By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In January of last year, Manzanillo, St. Paul's Mexican "sister city," was rocked by an earthquake. In response, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly tapped his son, Ryan, to lead a fundraising drive. As part of that effort, a benefit was held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the city's west side, where two gift certificates to area Mexican restaurants were raffled off.
The permit for the raffle, issued by the state's Gambling Control Board, was signed by Anne Briseño, an assistant in the mayor's office. Following the fundraiser, Briseño recalls, she heard nothing about what had happened to the money brought in by the raffle, approximately $180. She repeatedly e-mailed and called Ryan Kelly, seeking information, but her inquiries were ignored. Finally, out of exasperation, she shared her concerns with Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty.
"I raised questions, several questions, about the way the raffle was handled," says Briseño, who'd worked in the mayor's office since 1999 and previously served as executive director of the Riverview Economic Development Association. "I think that might have offended some people. There was a huge lack of follow-through on several points related to the raffle that Ryan needed to clean up."
All of the money from the raffle was eventually accounted for and turned over to the American Red Cross of the St. Paul Area, but Briseño says she noticed a subsequent chill in her relations with the mayor and other top city officials. "There was a feeling on my part that there was a little bit of strain on the relationship between myself and the mayor," she says. "He was a little less inclined to talk to me. It was just this feeling that I had, but you can't do anything about that."
Briseño's gut proved to be prescient. On January 20, the day after the Martin Luther King holiday, she was summoned to Deputy Mayor Flaherty's office and informed that she was being laid off. The reason given for her dismissal: budget cuts. A municipal employee being laid off for budgetary reasons is hardly news in these fiscally strained times. But given Briseño's past run-in with the mayor's son, her dismissal has raised some eyebrows around City Hall.
Deputy Mayor Flaherty acknowledges that Briseño approached her with concerns about the raffle, but denies that it had any influence on the mayor's decision to eliminate her job. "This was non-city related, and I had very little knowledge of what was going on," Flaherty recalls of their conversation. "She brought to my attention that she needed some things for accountability and I intervened and saw that those items were taken care of, and as far as I know the matter's been long resolved."
(Ryan Kelly, who is not a city employee, didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
The personnel move also seems strange given that a major part of Briseño's job was outreach to minority residents, particularly Latinos--a constituency that Mayor Kelly has courted during his administration. In December, he hosted a forum aimed at soliciting feedback and concerns from Spanish-speaking residents. In the wake of that event, the administration outlined a number of initiatives designed to cater to St. Paul's roughly 25,000 Hispanic residents, such as building a memorial to Mexican American Vietnam veterans and pushing an ordinance that would prohibit St. Paul city employees from asking residents about their immigration status.
Briseño was the only member of the mayor's staff who spoke Spanish. "Even my Spanish wasn't fluent," she concedes, recounting her track record. "But I had so many inroads and so many connections to the Hispanic community."
Briseño's office has been taken over by Sia Lo, who was transferred from the city attorney's office. He will be responsible for organizing St. Paul's response to an anticipated influx of Hmong refugees from Thailand. City officials initially believed that a new wave of immigration could mean as many as 9,000 new Hmong refugees arriving in St. Paul. But that figure has since been drastically reduced, to roughly 1,500. Last week Mayor Kelly led a 20-person delegation to Thailand in anticipation of the arrival of these refugees. The trip cost $39,000, but was paid for entirely from private sources.
"It was a reorganization in our office to prepare for this huge task we have of refugee resettlement," says Flaherty. "We brought in a person who had the skill set that was necessary to help us in the coming months and years to deal with those issues."
Perhaps, but the move doesn't come without some cost beyond the city's bottom line. For starters, Kelly's staff has no Spanish speakers to connect with St. Paul's substantial Latino populace. And those who worked with Briseño, like Alicia Zepeda, a program manager at the East Side Neighborhood Development Corporation, say that she provided an important bridge to the mayor's office.
"She kind of just made sure that all the parties were on the same page," says Zepeda, adding that Briseño was instrumental in putting together Plaza Latino, a shopping center on Payne Avenue that opened in September 2002. "She was just always there to support us."