A City Council panel gave preliminary approval to the nomination. One critic described it as "political patronage."
He helped craft Mayor R.T. Rybak's Vikings stadium deal, shaped city budgets and brainstormed with metro business leaders on expanding the economy through exports.
Now Jeremy Hanson Willis, Rybak's chief of staff, is moving from behind-the-scenes force to leader of one of the city's most influential departments.
The executive committee of the City Council on Friday approved the mayor's nomination of Hanson Willis to head the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), even as some questioned whether his background in public relations and politics was appropriate for the job.
Council Member Cam Gordon told the panel he had hoped to find an executive director with experience in planning, finance and management.
The chair of the city's zoning and planning committee, Gary Schiff, sharpened those concerns during an interview. Hanson Willis is "just not qualified for the job," Schiff said, because he "simply has no experience in either housing or economic development." He added: "This is just political patronage."
Others at City Hall counter that Hanson Willis' experience as the mayor's liaison on key economic issues and communications background will help him lead a department that is trying to better coordinate planning with development and ensure it has enough funding. The full council eventually will vote on Hanson Willis' permanent appointment.
Hanson Willis joined the mayor's office in 2005 as communications director. He was promoted four years later to chief of staff, where he served as Rybak's liaison to CPED. He also has worked in public relations at Tunheim Partners and held positions at the Minnesota Smoke-Free Coalition and Minnesota AIDS Project.
The city's job description for a new department executive director stated a requirement of "ten years of progressively responsible economic development experience." Rybak defended his choice on Friday, noting that some people "would have a deeper background in commercial real estate, but they would not come in with any understanding of how to put that into action in the city."
The CPED has a staff of more than 100 and an $82 million operating and capital budget. It has a hand in almost every development project in the city, especially those involving public money.
While in the mayor's office, Hanson Willis has worked with the department as a liaison with Minneapolis companies. He's also helped form a strategy to increase exports at regional companies through his work with the Greater MSP Partnership, and has worked to expand the Step-Up summer jobs program for youth.
The 39-year-old resident of the Windom Park neighborhood also has been one of the most active figures in city Vikings stadium discussions, negotiating facets of the agreement and rounding up City Council support.
E-mails obtained by the Star Tribune show he often coordinates discussions and helped draft the letters of support that council members would eventually sign.
The last CPED director, Mike Christenson, spent four years with the department before taking the top job. His predecessor, Lee Sheehy, was a deputy attorney general and top staffer at the Metropolitan Council.
When asked about the job qualifications, Hanson Willis said, "It's important to have an understanding of the organization that you're about to run. And the city as a whole that it fits into."
He said he is an agile communicator who can "bring people together with diverse viewpoints around a common cause."
His goals: improving transit-oriented development, closing the employment disparity between blacks and whites, improving the distressed North Side, and seeing that corporations have a better-trained pool of potential workers locally.
The chair of the Community Development committee, Council Member Lisa Goodman, said Hanson Willis has a crucial understanding of how the city works, which will help him coordinate with other departments. She said the department already has deputies who know the finer points of development.
"We need someone who understands how to deal with what we perceive as some of the bigger issues: Making sure there's alignment with other departments within the city when you have very limited resources," Goodman said.
Maya Rao 612-673-4210 Eric Roper 612-673-1732