My Corona

Last waltz: The days of tusslin' between the chief and the mayor are finally winding down
City Pages photo illustration

Anyone itching to toss in two cents about the search for a new Minneapolis police chief had a shot during a public hearing last Tuesday evening in the City Council chambers. The mayor hosted, and fans and foes of His Honor were treated to the quintessential R.T. Rybak: He sat front and center alone, unflinchingly took public testimony from 17 concerned citizens, and made eye contact as he thanked each speaker on a first-name basis.

Time and again, Rybak referred to a visual aid propped up next to him, a corkboard displaying five "Community Expectations for the Chief of Police." That his bullet points--"maintain public safety," "strong manager" and "visible leader" among them--and citizen input rarely jibed did not ruffle the mayor nor take him off message.

Aside from a significant number of pleas for someone well-versed in confrontations between police and the mentally ill, the speakers were split on qualifications becoming a chief. The new hire, they said, should either come from outside the force or within; be a minority in some vague sense or be picked strictly on bona fides; and be willing to work with the mayor or fight tooth-and-nail against him.

"I'm wide open on this process," Rybak said more than once, purposefully quashing media predictions. "If you see something on the news or in the newspaper at this point, it's sheer fantasy."

Rybak is clearly relishing his moment to publicly cast a chief in his image, a crucial appointment that will effectively define his first term as mayor. Rybak and Olson have had a series of squabbles, publicly and privately, over the nearly two years they've had to work together, and there's a sense of relief from Rybak's office that those tensions will finally be laid to rest.

Whence all the acrimony? The first public set-to came when Rybak tried and failed to remove Olson in April 2002, but there had been a palpable rift between the two since the day Rybak was sworn in four months earlier. Candidate Rybak made hay on the campaign trail by denouncing his predecessor, Sharon Sayles Belton, and her apparent lack of visibility. He also attacked her disappointing record on adding more officers of color to the police force, saying that one of his first priorities, if elected, would be to make the chief more accountable on minority relations.

Campaign rhetoric or not, it was not hard to see Olson caught in the implication, and many City Hall insiders still say it set the tone for an icy relationship. More than that, there was plenty of animosity between Sayles Belton and Rybak during the election season, and Sayles Belton and Olson were close--Olson was very much her appointee. Many believe Rybak has resented inheriting Sayles Belton's chief, and Olson resented the jabs he took on Rybak's way into office.

But even if Rybak were sincere about adding more cops of color, or resented the chief's ties to the previous administration, that doesn't explain the mayor's uncharacteristic fervor to dismiss the chief. Rybak has held out olive branches to other holdover administrators and city staffers from years past.

The roots of the mutual animosity would seem to lie partly in campaign alliances, too: Rybak received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the rank-and-file cops, during his mayoral run. One rumor that has persisted from then to now is that Rybak cut a deal: If endorsed by them and elected, the new mayor would fire Olson. The Rybak camp has always adamantly denied that such an arrangement was made. But if true, it was a naive move: Less than 15 percent of Minneapolis cops live in the city, hardly adding up to a significant voting block, and Rybak's relationship with the federation has cooled considerably in two years' time.

It's more likely, say some city leaders and close observers in retrospect, that Rybak was riding high off his November 2001 victory and felt he had the political capital to remove Olson. What Rybak didn't figure, however, was that an apparently receptive City Council would turn on him so soon. Unanimous approval from the council is required for the mayor to remove the chief, and Rybak never got the votes locked up. His presumptuousness in the matter remains a sore spot with many council members.

Beginning with the failed ouster, Olson--a far savvier politician than his boss--has repeatedly played Rybak in the media, and the continued small victories appear to have rankled the mayor. For instance, when it was leaked that Rybak was planning to move the MPD's communications department under his watch last February, it turned into a P.R. debacle for the mayor, while Olson simply went about the business of solving a high-profile murder. Perhaps as a consequence of their political combat, Olson has not exactly worked overtime to make Rybak's life easier. Earlier this year, when city department heads were charged with developing layoff strategies in the face of budget cuts, Rybak was left to moan publicly about Olson's foot-dragging.

But if Rybak is eager to put this behind him, he has more obstacles ahead in his quest to appoint a new chief. For starters, while Rybak is adamant about conducting a nationwide search, the budget is only $50,000, while other comparable cities have spent two to four times as much in the past. Also, any appointment must come through the mayor's executive committee (which includes four council members) and be approved by the full City Council. And already some council members are making sympathetic noises on behalf of candidates already on the force, so it's hardly a given that Rybak could get the votes needed to bring in an outsider.

To complicate the process more, some council members are lamenting that the search has started too late and may require the appointment of an interim chief once Olson's contract is up on January 1, 2004. Then there are those observers who think Rybak is only going through the motions of a broad search and plans to pick one of the candidates already on the force.

And finally there are some who say Rybak believes this is his moment to deliver on the promise of more MPD diversity and better community relations. If so, the mayor has a long way to go. At the beginning of last month, only 132 of the city's 814 sworn police officers were minorities (and less than half of those were black), and only 130 were women. The MPD is still overwhelmingly white and male nearly halfway into Rybak's tenure. And none of the top candidates within the department are persons of color. The mayor's rhetorical zeal notwithstanding, there's a very good chance that the new chief will end up looking a lot like the old one.


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