In the days since St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced his appointment of City Council President Kathy Lantry to be the city’s new Public Works Director ( http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/289199231.html ), some people have wondered how that all came about. After all, she's not a typical choice for the job -- and she didn't apply for it.
Lantry knows as much, or more, about city government than just about anyone at City Hall. She’s smart, a skillful negotiator and possesses the kind of humor that enables her to disarm windbags without ruffling feathers. She’s able to cut to the heart of complex issues and has a large store of common sense.
But she’s not an engineer, nor has she ever worked in the department she soon will be managing.
Moreover, 33 people applied for the job in response to a national search conducted by a city contractor, Springsted Consulting, for $10,000.
Seven of the applicants were invited for interviews, and in the end a panel of city officials led by Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann interviewed six of them, said the city's Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny.
Of those six, three were interviewed by a second, larger panel -- including Beckmann, Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb, and public works officials with Minneapolis and Ramsey County.
One of those three, from the Chicago area, was immediately interviewed by Coleman to save the cost of flying her back to St. Paul. The other two of the three, reportedly from the metro area, likely would have been interviewed by the mayor -- had he not halted the process at that point and appointed Lantry instead.
Lantry and Coleman are longtime political allies. Both were raised in staunchly DFL homes in St. Paul, and both had parents who were effective and respected legislators. Both joined the City Council at the same time, in 1998. They’re separated in age by only seven days (Coleman is older).
Even so, the mayor has never been able to take Lantry’s support for granted. When she has disagreed with him – notably on budget issues, and most recently on the matter of funding for expanded library hours – she hasn’t been shy about saying so publicly.
The city’s job description says candidates “must have seven years of progressively-responsible, professional experience in public works construction projects and/or engineering design with three years at a management level,” and also suggests that candidates have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, public administration or business administration.
Lantry’s degree, from the College of St. Benedict, is in liberal studies.
Lantry won’t be the city’s first public works director without a background in the field. Rich Lallier, for instance, took the job in 2010 after a long tenure in the Parks and Recreation Department.
Council Member Dan Bostrom doesn’t think technical expertise is essential for the job. “It’s more a management position as opposed to being out in the field,” he said. “Kathy having been around for a long time, you know who the actors are and who’s in charge.”
Lantry said that she was surprised by Coleman's job offer, but "he thought she would be the best person for the job," mayoral spokeswoman Tonya Tennessen said in an email message. "As a fellow lifelong resident of St. Paul and after serving 15 years on the City Council, no one knows St. Paul better than Kathy Lantry.
“What’s more, she has a deep understanding of the department given the many public works issues she has dealt with during her time on the City Council – so ramp-up time will be minimal. Yet, at the same time, she offers an outside perspective that will be important in setting the forward direction for the department.”
The job will mean more money for Lantry, but perhaps not as much as seems to be the case at first glance. She makes $58,491 on the City Council, which is considered a part-time job; her salary as public works director, which is full-time and then some, will be $136,000.
Lantry said she is excited at the prospect of starting on March 1, although she knows the job is “fraught with peril,” as she put it. A lot of fingers get pointed at the person in charge of making sure the city’s streets get repaired in the summer and plowed in the winter.
Although she didn’t say it, public works also may not be the best place from which to launch a mayoral campaign in 2017, should one be so inclined.
“It’s a big, daunting task,” Lantry said, “but I know the department, I know the players, and I come in with pure motives. I really am taking this on because infrastructure and public works are core city services that I want to make sure work well.”