Mayor's move shut out St. Paul public works finalists

Kathy Lantry
Kathy Lantry
Courtesy City of St. Paul

Just four days before St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced he'd hired City Council President Kathy Lantry as the city's public works director, documents show city leaders were interviewing three other candidates for the job.

Two were from the Twin Cities area. One was flown in from the Chicago suburbs. Lantry was not among them. She hadn't even applied for the job and held none of the qualifications the city advertised for in a public works chief.

The candidates called back for a second round of interviews had emerged from a field of 33 applicants, recruited with the help of Springsted, Inc. The St. Paul-based consultants were paid $10,000 to assist with the search.

Coleman only interviewed one of the candidates: Suzette Robinson, who runs the public works department for Evanston, Ill. Since Robinson was from out of town, the city wanted to avoid flying her out a third time to meet with the mayor, Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny said.

The city council this week approved spending up to $3,000 to cover Robinson's travel expenses.

The mayoral interview made Robinson a "finalist" under Minnesota state law, which is why the city had to disclose her identity in response to an open records request from MPR News. The law makes the names of all other applicants private.

Mayor Chris Coleman
Mayor of St. Paul Chris Coleman spoke to the crowd at the grand opening of grocery store in downtown St. Paul on May 15, 2014.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News 2014

"We had some really strong candidates and appreciate the people who came forward to apply for the position," Coleman's Communications Director Tonya Tennessen wrote in an email. "At the end of the day, Kathy Lantry knows this city better than anyone. There will be no ramp-up time required and she can begin setting a direction for the department that will have an immediate impact."

In advertising the job, St. Paul said it wanted a candidate with at least seven years experience managing public works construction projects or engineering design. It required applicants to hold a degree in civil engineering, public administration, business or a related field.

Lantry, who's served 17 years on the city council, including the last 10 as president, holds a bachelor's degree in liberal studies from the College of St. Benedict. Prior to her political career, she worked as a property manager, according to her LinkedIn account.

Robinson has held the position in Evanston, a wealthy liberal suburb of Chicago, since 2009. During her time in the job she's focused on making the city more bike friendly and the public works department more diverse — goals Coleman shares for St. Paul.

Reached by phone this week, she had no insight on why the mayor suddenly pulled the plug on the hiring process.

"I thought both interviews went very well," she said.

Lantry, who announced last year that she would not seek a fifth term, will take on her new role and resign her council seat on March 1. She will earn $136,000 as public works director, up from the $58,491 she earned as a council member, which is technically a part-time position.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the number of applicants for the public works director position from 23 to 33.

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