Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has named Public Works Director and former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher to be city operations officer — a key cabinet post with authority over much of the city outside of public safety.

Anderson Kelliher's nomination came Tuesday as Heather Johnston, who has been acting in the role and its precursor for several years, abruptly withdrew her name from consideration and criticized the politically charged confirmation process that would have awaited her.

Anderson Kelliher is no stranger to politics.

Since 2022, she has served as the city's director of Public Works. Before that, she was the state's transportation commissioner under Gov. Tim Walz. Her career in politics has included serving 12 years in the state House — among them four as speaker — and running for governor in 2010 and Congress in 2018.

"Every mayor in the country needs a leader like Margaret Anderson Kelliher — someone who has been navigating challenges and solving problems for their entire public service career," Frey said in a statement nominating her.

The city operations officer oversees 17 city departments, including public works, civil rights, 311, health, and a host of internal operations ranging from human resources to information technology. It carries a salary range of $278,000 to $330,000 a year.

As such, it can be a magnet for criticism of many city operations, both internal and external — as Johnston learned.

Heather Johnston controversy

Johnston has been working as "interim city operations officer," pending council confirmation, since Frey appointed her to the post in 2022. Before that, she served as Frey's "city coordinator" — a similar, high-profile role that needed to be renamed and reconfirmed by the City Council after a reorganization prompted by a voter-approved ballot question in 2021.

Johnston's confirmation process was contentious.

In 2022, a group of 17 of former and current employees of the city Coordinator's Office accused Johnston of presiding over an office with a history of "toxic, racist and unsafe workplace conditions."

A divided City Council confirmed Johnston after a series of public debates and hearings that revealed tensions around race as the city struggled with the trauma of George Floyd's murder, the racial reckoning that followed and the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this year, an outside law firm investigating the criticism lodged against Johnston concluded the claims couldn't be substantiated. Frey announced Johnston would face no discipline and said she had his full confidence.

In her letter to Frey on Tuesday, Johnston seemed to recall the ordeal — and swiped at unnamed members of the council.

"I simply could not legitimize moving through the Council's public hearing process that puts politics before professional experience and allows abusive, untrue comments to be made about people who have dedicated their careers to service, systems change, and improving people's lives," she wrote.

She also voiced a sentiment previously expressed only quietly by some city employees about the tenor of some on the council, contending "staff who have spent years working for the City do not want to present their work to Council because they believe they will be embarrassed, belittled or have their expertise questioned. This is simply not okay in any workplace, let alone one that values inclusivity."