Hiring irregularities that create the perception of political patronage should be avoided by leaders of all public agencies. That goes double when a Google search of “slush fund” and an agency’s name yields pages of results.
This fundamental of good leadership, not to mention political survival, appears to have eluded Mark Phillips, who leads the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The past week’s scandal over Phillips’ fast-tracked hiring of a DFL Party insider was as predictable as it was avoidable — a reality that should renew questions about the IRRRB’s governance and its effectiveness in carrying out its economic development mission.
The controversy came to a head on Thursday with the resignation of Joe Radinovich, a former one-term state legislator who served as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s chief of staff before running unsuccessfully last year for northeast Minnesota’s U.S. House seat. Phillips, who was appointed to lead the IRRRB in 2015 by former Gov. Mark Dayton and was reappointed by Gov. Tim Walz, hired Radinovich earlier this year as an IRRRB senior-level program and policy adviser.
The IRRRB’s aim is to diversify the mining region’s economy. Its funding comes primarily from taxes on iron ore mining, but it also can tap into additional pots of public dollars for its activities. The all-legislator makeup of the IRRRB board in a region historically dominated by the DFL has long generated concerns about political influence on the agency’s operations.
The Radinovich hiring wasn’t going to stay under the radar at an agency that is permanently under regional political microscopes. Northern Minnesota’s Timberjay newspaper first reported the shortened time window for the job posting — 24 hours instead of the recommended 21 days or the seven-day minimum.
The newspaper also revealed that a highly qualified candidate interviewed but didn’t get the job. The candidate: Lorrie Janatopoulos, who has a master’s degree in public policy and extensive experience at a regional economic development agency, and who was awarded a prestigious Bush Fellowship in 2016. In an interview, Janatopoulos, 62, said she found out about the post when a friend who subscribes to a state job list-serve got a notification about it and sent it to her.
In an interview with an editorial writer last week, Phillips was unable to make it clear how the agency interviewers concluded that Radinovich, 33, was better-qualified. Radinovich is bright and likable, but he also has yet to earn his college degree. Phillips lauded Radinovich’s knowledge of the Legislature and his experience. Phillips also said his haste to get Radinovich on board fast to help during the current session led to the shortened posting period and said he takes “ownership” of this.
Walz took a necessary step this week, issuing a letter of reprimand to Phillips. In it, Walz also put in writing that his office had not requested the shortened job posting period, a necessary step as well to allay concerns about gubernatorial involvement. A policy change outlined in the letter — one that will now require a 21-day posting for all jobs in this classification — is sensible. But it wouldn’t hurt, as Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully proposed this week, to put protections in statute.
Phillips has yet to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate, and it’s not clear when his status will be considered. When this happens, senators of both parties need to go beyond the immediate hiring issue to ask broader questions about the IRRRB.
A March 2016 report from the respected legislative auditor raised troubling concerns about the agency’s effectiveness in economic diversification. It also raised serious constitutional concerns about the membership and powers of the nine-member legislator IRRRB board.
Are the two interlinked? Is it time to add citizen seats? Does the board’s governance structure reflect the modern challenges it faces? These are hard questions, but legislators are taking the easy way out if they focus only on the hiring mistake and duck the bigger issues still lingering from the auditor’s report.