The process to fill the vacancy left by Joe Radinovich's resignation last week will not take on the same urgency as the politician's controversial hiring by the state.
The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation has not posted the vacancy, and did not indicate any hurry to do so when contacted this week. Radinovich resigned after his stint with the IRRR was revealed by a Timberjay report last month to be a suspected case of crony hiring.
"Any future postings will comply with the State's Job Announcement Policy, and be considered through our strategic planning process to ensure we are spending our limited public resources wisely and in a manner deserving of the public's trust," Commissioner Mark Phillips said in a statement this week.
Phillips was reprimanded in a letter from Gov. Tim Walz last week - for fast-tracking the hiring of Radinovich and, in doing so, using the governor's office as an excuse to the Department of Management and Budget, which approved a 24-hour posting period for a classified managerial job reporting directly to Phillips.
"I expect you to model openness, transparency, inclusivity and servant leadership," Walz said in the letter of reprimand last week. "In this situation, you fell far short of my expectations."
Shortly after the initial investigative report surfaced, the governor adopted a 21-day posting period in the face of the controversy. It's a measure state legislators are also considering and one that would codify the new policy into law.
Phillips said he planned to discuss hiring needs with IRRR board members, the Management and Budget office, and "other stakeholders."
Phillips has not acquiesced to requests for an interview, but added in his statement that he intended to "meet the Governor's expectations regarding openness, transparency, inclusivity, and servant leadership," in considering a replacement for Radinovich's old role, officially a "state program administrator manager senior."
Radinovich had been scheduled to make $100,000 annually in the role. He joined IRRR appointee and deputy commissioner Jason Metsa as Democratic-Farmer-Labor politicians who'd joined the agency in 2019 following failed Congressional bids in 2018.
Both are former state legislators, and critics of the Radinovich hiring contended that it left the door open for the IRRR to be perceived as an open trough for politicians.
Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset and a former IRRR commissioner, was most outspoken, saying the hiring damaged the state agency's credibility.
Based in Eveleth, The IRRR was created by the legislature in 1941. It features roughly 60 employees and is designed to foster economic diversity and resilience 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 IRRR carried a $44.4 million budget into 2019.
In the time since Radinovich's resignation, the News Tribune has heard from two additional IRRR Board members, both supportive of Phillips' leadership.
"Mark Phillips has been a good commissioner and has had a very commendable career over decades of service to the state," state Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said. "Everyone makes mistakes and should be entitled to a second chance."
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said that when Phillips was appointed to the position in 2015 by Gov. Mark Dayton, he brought the agency into compliance following a legislative auditor's report which had identified a series of state compliance failings.
"A mistake happened here," Ecklund said. "However, he took over right after the legislative auditor's report came out and that was a big task."
Ecklund went on to summarize his beliefs on the hiring controversy.
"This isn't the first time this has happened at IRRR or government agencies in general," he said. "The 24-hour posting has been used a lot, and I think that needs to be tightened up. But the IRRR really is a small agency that seems to get a lot of attention."