Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, seen here at City Hall. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Several Minneapolis city employees believe a city office is being “dismantled” in retaliation after staffers spoke out about a “racist, toxic work culture” in the City Coordinator’s Office.

Unease has been building for several months about the future of the Office of Performance and Innovation, a mostly Black-led office central to the city’s work developing alternatives to policing. The Office of Performance and Innovation is a division under the City Coordinator’s Office.

Last week, Mayor Jacob Frey declared his support for a council member’s proposal to move four of six staff positions in the Office of Performance and Innovation to the city clerk’s office. There, they would serve as legislative staffers, employees who assist city council members with legislative work. The change would be incorporated into Frey’s new budget proposal.

It’s a move that city employees say would effectively gut the office.  

This is absolutely retaliation. This is grounded in anti-worker sentiment…

City Council Member Robin Wonsley

“This is absolutely retaliation,” said City Council Member Robin Wonsley. “This is grounded in anti-worker sentiment [and] resistance to anti-racist efforts being led by our workers at the city, and it is a signal to any other employee: If you are dissatisfied with your workplace conditions and you even think about saying something about it, this could happen to you, too.”

Frey’s proposal comes as Minneapolis transitions to the new “strong mayor” form of government adopted in a 2021 ballot measure and undergoes some restructuring.

The City Coordinators Office, which contains five offices, works to align initiatives across the city on everything from race and equity to sustainability. The clerk’s office serves a very different function, providing support to council members and administrators, keeping city records, and directing election processes. 

In a press release last week, a group of employees in the City Coordinator’s Office said Frey’s plan to move staff is “clear retaliation against an office of multiple Black staff and a Black director.”

The Office of Performance and Innovation was created with a grant in 2015, and currently operates with city funding. It functions as an internal consultant for the city, evaluating the performance of city offices and programs, and developing new initiatives to improve their work. 

The office has done work on a range of issues, covering everything from rental assistance to supplying small businesses with technical help. In recent years, it has become strongly identified with the city’s efforts to develop and implement alternatives to traditional policing. 

Letter of concern

In May, a number of staff members from the City Coordinator’s Office, including several from the Office of Performance and Innovation, sent a letter to Frey and city council members opposing the nomination of Heather Johnston to serve as city coordinator. They alleged that she perpetuated a “toxic, anti-Black work culture.”

But Johnston got the job. Less than a month later, at the urging of Council Member and former Office of Performance and Innovation staff member Elliott Payne, Frey announced that his August budget would propose shifting the office’s staffers. The city council will vote on the proposal in September.

In comments to Sahan Journal, Payne explained his request to shift the innovation office positions to the clerk’s office. First, he said, an initial, but detailed, government restructuring plan did not include the Office of Performance and Innovation. This led Payne to worry that the office was “going to be broken up in the next week,” Payne said. Further, he noted, council members are in need of additional legislative support.

For Payne, the mayor’s receptiveness to finding new roles for the employees has partly lifted the specter of retaliation. “I’ve got to go by his word that that’s not what he’s doing, right? But does that mean that I’m completely allayed in all of my concerns? No,” Payne said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty going forward, and if we’re not vigilant about how this government structure unfolds, there could be unintentional ways that people are punished.”

In an email to Sahan Journal, Frey spokesperson Katie Lauer said the mayor was not retaliating against the Office of Performance and Innovation, and that the office’s future is still to be determined. Lauer said Frey was not available Wednesday for an interview on the matter.

“The mayor’s presentation to Council on June 28 presented his recommendations at the department level,” Lauer wrote. “The decisions beyond the department level have not been finalized at this point and are under various stages of discussion. This work is planned to be near complete by the end of the year.”

In a statement provided to Sahan Journal, Johnston wrote that the Office of Performance and Innovation has done “good work” and that she is not aware of any plans to eliminate it.

She also wrote that she is “committed to creating a culture that is collaborative, innovative and non-racist within the Coordinator’s Office and the City enterprise more generally.”

Racially diverse office

For much of its existence, the Office of Performance and Innovation has been one of the city’s most racially diverse offices; four of its five current staffers are Black.

Track Trachtenberg, a project coordinator in the city coordinator’s Division of Race and Equity, said that in addition to the office’s outspokenness on issues of racism at the city, its work on public safety might be seen as threatening.

