This article was published in The Timberjay on Wednesday and is republished with permission. The Timberjay newspapers (Ely, Tower-Soudan and Cook-Orr), serve northern St. Louis County.
For more than 20 years, Sandy Layman, of Grand Rapids, has worked to convince lawmakers in St. Paul that the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is more than a revolving door of political patronage for Iron Range DFLers.
Layman, now a Republican House member, first served on the IRRR board in the 1990s and later became commissioner of the agency under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“One of my goals has always been to depoliticize the agency,” said Layman during a recent interview with the Timberjay. “It has a highly partisan reputation in St. Paul.”
Which is why Layman says she is so frustrated with the agency’s recent hiring of Joe Radinovich, the unsuccessful 2018 DFL candidate for the U.S. House in Minnesota’s Eighth District. Radinovich was hired in early March to a highly-paid, permanent position that IRRR officials appear to have created specifically for him.
While political appointments are not unusual in state government, and are typically temporary, the kind of job created for Radinovich, known as a “permanent classified” position, is supposed to be nonpolitical and is subject to state hiring guidelines designed to ensure a fair and competitive process in which state workers are hired on merit rather than politics.
Yet an investigation by the Timberjay found substantial evidence that the IRRR’s process, in this instance, fell short of that goal, and that top agency officials sought from the beginning to offer Radinovich a plum new position, with a salary of $100,000 per year in addition to the state’s handsome benefits package. In so doing, the agency sought exemption to sharply limit the posting of the position and appeared to pass over a female candidate for the position with far more relevant experience and education than Radinovich brings to the job.
Radinovich’s hiring comes on the heels of the appointment of Jason Metsa as the agency’s deputy commissioner, which is considered a political appointment and was not subject to the typical state hiring process. Metsa is an Iron Range DFLer who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s nomination for the Eighth District seat.
For Layman, it doesn’t pass the smell test.
“This just gives the agency a big black eye,” she said.
State Sen. Justin Eichorn, GOP-Grand Rapids, said he shares Layman’s concern. “I don’t know how they didn’t see how bad this would look.”
Republicans aren’t the only ones with concerns. In response to questions for this story, Teddy Tschann, press secretary for DFL Gov. Tim Walz, announced a change in administration policy to address issues with the hiring process raised in the Timberjay’s investigation.
“In an effort to further promote the Governor’s commitment to seeking a world-class workforce, we will be instituting an administration-wide policy requiring, rather than recommending, that all classified managerial positions of this kind be posted for at least 21 days,” stated Tschann. “Any exceptions will require direct approval by the Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner (MMB) or his designee.”
Bringing Radinovich on board
IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips acknowledges that he sought early on to hire Radinovich at his agency and initially considered hiring the Crosby native as deputy commissioner. “It really was down to Jason or Joe to be deputy,” he said. When the job went to Metsa, Phillips began exploring options to offer Radinovich a different position.
Back in 2015, after Radinovich lost his seat in the state House, Phillips had brought Radinovich on as a political appointee, with a title of “assistant commissioner.” In that position, Radinovich worked in strategic planning, headed up an inter-agency working group and served as the IRRR’s legislative liaison. But he left that job in less than a year and later told the Brainerd Dispatch he was “bored” in the position.
Radinovich then spent the next two years working on political campaigns, first as campaign manager for Congressman Rick Nolan. He later headed up the campaign and eventual transition team for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a position he left to mount his own bid for the Eighth District congressional seat in 2018.
Phillips said he made no secret of his desire to create a position at the agency for Radinovich.
“I supervised him and he did a terrific job in my estimation,” said Phillips. “I was talking openly about bringing him back on.”
After discussing the issue with some in the agency, Phillips said a board member suggested the agency could fill a vacancy left by the retirement of Steve Peterson, who had served in a business development director role for the agency until last year.
But that position was a regular state job, which ostensibly required a fair and open hiring process.
Fair hiring process?
While Phillips insists that the process was fair and competitive, emails and other documents obtained by the Timberjay through a public records request suggest otherwise. Not only did IRRR officials take steps to limit the posting of the position to just one day, an organizational chart created by IRRR staff— produced nearly a week before the job was posted— showed Radinovich’s name already listed in the position.
The agency also obtained Radinovich’s résumé in advance of the job posting, suggesting that he was aware of the hiring process in advance.
State hiring is overseen by the Minnesota Management and Budget, or MMB, and that agency has taken steps in recent years to ensure that state employment is truly open to all qualified individuals.
An MMB policy, adopted in December 2015, encourages state agencies to advertise open positions for a minimum of 21 days and requires they be advertised for at least seven calendar days.
The Dayton administration adopted the policy in an effort to “promote transparency, open communication, and fairness in the hiring process,” according to the text of the policy, which is available online. “It supports our state affirmative action goals, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and efforts to ensure our workforce represents Minnesota workforce demographics.”
Gov. Tim Walz has signaled that his own administration is fully on board with those goals.
