St. Paul Mayor-elect Melvin Carter is bucking tradition in one of the first and most important decisions a new mayor makes: choosing the people who will help him run the city.

Mayors have historically used recruiters or independently selected the executives who will guide departments that include public works, finance and the city attorney’s office. This time, however, it won’t just be Carter choosing his top staffers. He plans to enlist 80 volunteers from across St. Paul to review and interview candidates.

Carter campaigned on a promise of bringing diverse voices into City Hall and said the community hiring panels are a step toward that goal.

“We know that we have people in our city who haven’t felt as well served, who haven’t really had their voices at the table,” said Carter, who takes office Jan. 2. “So starting with this process is a strong indication that that’s the direction this administration is going to take.”

But hiring experts and people who have served on similar panels said they come with challenges, and gathering that many volunteers in two weeks and hiring 10 people in a month are ambitious goals.

“The challenge is in the logistics of moving a number of people through the process, both as reviewers and as candidates,” said Mayor Chris Coleman’s former deputy Paul Williams, who noted the panel process isn’t entirely foreign to St. Paul. He co-chaired a 32-person group that helped hire Police Chief Todd Axtell in June 2016.

Williams said they had good discussions and gave Coleman a strong slate of candidates. Carter said his plan is an extension of that work, and of his deputy Jaime Tincher’s experience using a similar panel in her previous job as Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief of staff.

This is the first time a St. Paul mayor has used panels to hire the bulk of their department directors, city staff said. The panels will submit recommendations to Carter for final selection.

Some directors were caught off guard when Carter sent out a news release announcing the new system. Toni Newborn, a manager in St. Paul’s human resources office who is leading the process, acknowledged some people have been frustrated by the news. Nonetheless, many directors plan to reapply and said the community involvement sends a clear message about Carter’s priorities.

“It’s a nice way to reinforce, ‘Who do you work for?’ ” said Public Works Director Kathy Lantry, who plans to reapply.

Continuity and change

Coleman has led St. Paul for 12 years, and city staff and department heads have some concerns about change, Lantry said. But she is optimistic.

“It’s sort of interesting that we all go to this very dark place, ‘There is going to be change and it’s going to be bad,’ ” she said. “Well, there’s going to be change. What if it’s great? What if the job that I love is even more rewarding?”

While most of the department heads will go through the panel process, a few do not have to immediately reapply for their posts. Axtell, the fire chief and the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity director have designated terms.

Former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel, who succeeded George Latimer, said he and Carter have something in common: Their predecessors hired a strong staff. Coleman and Carter share many policy priorities and some of Coleman’s picks could remain, he said.

New mayors need to balance continuity with making sure they have a loyal staff who reflect their values and bring in new ideas, Scheibel said.

“It’s essential for good governance to have the right people in the key leadership roles,” said Department of Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes, who plans to reapply. “And it’s essential that you have your best administrators and managers to bring forward the best solutions and ideas to make the city a better place.”

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm, who worked for the city for decades before getting the department’s top job, said “Heck yeah, I’m going to apply.” He noted that St. Paul Public Schools also used a panel to hire its new superintendent.

“I believe when Chief Axtell emerged from that, and Superintendent [Joe] Gothard emerged from that, they are stronger leaders and more connected to the community,” Hahm said.

A quick process

The 10 hiring panels, each made up of eight people, will give citizens a stronger voice in city leadership, said Amy Simon, a senior lecturer in Carlson School of Management’s work and organizations department. But the mayor’s team must train inexperienced panelists and make sure they understand the responsibilities and requirements of the director’s job, she said.

“Interviews must conform to legal requirements, avoid rater biases and errors and most importantly lead to good hires,” Simon said in an e-mail. “Coordinating these efforts with 10 separate panels in a few weeks’ time will require intense organization and oversight.”

The city is using social media, staff recruiters and other community, nonprofit and professional organizations to gather panel members and candidates, Newborn said. Carter is the city’s first black mayor and at 38 one of its youngest, and she said people are excited about being involved with his time in office.

Since Carter announced the new process Monday, she has been getting five to six e-mails an hour from people interested in volunteering. Panelists will review applications from Dec. 12 to 14 and conduct interviews from Dec. 18 to 20.

So will 80 people be willing to make a time commitment of up to six days? “I hope so,” Newton said. “We know time is of the essence. But what I can gather from the responses I received so far, is there are a lot of vested community members.”

Carter is more confident. “We’ve spent the last year hearing people say they want a bigger say in City Hall,” he said. “People are responding really enthusiastically to that ask.”