Seventeen current and former employees in the Minneapolis City Coordinator's Office are asking the mayor and the council not to select Heather Johnston to lead it, saying the department has a history of "toxic, racist and unsafe workplace conditions" and she hasn't done enough to stop it.

"City leaders claim to uphold values of racial equity and justice and acknowledged racism as a public health crisis," the group wrote in letters to Johnston and elected officials. "However, these claims have failed to result in tangible actions that substantially support employees, especially Black employees. When the City fails its employees, it fails to serve our community."

The group wrote that the city hadn't provided enough support to Black employees after police killings and other traumatic events in the community, hadn't provided enough opportunities for them to work remotely to minimize exposure to the coronavirus and microaggressions from the public and fellow city workers, and felt dismissed when raising concerns about government operations.

Johnston, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, has been leading the office in an interim capacity since August. Mayor Jacob Frey announced Monday that he was appointing her to serve a longer term running through 2025.

In an interview Wednesday, the mayor stood firmly behind Johnston. "To be clear, change is on all of us to make," Frey said, "but assigning all of this and putting all of this on Heather is disingenuous at best."

The mayor said he could not publicly discuss all of the complaints raised in the employees' letter because of an ongoing review. During her seven months serving as interim city coordinator, Frey said Johnston has begun to rebuild the city's Division of Race and Equity, helped manage a variety of labor issues, and coordinated departments as they start to set up the new government structure voters approved in November.

"On the topic of coming back to work, that is a decision that I made and the City Council made, and I stand by it," Frey said. "That was not Heather's decision."

The city coordinator holds one of the highest-ranking, non-elected positions in city government and serves as an adviser to the mayor and City Council. About 40 employees work in the office, but hundreds of employees work in additional divisions that also report to the city coordinator, such as communications, emergency management, human resources and finance.

The position comes with a salary ranging from $182,111 to $228,774 and in recent years has experienced a high level of turnover. If the City Council approves her nomination, Johnston will be the third person to serve as city coordinator in the past four years.

On April 28, the 17 current and former employees sent a letter to Johnston with a list of requests and demands that they said would help create a healthy and inclusive workplace. Among the items:

  • Creating a return-to-office policy that allows for both hybrid and full remote work.
  • Setting up an anti-racist agenda that guides the department and supports employees of color.
  • Overhauling city hiring practices, particularly those related to high-level posts to achieve a nondiscriminatory and more inclusive workplace.

The staff also requested that Johnston respond by May 6 and commit to creating a written plan to address concerns and to holding an all-staff meeting to review the plan later that month.

According to e-mails provided by the group, Johnston sent them a message on May 6 saying she had received their memo and took their concerns seriously. They also received a message from the city's director of internal workplace investigations, who told them the city was looking "to enlist a neutral, outside party" to look at their concerns, "given the allegations and the fact that HR ultimately reports through the City Coordinator."

The group sent an e-mail to the mayor and council members on Monday — the same day Frey announced Johnston's nomination — saying they had received an "insufficient response" to their demands and believed the outside review would allow Johnston and other city leaders "to avoid taking action on the stated demands, as has happened with previous formal complaints."

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly three dozen former and current employees who worked in various city departments had signed the letter, declaring that anti-Black racism is prevalent not only in the Minneapolis Police Department, but throughout the city enterprise. The Star Tribune reached out to the group, but they declined to go on the record with their names for fear of retaliation.

City Attorney Jim Rowader said in a statement Wednesday that he "takes the complaints in the letter very seriously."

"Our team is in the process of securing an outside expert to look into the work conditions, like return to work expectations, and issues raised regarding former and current leadership," Rowader said. "Because this is an active and open matter involving private data, there's nothing more we can say publicly at this time."

Frey's office is scheduled to formally submit Johnston's nomination to the council Thursday morning, a move that would trigger a weekslong approval process that includes a public hearing.

Johnston previously worked as the city's budget director and interim chief financial officer, and held posts in Burnsville, Chanhassen and state and federal agencies.