Republican legislative leaders’ aborted move to fire the veteran lead staffer on an environmental funding commission is still mired in mystery and fueling controversy.
Last month Susan Thornton received word from the Legislative Coordinating Commission that she would be terminated in order for the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to go “in a different direction.” A furor ensued that has only abated since news broke last Friday that the LCC, at the direction of GOP legislative leaders, had suspended her termination.
Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote a letter to House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, who was LCC chairman when the initial termination decision was made, to express concern in the wake of Thornton’s firing. On Tuesday Thissen told Capitol Report there are still questions about Thornton’s status.
“I’m pleased that the decision has been reconsidered,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I think it bodes well for the fact that we can have a more open and productive discussion about why she was fired in the first place, what it means for the LCCMR and the direction it’s going to take and, maybe more importantly, what it means for keeping nonpartisan staff nonpartisan.”
The LCCMR makes requests for proposals and scrutinizes applications from outdoors groups seeking funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The trust fund, which is appropriated by the Legislature and will distribute about $50 million for the current two-year period, is filled by proceeds from the Minnesota Lottery. Thornton has worked for the LCCMR for roughly 20 years. In 2008 she was elected by the LCCMR to succeed retiring longtime Director John Velin.
The news of Thornton’s firing was first reported on Dec. 20. The decision was made by Zellers, who served an annual chairmanship on the LCC until Jan. 1. (The LCC is an umbrella group that administers joint commissions with House and Senate members.)
Move drew public attention, scrutiny
Thornton was told the decision was based on the desire to take the LCCMR in a new direction. The group had come under fire since Republicans took control of the House and Senate last year. In firing her, officials said their decision was not based on job performance, according to her attorney.
Thornton’s supporters immediately decried the action. Her attorney, Vince Louwagie, contended the Legislature overstepped its authority in firing her. The Minnesota statutes that govern the LCC do not apply to the LCCMR, he said, because it consists of both citizen members and legislators. Thornton did not sue the Legislature before her termination was suspended, and Louwagie said he is waiting to get more clarity on the matter. “I think in the end this was a tacit acknowledgement that they didn’t have the authority in the first place,” he said.
Zellers declined to comment on the grounds that the issue is a confidential personnel matter.
The LCC moved to fire Thornton while the state Republican Party was in upheaval over financial problems and the Senate Republican leadership was in turmoil after the sudden resignation of Majority Leader Amy Koch.
But the move nonetheless made waves in the public affairs news cycle. In particular, the LCCMR co-chairman, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, drew questions from citizen member and fellow co-chair Nancy Gibson for cancelling a meeting that had been scheduled for Tuesday. Thissen, in his Jan. 4 letter to Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said the meeting should not have been canceled because the issues surrounding Thornton’s termination needed to be addressed in a transparent manner. The LCCMR isn’t scheduled to meet until Jan. 30, with Hackbarth holding the gavel.
The issue made even more noise on the opinion pages of the Star Tribune. LCCMR citizen member Jeff Broberg wrote on Dec. 28 that Zellers had politicized the LCCMR and should refer personnel matters to the LCCMR’s executive committee. Hackbarth and LCCMR member Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, in the same pages offered a rebuttal to Broberg. They said the LCC has authority over LCCMR employees.
To some observers, the recent events are the culmination of long-simmering criticisms directed toward the LCCMR in general. After Republicans took control of the House and Senate last January for the first time in the modern partisan era, the LCCMR was subjected to a couple of significant changes: Some of the body’s standing recommendations were scrapped, and DFL legislators such as Sen. Ellen Anderson and Rep. Jean Wagenius, both of whom had served on the LCCMR for a long time, were not reappointed.
Despite the recent history of tension between GOP legislators and the LCCMR, the action initially taken against Thornton strikes some as odd. One lawmaker noted that the LCCMR had just approved its requests for proposals at its Dec. 7 meeting. If the new majorities wanted to go in a different direction, why did they wait until after the RFPs went out?
“There’s no correction that can be made,” the lawmaker said, “because those are two-year appropriations. … It gets back to this question of if you want to go in a new direction, the new direction won’t occur for another year and they just sent out the new RFP. It was right before she got fired. That was the place for a new direction.”
Thornton had butted heads with groups over the particulars of the LCCMR grants. A drawn-out series of events that led to Ducks Unlimited ultimately returning LCCMR funds had drawn the ire of the state Department of Natural Resources. The issue of Thornton’s relations with the nonprofit community was raised in an editorial on Monday in the Star Tribune. The editorial noted that environment and conservation groups had been “noticeably silent” about the Thornton affair. The editorial referred anonymously to one group that didn’t like her customer service.
But the leadership expressly told Thornton her job performance wasn’t an issue in their decision, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a public explanation for their decision to suspend Thornton’s termination or any clarification of the sort of role the LCCMR will be assigned in the future.
Meanwhile, the turn of events is complicating the process for assembling the next LCCMR legislation, Gibson said. She added that her email in-box has been filled with inquiries from groups uncertain what sort of projects the GOP majorities are focusing on.
“The confusion lies in whether they should apply because of all this public acrimony that has been going on,” Gibson said.