Governor to IRRR: 'You fell far short'
Gov. Tim Walz sent a written reprimand to the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation late this week — saying the fast-tracked hiring of politician Joe Radinovich “failed to meet my expectations.”
“My office never directed you to request a shortened posting period or otherwise vary from ordinary hiring procedures,” Walz said in the letter to IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips. Walz’s office shared the letter following a News Tribune data request.
Radinovich resigned Thursday from a supervisory role that was scheduled to pay him $100,000 annually with full benefits.
An investigative report into crony hiring at the agency by the Timberjay newspaper last week detailed the truncated process and how Radinovich’s name had been included on a handwritten update of the IRRR organizational chart even prior to the job opening being posted.
Walz’s reprimand was not the only fallout of the saga. Republican lawmakers remained unsatisfied by the governor’s response on Friday.
“I’m pleased to see that this was not swept under the rug and that the governor is paying attention,” Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset, said. “I still have questions about how, if it wasn’t the governor’s intent, the governor’s name was used to expedite the process?”
On Friday, well-regarded Iron Range political commentator Aaron Brown called for Phillips to resign on the website Minnesota Brown.
“I can’t imagine Phillips being an effective, credible leader of the agency after this incident. He should resign,” Brown wrote Friday.
In a statement, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, downplayed the need for the commissioner to bow out.
“Commissioner Phillips made a mistake with (the) expedited hiring,” Bakk said. “I fully support his continued service as the agency commissioner.”
A one-time Democratic-Farmer-Labor state lawmaker, Radinovich lost to Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, for the 8th Congressional District seat last November. Radinovich was hired at the Eveleth-based IRRR in March. Phillips had telegraphed the hiring throughout the process, telling the Timberjay, “I was openly talking about bringing him back on.”
Phillips did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment Friday. Instead, the IRRR issued the following statement: “Commissioner Phillips is committed to exceeding the Governor’s expectations in his duties and responsibilities as commissioner of the (IRRR).”
In February, the IRRR had requested a single-day posting period in order to fast-track the hiring process, and in doing so cited an urgent need to meet expectations from the governor’s office as a reason to expedite the hiring. Walz took umbrage with this in his letter of reprimand.
“It was inappropriate to use my office as your stated rationale for requesting an exception from the (Management and Budget office),” Walz wrote.
Walz added it was also “inappropriate” for IRRR to vary from what had been a seven-day posting requirement in order to hire Radinovich. According to the Timberjay, a female applicant with IRRR experience was interviewed, but passed over for the job in favor of Radinovich.
Walz noted throughout his letter that his administration will adopt a new 21-day posting policy for hiring classified state positions. The move is “designed to ensure inclusiveness, openness and transparency in the hiring process for classified positions,” he wrote.
The Department of Management and Budget “is amending its Job Announcement Policy to require a 21-day posting period for all classified managerial positions like this one,” Walz wrote to Phillips. “You may not vary from this policy unless you receive explicit approval directly from Commissioner (Myron) Frans.”
Layman told the News Tribune that she will offer an amendment to budget legislation as soon as next week that would, if approved by lawmakers, codify with the new Walz administration policy and make law out of the 21-day posting period for classified managerial positions.
Walz concluded his five-paragraph reprimand by saying, “As I do with all members of my Cabinet, I expect you to model openness, transparency, inclusivity and servant leadership. In this situation, you fell far short of my expectations.”
Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, joined the outspoken Layman in decrying the saga. As members of the nine-person Iron Range delegation of state lawmakers, they sit on the IRRR board. Eichorn called it an embarrassment and “a black eye” for the Walz administration.
“It’s unfortunate this kind of cronyism continues to tarnish the good people of the Iron Range,” Eichorn said in a statement late this week. “As a member of the Iron Range delegation and IRRR board, it is my expectation that the IRRR would hold itself to the highest standards — particularly when we have so many needs throughout our region.”
The IRRR is a state agency created in 1941. It features roughly 60 employees and is designed to foster economic diversity and resiliency on the Iron Range and throughout Northeastern Minnesota, where the ups and downs of the mining industry can play havoc on the economy and residents’ lives. The agency has earned a reputation among some lawmakers for being too politicized and closely aligned with the DFL — a perception, critics say, that is magnified by the Radinovich saga.
Bakk, also a member of the IRRR board, seemed to apply a political filter to the issue by telling the News Tribune, “It does make one wonder if the opposition to Radinovich would have gone away if the full 21-day period prior to hire had happened?”
But Layman wasn’t having it. It was Walz, she said, who has emphasized transparency and inclusivity in his administration, paying special attention to his appointments.
“Hiring top management positions is a key responsibility of leadership,” Layman said, “and the public expects better from our state agencies.”
Phillips was kept on by Walz as a holdover from former Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and has been in place atop the IRRR since 2015. That said, like all governor’s appointees, he’ll still need to be confirmed by the state Senate at an unscheduled, upcoming date.
“We need to be asking the questions,” Layman said, “and certainly the senate has a confirmation process where questions can be asked as well.”