Rybak will get his police chief, but at what cost?

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Mayor R.T. Rybak may have finally found a police chief he can work with. Now, he only needs to convince seven council members that they can work with him, too. And that could cost him dearly.

Despite his electoral successes and political victories during his first five years in office, Rybak has been cursed with police chiefs who challenged his authority, embarrassed him with management snafus, or ignored him altogether. Robert Olson, who he inherited from the Sharon Sayles Belton administration, was a more savvy politician than Rybak and knew how to subvert his initiatives. William McManus, who Rybak selected after a national search, turned out to be a management disaster and “career climber” whose popularity in the black community did little to raise the mayor’s profile in a part of town that’s never embraced him.

Now comes Interim Chief Tim Dolan, a 23-year veteran of the force who Rybak has nominated to run the department. By all accounts, Dolan is an effective administrator with broad rank-and-file support. But the mayor is having trouble convincing council members that his pick—and the process—is worthy of their support.

Last week, Dolan faced a respectful, but intense, grilling from three members of the Executive Committee who expressed concerns about his commitment to community policing, diversifying the force, department accountability, and a host of other issues. What wasn’t discussed at the meeting was the process—or lack of it—that resulted in Dolan’s selection.

That came later, when Council Member Ralph Remington railed against the “perfunctory” process Rybak employed. Remington argued that the mayor never had any intention of doing a serious search for a new chief, because he saw Dolan as someone through which he could have more control over the city’s police force. As a result, Remington says, Rybak brought in two other candidates—U of M Police Chief Greg Hestness and Seattle Deputy Chief Nicholas Metz—strictly for show.

Remington is particularly peeved about the Metz candidacy, which he said was never seriously considered, despite the fact that Metz grew up in Minneapolis and would have been the department’s first black police chief. “If you’re interested in diversifying the police force,” he said, “Why not start at the top.”

There’s some serious backroom politics going on around this nomination, Remington said. And his suspicions were heightened last week when he received a letter from Metz supporting Dolan. “Somebody got to him,” he said.

It’s in this climate that Rybak is hoping to round up enough votes in favor of Dolan’s nomination so as not to embarrass himself or his new chief. And while it’s clear that the mayor has the seven-vote majority needed to approve the nomination, a 7–6 vote would indicate anything but a mandate for Dolan. That won’t affect the chief’s work in the department, but it could send a divisive message between the council and the cops at a time when the department is under intense pressure to change.

And it would be a slap in the face of a mayor who less than a year ago won a resounding re-election only to stumble into a public safety maelstrom that threatens to derail an otherwise ambitious agenda.

With several council members dreaming of mayoral runs in 2009, the Dolan nomination may be the first of several altercations we’ll be seeing during the next three years. If Rybak intends to seek a third term (a prospect that may hinge on the outcome of November’s election), he’ll need all of his persuasive powers—and a good deal of political capital—to weather the storms ahead.

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