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

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.”

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 01/09/2012 - 09:37 am.

    Ah, the party of fiscal responsibility. Legal bills aren’t cheap, so going out of your way to pay more of them is a strange strategy. Between having to defend this silliness, and presumably also having to defend themselves against Brodkorb’s firing (he’s also retained a lawyer, as I understand it), can we periodically get an estimate of how much money the Republicans are wasting on avoidable legal fees?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/09/2012 - 11:01 am.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the public could see the actual lists of so-called “boots on the ground” versus “science-based” projects so we could look at this story objectively?

  3. Submitted by Jim Roth on 01/09/2012 - 11:02 am.

    I agree with Dimitri. The attitude “it’s my way or the highway” is fine if you’re footing your own legal bills. It’s another story if the taxpayers are paying the legal fees for irresponsible actions. “Pragmatic and boots on the ground” is fine as a slogan but you still need to follow the law even if you’re legislators.

  4. Submitted by john milton on 01/09/2012 - 11:16 am.

    This mess is just one more powerful reason to “suspend” the GOP from being in charge of the Legislature. They hate government, and clearly aren’t very good at it.
    — John Milton, former State Senator, Afton MN

  5. Submitted by Tim Walker on 01/09/2012 - 11:16 am.

    The Internet comes to the rescue, Dennis!

    http://www.lccmr.leg.mn/lccmr.htm

    (Click on the “Project Information” tab at the top of the page.)

    Simple. Transparent. Government.

  6. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 01/09/2012 - 11:27 am.

    Two comments: One – the headline portion “growing pains” really could be translated into “they have NO idea of what they are doing.” Two – I’m not too sure how many of these right-wing ideologues care one whit about science. Based on some of their anti-climate change drivel and proclaimed expertise about things based on reading religious journals, I worry every day that the some of the legislators are just making this up. For instance, a few years ago the Republican legislators insisted that language in the education bill not use the word “evolution” for children under 8th grade. Teachers were to use the non-scientific words “changes in nature over time.” Why would ANYONE trust anything they claim to be science when they are the least “scientific” group of individuals in the state except for some Luddite religious nuts.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/09/2012 - 12:07 pm.

    I think we can assume that the “anti-science” cuts were to programs that foster the development of renewable energy sources instead of those favored by the oil, coal and nuclear industries.

    Members of the Republican legislature who are also members of ALEC have followed Grover Norquist’s desire to make state legislatures meaner places very well.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2012 - 12:15 pm.

    #2–you can look at the 2011 projects here:

    http://www.lccmr.leg.mn/all_projects/2011_projects/2011_appropriations.pdf

    No mystery, no secrecy there. Although it is true, there is a lot of that damnable science stuff.

    The mystery is the “boots on the ground” proposal. Or should it be “pants on the ground” (cough, cough, “stadium?”)

  9. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/09/2012 - 12:18 pm.

    I might buy the notion this screw up was inexperience and clumsiness if the Zellers was really new to this, but the GOP had the majority in the House quite a while before losing it in the 2006 elections. This mistake wasn’t inexperience, this was ideology and arrogance.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/09/2012 - 12:22 pm.

    “Partisan and anti science”

    And this bit of leftist boiler plate is indicative of the “non-partisan” environment this commission operates in, I think “a new direction” is long overdue.

    Dennis also brings a welcome observation: “boots on the ground” vs. “science based”?

    What does that mean, exactly?

  11. Submitted by jody rooney on 01/09/2012 - 01:31 pm.

    I am sure that the legislators are familiar with the LCCMR statute that states:

    116P.03 TRUST FUND NOT TO SUPPLANT EXISTING FUNDING; APPROPRIATIONS.

    (a) The trust fund may not be used as a substitute for traditional sources of funding environmental and natural resources activities, but the trust fund shall supplement the traditional sources, including those sources used to support the criteria in section 116P.08, subdivision 1. The trust fund must be used primarily to support activities whose benefits become available only over an extended period of time.

    Some one should probably audit the legislative expenditures and to be fair the Commission projects to see that they are in compliance with statute.

    This perhaps means that the Commission should not fund any new planning or development in existing state facilities. That would mean that “boots on the ground” money should be going to non state entities and to research organizations.

  12. Submitted by Rod Loper on 01/09/2012 - 01:34 pm.

    Generally, republicans want to cut public spending
    on agencies, mining special funds like the Legacy and Lottery money to supplant agency programs wherever possible. They
    especially hate research that might conflict with
    opinions held in the majority caucus.

  13. Submitted by Ron Brochu on 01/09/2012 - 01:49 pm.

    Did I get this right? Minnesota is so flush with gaming money that it needs a paid staff to find ways to spend it? This certainly doesn’t sound like a legitimate reason to legalize a vice that ruins lives. Let’s pay down the state’s debt instead of preying on the poor to fund more soft money projects that most likely create high-paying public sector positions.

  14. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/09/2012 - 04:27 pm.

    The GOP continues to spin. They are trying to make it seem like their problems are minor. Daily they prove they don’t have any idea which way is up as they continue to flail in the wind. It will be a long way out of the political wilderness for the republicans whose house is in total disarray. Culture change won’t come easy for the republicans because they have to admit they are broken before they can fix it. The tea party zealots, personal irresponsibility, a highly flawed philosophy, and denial have all taken the republicans right to their knees. They can’t even do honest press releases when their problems surface. They have not given anyone any reason to vote for any of their candidates or their philosophy. They will be a viable party again some day but it won’t be soon.

  15. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/09/2012 - 07:55 pm.

    If Dennis and Thomas are any example Republicans will never learn, they quibble about minutia, claim persecution and victimhood and never admit that there’s a problem. If there is no problem then there is no need to change.

  16. Submitted by Steven Liesch on 01/10/2012 - 03:22 am.

    “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.”

    I went to the site but I was unable to see the programs that the Legislature cut/redirected.As I understand the change in the state constitution this program (Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources) was for the “pie in the sky” type programs/research/science that could be difficult to fund using normal channels.

  17. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 01/10/2012 - 07:43 am.

    Yes, we need to know what these “science based” and “boots on the ground” projects are to make an informed decision on who’s right – the GOP or the DFL. Without this information, the conservatives will automatically side with Zellers and the liberals with Broberg.

  18. Submitted by J'M S on 01/10/2012 - 11:17 pm.

    THis story migh tbe easier to track andmake sens of if you noted which party affiliation each person you cite holds. One tries to keep up on all of this, but I depend on the media for some help with that.
    I found myself so lost in this mish-mash of names that I gave up on finishing this article. Please reconsider your new way of telling a story and give enough infor for readers to make sense of it.

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