Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration has hired a former union organizer to fill a new political director role, adding a six-figure position at a time when the city is staring down a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Jon Grebner, a former political organizer at AFSCME Council 5, officially started the political director job April 6.
Two days later, then-interim Finance Director John McCarthy told the City Council that his department was telling others “to hold off on nonessential spending and hiring because of what we know about our financial outlook right now.”
There was no public announcement of the hire at the time or months later, when the mayor’s office issued a news release to announce three director-level appointments.
According to the city, Grebner earns $53 an hour, or about $110,000 a year. He could not be reached for comment.
“Amid this public health and economic crisis, bringing our office back up to full staff capacity has been vital to meeting the many needs of our community,” Communications Director Peter Leggett said in a statement Friday, following a request for comment from Carter. “Jon Grebner’s experience and longstanding commitment to lifting up all of our voices is an incredible asset for our entire city.”
Council President Amy Brendmoen said Grebner’s hiring was in the works before the hiring freeze, and that it fills a staffing need in the mayor’s office.
Unlike former Mayor Chris Coleman, she said, Carter’s administration has a “lean” government relations team and no chief of staff.
“To me, this was a missing link,” Brendmoen said. “Jon has a lot of credibility in the political world, in the union world, and I think that he’ll be a good addition for them.”
Council Member Dai Thao said the hire surprised him, and it’s unclear what the political director job will entail. The council, which must approve Grebner’s hiring, has not yet done so.
“I guess we’ve just never really had a chance, as a full council, to look at it — we’ve just been reacting to the crisis,” Thao said. “I think there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked.”
Other city staff have donated to Carter’s mayoral campaign, and it’s common for staffers to also work on campaigns. The city charter prohibits employees from engaging in political activities during work hours.
The political director role is new for the Carter administration, but not for the city. In the final years of the Coleman administration, the job was held by Matthew Freeman, who during that same period managed Coleman’s mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns, according to his LinkedIn page.
As political director, Freeman’s duties included developing political relationships with union leaders, overseeing appointments to city boards and commissions and managing community outreach, including the annual budget address and State of the City, according to LinkedIn.
Now executive director of the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators, Freeman could not be reached for comment.
Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the current political director role was developed after the departure of Liz Xiong, the mayor’s press secretary. As a result of the pandemic, Tincher said, Grebner’s work so far has been different from originally planned.
A job description provided by the city includes work previously split between several staff members: supporting the mayor’s priorities through work with the City Council, Ramsey County Board and city employees, as well as supporting relationships with labor partners and the city’s Racial Equity Team.
When Grebner started his job, Tincher said, she immediately assigned him to the Emergency Operations Center to work on communications. Council members said he has served as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the council on issues ranging from reopening restaurants for patio service to the recently approved tenant protection ordinance.
“In the midst of a pandemic ... having people who have the ability to communicate on behalf of the mayor with trust is a really important thing, not just to the council but to the entire city,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert.
As for the lack of a public announcement of the hire, Tolbert said he’s “not surprised that it got overshadowed,” given the timing.
“Everything got overshadowed at that point,” he said.