 

To me, [Frey’s plan] feels like a combination of both pushback against Black staff leading progressive alternatives to policing work and Black staff leading unbiased metrics to hold the city accountable…

Track Trachtenberg, a project coordinator in the city coordinator’s Division of Race and Equity

“To me, [Frey’s plan] feels like a combination of both pushback against Black staff leading progressive alternatives to policing work and Black staff leading unbiased metrics to hold the city accountable, and then compounded by the fact that staff spoke out in this context,” Trachtenberg said. 

Trachtenberg said that while current and former members in each division of the City Coordinator’s Office signed the May letter, staffers from the Office of Performance and Innovation were disproportionately represented. Brian Smith, director of the Office of Performance and Innovation, spoke out publicly in May against Johnston’s appointment.

Employees from the City Coordinator’s Office have acknowledged in multiple forums that problems of racism at the city are longstanding, but also noted that they have specific frustrations with Johnston and the circumstances of her appointment.

Signatories of the May letter wanted a robust search process for the city coordinator and involvement from staff at the City Coordinator’s Office. The city had promised that in a press release in 2021, but ultimately elevated Johnston, who had been interim city coordinator since last August.   

City council members ultimately voted 8-5 in mid-June to approve Johnston’s appointment after a contentious public hearing process. Council members Wonsley, Payne, Jeremiah Ellison, Jason Chavez, and Aisha Chughtai opposed the appointment. Council members Andrea Jenkins, Lisa Goodman, Andrew Johnston, Jamal Osman, Emily Koski, LaTrisha Vetaw, Michael Rainville, and Linea Palmisano supported it.

Wonsley said that both Johnston and Frey promised during Johnston’s confirmation process that they would not retaliate against employees for speaking out against her nomination or the work culture. But Gina Obiri, a program manager in the Office of Performance and Innovation, said the office is now the only division in the City Coordinator’s Office that does not have a clear plan for how it will operate under the new government structure. 

“All of the other divisions within the City Coordinator’s Office have had explicit plans stated for where those divisions will go” in the new structure, Obiri said. “[The Office of Performance and Innovation] was left off of that.”

Award-winning work

Earlier this summer, Smith, the Office of Performance and Innovation’s director, received a Creative Bureaucracy Festival award in Germany for the office’s work launching a program to send trained behavioral crisis response teams instead of police to mental health crisis calls. The Office of Performance and Innovation has also worked on developing alternatives to police-enforced traffic stops. 

“Of all things that we’re not doing right at the city, the majority of the initiatives that’s being led by our [Office of Performance and Innovation] are the things that we are doing right,” said Council Member Wonsley. “Those are the things that residents trust. Those are the things that the community needs. Why would we eliminate the one thing that we’re doing right?” 

The positive responses to the Office of Performance and Innovation’s work is a central part of the reason that employees and their allies feel that any plan to reduce its capacity is not grounded in good governance and altruistic motivations.

Trachtenberg doesn’t dispute that city council members will need more legislative assistance in the new governance structure, but said taking four employees out of the Office of Performance and Innovation would have a devastating impact on an already stretched office. 

“The office itself and the functions it serves would collapse,” Trachtenberg said. 

Payne, on the other hand, believes that a legislative support role would allow the office to continue doing much of the work that has made it successful—especially if the Office of Performance and Innovation doesn’t continue as a cohesive unit working elsewhere in the structure of city government.

“From my firsthand experience working on that team, from my firsthand experience with the breadth of topics that the team would take on, it just makes sense to me that this is the type of team that would be really well suited to legislative support,” Payne said. 

Wonsley compared the city’s response to employee advocacy at the City Coordinator’s Office to anti-union activities from major corporations. She would like to see the Office of Performance and Innovation to remain fully intact in the new governance structure—either as part of the City Coordinator’s Office or as its own department. 

In order to keep the office intact, its supporters on the city council would have to build a majority coalition to “rectify” the situation between now and mid-August, when the mayor’s budget proposal is due. 

Obiri said if her office is gutted next year, she would likely consider leaving city employment entirely. 

“I would probably be pretty devastated,” she said. “While I can’t predict the future, it’s difficult to want to stay knowing that after all of this, my employer is not concerned with how I’m treated—not concerned with the environment that I come to work in.”

*UPDATE (July 8, 2 p.m.): This story has been updated to include comments from City Council member Elliott Payne, and to underline his role in the initial staffing proposal.

Abe Asher

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.