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Minnesota governors make 1,400 appointments over a four-year term

Chris Steller//July 7, 2016

Minnesota governors make 1,400 appointments over a four-year term

Chris Steller//July 7, 2016

Gov. Mark Dayton announces on June 28 his appointment of Anne K. McKeig, right, to the state Supreme Court. (Staff photo: Chris Steller)
Gov. Mark Dayton announces on June 28 his appointment of Anne K. McKeig, right, to the state Supreme Court. (Staff photo: Chris Steller)

More than 150 people crowded into Gov. Mark Dayton’s press briefing room June 28. They left few empty chairs and no room to move at the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul, where the governor has his temporary offices during the Capitol restoration.

They were there to witness Dayton’s announcement of one of the biggest appointments he will make as governor. As dozens of recording devices captured the scene — from news crews’ cameras to government staff members’ mobile phones — Dayton revealed that Anne K. McKeig would join the state Supreme Court as associate justice, replacing retiring Associate Justice Christopher Dietzen.

The ceremony and hoopla far exceeded what most of the other 1,400 or so people appointed by a Minnesota governor each four-year term can expect. A case in point was in April, when Dayton reappointed Lonnie Spokely of Nielsville (pop. 90) in Polk County in northwestern Minnesota, as the potato wash plant representative for the Area One Potato Research and Promotion Council.

In between are positions on all manner of boards and commissions, from the Agricultural Chemical Response Compensation Board to the Metropolitan Airports Commission. They total about 130 in all. (That’s about the same number of boards and commissions whose members are appointed by other authorities: the Legislature, state agency commissioners and subcommittees of boards.)

Many things about the governor’s appointments vary widely, from judicial appointments that follow a tightly defined process in state statutes, to board and commission appointments which often follow the state’s somewhat more vague law on open appointments.

With particularly high-profile, select appointments such as McKeig’s, Dayton interviews applicants in person. Many others gain his blessing after what the governor terms a “very thorough” vetting by a three-person appointments team on his staff, led by Andrew Olson, who do “a real terrific job of going through very extensive due diligence.”

But in at least one respect, all of the governor’s appointments are equal: Dayton reviews and renders the final decision on every appointment he makes.

“It’s a very, very important part of my job,” Dayton said in an interview. “It’s an awesome responsibility … awe-inspiring because it’s so important.”

The task of Olson’s team to process applications takes on rhythms that cycle annually or stretch across the full length of a four-year gubernatorial term.

The pace of appointments is weighted toward the beginning of the governor’s time in office. The first year of a term, the governor will make about 450 appointments; in the second year, 400; the third, 300; and the fourth, 250.

Appointments are also much heavier in the first half of each year. The terms for most appointees end in January, and the governor’s office has six months to fill those vacancies. That means June 30 is a big deadline for the appointments team. The months from July to December are more likely to see appointments to fill vacancies when someone resigns or retires.

The open appointments process is housed in the secretary of state’s office. People submit online applications on the office’s website and can sign up to be notified of vacancies on boards and commissions.

Left to the inertia of past decades, however, Minnesota’s appointees would skew heavily white, male and metro.

“Chief of Staff [Jaime] Tincher has really been pressing to add greater diversity,” Dayton said, “because a lot of these boards don’t reflect the diversity of Minnesota.”

From when he took office in 2011 to June 30, 2016, the governor’s staff calculates that the number of appointees of color has increased by 49.4 percent.

“Just because you announce something, doesn’t mean everybody knows about it,” Tincher said. This year, Dayton’s staff invited leaders from communities that are under-represented on boards and commissions to workshops highlighting the opportunities available.

In an interview, Tincher called such diversity a “critical piece to our quality of life.” She pointed to three examples.

A new appointee to the Governor’s Workforce Development Board is Pakou Hang, a Hmong-American woman involved in agriculture issues. Without racial, ethnic, gender and disability diversity, Tincher said, “we’re not putting together a board that reflects Minnesota in the most robust way we can.”

Another board targeted for more diverse appointees is the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Law enforcement is one area, Tincher said, where it is important to ask questions such as, “Are we bringing in diverse perspectives, and do communities feel we have a diverse perspective on that board dealing with how law enforcement happens in Minnesota?”

On the Food Safety and Defense Task Force, appointees familiar with halal foods are needed. “That’s a community we want to have food safety,” she said.

McKeig, the first American Indian member of the state’s highest court, is the latest example of the administration’s efforts to diversify appointees.

Two days after he named McKeig to the state’s high court, Dayton made his last batch of other appointments before the June 30 deadline.

Several of those were to the Council for Rural Policy and Development.

One appointee, Anna Boroff, the senior public policy director at the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said she had subscribed to the secretary of state’s email notifications of vacancies to spread the word to corn growers across the state.

Like Boroff, Reed Anfinson checked vacancies as a matter of course in his role as editor and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News. Both were familiar with state government from past stints working at the Legislature, but were moved to apply for a vacancy for the first time out of their interests in rural affairs.

No press conference was called. Boroff received a phone call, after a process of submitting materials online and talking to a few people familiar with the organization.

“Nothing too complicated,” said Boroff.

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