground” projects, rather than some of the science-based projects favored by the LCCMR majority. And even though most of the science-based projects favored by this year’s LCCMR were erased by the Legislature, legislators apparently were offended that Thornton and the LCCMR didn’t applaud legislative changes.

“Partisan and anti science” was how Jeff Broberg, a longtime citizen member of the LCCMR described the changes made by the legislative majority.

“Pragmatic and boots on the ground”‘ is the claim of such people as McNamara.

Many of the LCCMR members believe that Republican legislators already had a former Republican legislator ready to step in and replace Thornton.

But problems with the firing came up immediately. There is apparently some question in state law whether the LCC has the right to hire and fire the LCCMR head. When Thornton was hired in 2008, the LCC’s Hubinger clearly stated that the LCCMR had the power to hire — and therefore presumably fire — its director.

That this was going to turn costly presented a whole new set of problems for the Republican legislative leadership.

The LCC already had hired an attorney. Many, including Rep. Paul Thissen, the minority leader and a member of the LCC board, wrote a letter to Zellers and Senjem raising all sorts of questions about the lack of transparency in the firing of Thornton, the sudden postponement of a long-scheduled LCCMR meeting and the attorney.

This business surrounding potential costs of the firing of Thornton is no small thing.

The Legislature, in demanding cuts across state government last session, also cut its own budgets.

The Senate pushed its own cuts into the upcoming session. At this point, it’s clear the Senate already will have to make major cuts in its own staff to meet its own budget requirement. The last thing it needs to do is get stuck with legal bills over a firing that clearly was not well thought out.

Happy ending? Not likely
So will everybody live happily ever after?

Probably not.

At a roundtable discussion on fishing issues Saturday, Broberg was both upbeat but realistic about the suspended dismissal.

“While this is good news for an important, nonpartisan source of dedicated environment and resource funding,” Broberg said, “we have not yet seen a change in the tone, attitude or legislative leadership that has caused the current hostile work environment.”

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