BUZZ Blog: Did AFSCME buy a city council vote last night?
Peter Passi and Brandon Stahl cover issues related to the city of Duluth. Follow BUZZ on Twitter.
The number 6-3
Let's say you're a city councilor, and you have to appoint someone to fill an opening to the civil service board. What is the civil service board, you ask? Basically it's the group that goes over city job descriptions with a fine-tooth comb to examine qualifications and salary before a job is posted, making sure the city is participating in open and competitive job searches. It's basically the committee that oversees human resources for the city, and it's honestly insanely boring, non-compensated, volunteer-work stuff, and it's almost a wonder anyone would volunteer to serve on the board.
And yet the city council did get four applications for the board, but let's focus on two. Candidate A provides a resume that includes being the Chief Human Resource Officer for Lake Superior College, a former vice president for a Two Harbors-based benefits administration firm, a master's in industrial relations from Carlton College and training as a certified mediator from Hamline University Law School. Let's bow down and kiss Candidate A's feet and thank the stars that she wants to volunteer to serve the city.
But wait! Candidate B provides a one paragraph description of experience that includes having "served on several committees throughout the years under several St. Louis County administrators, attempting to streamline the civil service system." Oh, and the candidate is also a political organizer for AFSCME.
That's all well and good, but the qualifications seem to indicate that you're going with candidate A, right, who seems to know human resources well enough to teach it (which she does -- at St. Scholastica).
Well, no. The council voted to appoint Candidate B, Marsh Stenerson, to the civil service board last night, leading councilors Todd Fedora and Jay Fosle to charge, though they didn't say this directly, that the council vote was bought by union dollars. All six councilors who voted for Stenerson, noted Fosle, have received campaign contributions from AFSCME. What he didn't say: all six councilors have been given the maximum campaign contribution ($300) from AFSCME, while Stenerson has personally contributed to each councilor's campaigns. He's also worked on councilor Kerry Gauthier's campaign.
"This doesn't exactly smell right to me," Fedora said at the meeting.
Tuesday morning, he called the vote pre-ordained.
"Absolutely, no doubt, 100 percent in my mind," he said.
Why does this matter -- it's just the civil service board, right? Yes, but remember we're talking about a board that oversees job descriptions for what are often AFSCME-represented positions. Stenerson can have a big influence on this board (though just about anything they change has to be approved by the council).
Fosle tried to make an ammendment to have Candidate A -- Mary Nienaber -- appointed, an ammendment that failed 6 to 3. That's a number we should all get used to seeing over the next two years, as many votes went down that way last night (more on that in a second).
At any rate, during the meeting councilor Patrick Boyle, who chairs the personnel committee and recommended Stenerson's appointment, bristled at the notion that he was playing favorites with a union organizer. Nienaber, he said, goes to his church. "This was a very difficult decision for me," he said.
After the meeting I went up to Fedora and Fosle to about the vote, and councilor Sharla Gardner overheard me and asked if I would call her this morning (I was going to call someone for this post -- so I was glad she sorta volunteered).
She explained that she voted for Stenerson because she believes there needs to be balance on all city commissions between business people, management people and regular citizens. The council recently appointed a woman to the civil service commission who worked in H.R., so it was time, she said, to appoint a regular citizen -- Stenerson.
"It was time to appoint someone who represented working people and citizens," she said. "Marsh's credentials and experience don't look as good on a resume as Mary's. But he has practical experience with civil service commissions, has served on personnel committees, knows job descriptions, knows how they're written, knows how they work."
So, that's her side, and one that echoes another city councilor's perspective last night that the civil service board commission needed the pro-union balance.
That's their side, but I think this points to a larger issue. This is just my perception here, but this council is now more partisan that it has been since I've been covering it (we're approaching three years). Nearly any vote that's contentious appears like it will split 6 to 3 between liberal and conservative lines -- there are no swingers anymore. In the past, Roger Reinert, Greg Gilbert, Russ Stover and Gary Eckenberg, to name a few, would swing different ways on key votes like using CIT funding, supporting the train, or how to pay for sewer line repairs. But I've only seen councilor Jeff Anderson swing a vote so far this year -- on the Park Point vote last night that ultimately rejected a development down there. A voting block has developed so that even if there's a swing vote, it won't matter.
After the meeting some of the councilors were joking last night about a lament by a columnist for the Reader, who recently wrote that this year's meetings have been short, without fireworks and boring. Last night's meeting was long and had fireworks, but was ultimately boring because it was predictable. When they were debating approval of supporting the Minnesota Health Plan, I wrote in my notes "why are they debating this -- it will pass 6 to 3." And sure enough, it did.