Indeed, the new governor’s first official act was signing an executive order creating the One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, which will focus on continuing the push for diversity and fairness in state hiring.
Layman said the Radinovich hiring “just flies in the face of the Walz administration’s stated goals on this.”
Rather than post for the minimum of seven days, officials with the IRRR applied for and received an exemption allowing them to post the job for just 24 hours, citing a desire by the governor’s office to have the position filled quickly.
In outlining the agency’s rationale for the exemption, IRRR Human Resources Director Barbara Sanders wrote, “If the posting of this vacancy, for not more than 24 hours, is not approved, IRRR will not be able to fully comply with the direction and expectation of the Governor’s office.”
Sanders also stated that there “is an urgent need” to fill the position by March 4, 2019.
Phillips offered another motivation. He noted part of the position involved working with the Legislature and said he wanted someone on board quickly because he had vacation time planned in late March while the Legislature was in session.
In the end, Radinovich was notified of his hiring on March 8 and assumed the position effective on Monday, March 11.
Walz’s press secretary Tschann dismissed any suggestion that the hiring process was abbreviated at the urging of the administration.
“The Governor’s office was not involved in any decision making related to the expedited hiring process and did not direct the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation or Minnesota Management and Budget to vary from ordinary hiring procedures,” stated Tschann. “The Governor is committed to hiring the most qualified candidates and building an administration that reflects the diversity of Minnesota.”
Tschann continued, “Over two thirds, 67-percent, of the Governor’s staff is female and nearly half, 47-percent, of the Governor’s appointees to boards and commissions are people of color or indigenous Minnesotans.”
The state hiring policy does allow for such exemptions, yet they are rare.
According to MMB, the agency has received just 44 such requests since December 2015, or just over 12 per year in a state workforce totaling in the tens of thousands.
During that time, the agency granted just 33 of the requests, or about ten per year.
The job was posted at midnight on February 20, and was pulled from the state website the same day at 11:59 p.m., according to MMB. Officials with MMB conducted the initial screening of the 12 applications they did receive, determining that four people met the job qualifications. Of those four, two later declined an interview.
Only Radinovich and longtime Iron Range resident Lorrie Janatopoulus actually interviewed for the position.
For Janatopolous, the posting sparked renewed interest in working for an agency with which she was already familiar. She had maintained an office at the IRRR facility in Eveleth in 2016 and 2017 after she was selected for a prestigious Bush Foundation Fellowship in public leadership. During that time, she assisted the IRRR in strategic planning and also worked at Hibbing Community College in a program to help women achieve their educational and career goals.
Back in December, Janatopoulus was a semi-finalist for the IRRR Commissioner job, for which she interviewed, before the Governor opted to keep Phillips in the position.
Janatopoulus holds a master’s degree in public affairs from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and more recently completed a series of leadership training courses at Harvard as part of her Bush fellowship.
She also brings more than two decades of work experience in the nonprofit sector, having started in the mid-1990s as housing director at the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency in Virginia and later advancing to the role of the agency’s overall planning director, a job she held for 16 years.
During that time, she was responsible for strategic planning, community assessments, grant writing, fund development, communications and development of community partnerships. She also was closely involved in agency hiring decisions, performance evaluations, as well as supervision and coaching of employees.
Janatopoulus has also been a longtime community activist in the region, serving on numerous nonprofit boards, including as chair.
Janatopoulus’s résumé appears to be a strong fit with the high-level position outlined in the job posting— 70 percent of which involved supervision of four IRRR department heads, as well as strategic planning and inter-agency collaboration. Thirty-percent of the job involved working with the Legislature and the Governor’s office.
“When I looked at the job description, I was pretty excited,” said Janatopoulus, when contacted by the Timberjay. “During my time at AEOA, I worked on a number of legislative initiatives and I had good connections at the Legislature as well. I actually saw it as a really good fit for my education and experience.”
Radinovich’s résumé is light by comparison. He attended classes over three years at Macalester College in St. Paul, but never completed a degree. He served two years in the Minnesota House, representing parts of east-central Minnesota. When he lost his re-election bid, he spent just under a year at the IRRR before stepping back into electoral politics. He most recently served as chief-of-staff to Mayor Frey, a position Radinovich held for four months before coming to the IRRR.
The Timberjay reached out to Radinovich for comment and with questions for this story, but Radinovich referred comment to the IRRR Commissioner and did not respond to questions.
When asked about the seeming mismatch in both education and job experience, Phillips defended his agency’s process during an interview with the Timberjay. “We ran a fair, competitive process,” he said, stating that the three people on the hiring committee — Jason Metsa, Chief Operating Officer Marianne Bouska, and Phillips — each scored Radinovich the highest.
At the same time, Phillips acknowledged that it was his intent to bring Radinovich back to the agency and he believes the hiring became controversial when he decided to make it a permanent classified position, which required a competitive process. “I think that’s where this thing got off the tracks a little,” he said.
