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3 finalists in contention for St. Louis personnel director job

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Mayor Jones addresses board of alderman indictments

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones speaks to the press in City Hall on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. 

ST. LOUIS — Mayor Tishaura O. Jones is reviewing three candidates for the director of personnel job, meaning a hire for the key city post could be announced in the coming weeks.

Jones’ pick to lead the city’s personnel department would be just the fifth permanent director of the largely independent department since voters approved the creation of the city’s civil service system in 1941. The position, which most mayors never get the chance to fill, only opened after the sudden December retirement of Rick Frank, who had led the department since 2004.

Under St. Louis’ charter, the mayor gets to pick a permanent director from three finalists “established by means of competitive tests of fitness conducted by the Civil Service Commission.” The mayor must make the choice within 30 days after the list is forwarded by the commission.

The three people under consideration for the job are:

  • Sonya Jenkins-Gray, chief human resources officer at CareSTL Health, a community health system that operates four locations in north St. Louis and provides services through several school districts. She previously worked at a medical group and logistics firm in Atlanta and in human resources for the Washington Nationals baseball team and at the Washington Times newspaper, according to her LinkedIn page.
  • James Henderson, a human resources manager who has worked for governments in the Atlanta area, Montana, Oregon and Arizona, according to his LinkedIn page.
  • John Unnerstall, a human resources manager in the St. Louis Department of Personnel who has held various positions there since 2007.

The Civil Service Commission, a three-member panel with two members Jones has appointed or reappointed, has been interviewing candidates for the job since at least the spring. At the request of Jones’ administration, the Regional Business Council agreed to pay up to $60,000 to St. Louis County-based Collaborative Strategies Inc. to conduct a nationwide search for candidates.

The personnel director is among the most powerful jobs in city government, though their influence is largely behind-the-scenes. Once hired, they are almost untouchable by the mayor and can only be fired after formal charges of wrongdoing. Backers of the 1941 amendment hoped to insulate the department from City Hall politics, which reform groups argued would check the use of patronage and limit staff turnover when administrations change. The department isn’t even housed in City Hall — it’s across the street in the Carnahan Courthouse.

But some department heads and former mayors have chafed at the department’s quiet influence within city government. The director holds broad discretion over the testing format for open jobs and the makeup of the eligible lists — typically of six applicants — that city department heads must use to fill positions. The director also is a chief negotiator with the city’s public employee unions and can significantly influence politically sensitive job searches, which it did last year as the Jones administration began looking for a new police chief.

Civil Service Commissioner Steven Barney, who was appointed by former Mayor Francis Slay and reappointed by Jones, has said he’s watched three mayors struggle to get the department to cooperate in implementing their agendas.

But others argue the department is designed to be insulated from politics to limit patronage and ensure qualified employees fill government jobs.

The political jockeying over the job in the last year underscores its importance. When Frank stepped down for health reasons and an interim director took the helm, some employees close to Frank were briefly locked out of their offices amid the leadership transition so officials could conduct an investigation. It’s unclear what agency investigated or if anything of substance was discovered.

Then, the commission approved a rule change giving Jones the power to appoint an interim director. She tapped John Moten, a longtime Laclede Gas executive, who said he would stay for six months. The commission extended his tenure to the end of November.

The union that represents city firefighters sued over the interim director appointment, arguing that allowing Jones to select an interim director violated the city charter. That case is pending.

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