In the days following Erin DuPree’s decision on Sept. 22 to walk away from the top post at the Office of Cannabis Management, Walz promised to diligently find a replacement. He has yet to do so.
And now the Office of the Legislative Auditor has opened a preliminary inquiry into the process that led to the short-lived appointment of DuPree to serve as the state’s inaugural director for the Office of Cannabis Management.
But as that OLA inquiry is underway, on Wednesday Gov. Walz said in an interview with WCCO Radio that he’ll continue to lean on the longtime DFL communications specialist his administration put in charge of fielding applications for the post.
“I think the one thing to assure Minnesotans on is that Charlene Briner, and a lot of professionals over there, who are standing this agency up, lots of work is being done,” Walz told Vineeta Sawkar, who hosts the morning show on WCCO Radio. “The office of hiring a director was just one piece of this and there has been a whole lot done ahead of time.”
Briner is a longtime DFL caucus and state government employee who Walz tapped to lead the administrative work for the fledgling Office of Cannabis Management and the search for a new director. She once ran for (and lost) state legislature as a DFL-endorsed candidate. She then began a career as a communications specialist for the House DFL caucus. From there she was hired to serve in a number of different roles in executive branch agencies under DFL governors.
Beginning in June, Briner had been contracted through the state Department of Agriculture to help guide the new office and field applications for the director position.
When DuPree was announced as Walz’s choice for OCM director on Sept. 21, Briner said: “Erin emerged early as a leading candidate as we considered a wide range of qualified individuals for this important new leadership role. Her experience, credibility, and passion for ensuring the success of Minnesota’s new cannabis industry made her a stand-out among an extraordinary pool of talented candidates. I have no doubt those qualities will serve her well as she carries out her work in the months ahead.”
In Walz’s Wednesday interview on WCCO Radio, the governor described the appointment of a cannabis director as just one of the hundreds of appointments his administration is tasked with regularly, despite the fact that the job will pay between $105,000 and $151,000.
“One of the responsibilities when the people give you the privilege of being governor is you appoint positions, and that’s across the spectrum from judges to people who sit on animal health board,” Walz told Sawkar. “We’ve done about 2,600 of them.”
But the vast majority of those appointments are for what are effectively volunteer positions on advisory boards and commissions. The new cannabis director position, according to the new state statute governing the Office of Cannabis Management, defined the director position as one that requires advice and consent of the Senate. There are very few of those executive agency positions in state government.
Despite the scrutiny that Walz has received following DuPree’s appointment and resignation, he said he welcomed the anticipated “feedback” his office expects to receive from the Office of the Legislative Auditor.
“I think the OLA, I always welcome, my wife always says failure is feedback, so take it,” Walz said.
“If there is some things (the OLA) can bring to us, I think reaching out to more broader than just the industry folks, talking about the regulatory folks, talking about the consumer side, we’ll learn from it. But I can, you know, tell Minnesotans, again, the proof will be in the results.”
Just a few weeks ago, DuPree also interviewed with Sawkar on WCCO Radio and discussed her decision to resign from the post and her frustrations with how the governor’s staff prepared her to face scrutiny from the media and the public.
“I hope the next person they choose is more ready for a fight than they prepared me for,” DuPree said.
Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.