Radinovich’s hiring was unusual, as well, because of Phillip’s role in the decision. He said it was the first employee interview he had sat in on as commissioner, since he normally leaves that decision-making to other senior agency staff.
The agency also appears to have taken steps to alter the qualifications for the senior-level position, a type of job that typically requires advanced education and significant related work experience. In this case, the job description ultimately posted for the position had no educational requirement and allowed “campaign” work to substitute for the more typical job experience normally required for such positions.
Phillips bristles at the suggestion that a more qualified woman was passed over for a male candidate. “One thing we’re very proud of, is that we have more female supervisors than many other state agencies,” he said. “It’s not all the good ol’ boys like some people believe.”
The Radinovich hiring is almost certain to come up for discussion at the IRRR board level. “As a legislator, I can’t let this stand,” said Layman. “We need to have full public disclosure of the process and a discussion about how we move forward. This is about a state agency charged with diversifying the economy, not about finding jobs for politicians.”
The hiring did catch many IRRR board members, and not just Republicans, by surprise.
Current board chair and District 3A state Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said he first learned of the hiring when Radinovich walked into his legislative office in St. Paul and told him about it. He said he’s comfortable leaving the hiring decisions in the hands of the staff.
Layman said she had a slightly different reaction. “I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t know the position was even being created.”
Eichorn agrees that the issue needs board discussion and he questioned whether Radinovich was the best pick for the liaison work between the agency and St. Paul that accounts for about 30 percent of the position.
“If they really want someone to do legislative work, Jason Metsa still has current relationships,” said Eichorn, referring to the agency’s new deputy commissioner, who served in the Legislature until the end of 2018. Radinovich, on the other hand, hasn’t served in the Legislature since the end of 2014.
Eichorn and others are also questioning what Radinovich will do when the Legislature isn’t in session. While the job posting listed the position as located in Eveleth, and Radinovich is supposed to supervise a number of division heads at the IRRR, it appears the position will be stationed primarily in the Twin Cities, where Radinovich is currently living. “It feels very political,” said Eichorn.
Janatopoulus, a long-time DFLer, said she’s been “super disappointed” as information about the hiring process has slowly been revealed. “I was excited about this opportunity and am excited about this administration, but things do need to be fair,” she said.
She said the one-day posting raised concerns, but she went into the interview assuming that she’d get real consideration.
“I assumed that you don’t create a job like that for a specific person,” she said. “Otherwise it’s a waste of time and resources, and these are public dollars. I believe in government and I believe in the IRRR and what it can do, and that means getting the most qualified person.”
Other DFL party activists are voicing objection as well over what they see as a “clandestine” process used by the agency.
“I’m tired of a system that takes for granted the promotion of people with exceptional family or political connections rather than exceptional experience or educational qualifications,” said Leah Rogne, a Greaney resident and party activist, who says she strongly supports the mission of the IRRR despite her disappointment. “We’ve worked for decades in this country to create a system in which qualified people of diverse backgrounds have a fair shot in the workplace.”
Sue Hakes, former Cook County Commissioner and former Grand Marais mayor, who had applied for the IRRR position but withdrew over concerns about the process, echoed Rogne’s sentiments.
“The agency subverted their own hiring practices to achieve a preordained outcome,” stated Hakes. “They were not looking for new talent, diverse perspectives, or a wide pool of candidates. They were checking boxes and pretending to do a job search.”
Hakes, a longtime DFL activist served as campaign manager in Leah Phifer’s 2018 bid for the DFL nomination for the Eighth District seat. That nomination, after a contested primary, ultimately went to Radinovich.
Layman said the hiring raises questions about some of the recent changes in the agency’s governing structure, particularly the switch to an advisory-only role for the agency’s board, which has long been dominated by Iron Range DFLers. She has supported those changes in an effort to depoliticize the agency and she said she felt progress had been made. “We’re set up to be less partisan than in the past,” said Layman, who pushed for the change. “Of course, that gave pretty broad powers to the executive. This decision suggests that maybe I was wrong.”
“I don’t see the issue,” said Phillips. “He [Radinovich] worked here before. It’s not like we pulled some politician from the moon.” When asked how the hiring of Radinovich, in combination with the earlier selection of Metsa as deputy commissioner, might look politically, Phillips said he doesn’t see his job in that context.
“I don’t think like that. I was excited about having some help. Toward the end of the Dayton administration, I was doing a lot of extra duty, so I was looking forward to having people on staff who could really help with some of the other parts of the job, so I could spend more time on economic development.”
While the handling of the Radinovich hiring has rankled many, it’s not clear if it’s a decision that will have long-term implications. Radinovich is widely seen as likely to seek political office again, including a possible challenge to current Eighth District congressman Peter Stauber. He recently told Washington, D.C.-based Roll Call that he expects to make a decision on a possible run by the summer, which would likely require he leave his new position.