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Tom Rukavina died of leukemia on Jan. 7, his last day as St. Louis County Commissioner, the job he held since 2015. Previously he’d served as state representative 1987-2013.
Rukavina was noted for his combative style throughout his career. He was not ashamed to be the county’s board’s pain in the ass. Often he would grind the meeting to a halt with challenging questions and verbal fights with fellow board member Keith Nelson.
Though they were both Iron Rangers, Rukavina and Nelson clashed on what was best for the Iron Range. Rukavina thought the county government favored Duluth and tried to get the state legislature to consider a bill to split St. Louis in half, a notion a majority of the board opposed. Commissioners were also unpleasantly surprised to learn that Rukavina had, without their consent, gotten a bill written up to ensure Iron Range representation on the Port Authority. (The bill never made it out of committee.)
In May 2018, Board President Keith Nelson told the Reader, “He’s gotten a lot better in the last two months. They’re managing his pain, finally. I lived with it for two years. But we didn’t know, and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, there’s something wrong.’ We found out he has leukemia. And he has a very, very aggressive form. So he has, they’re telling him 18 months is about what he has left. It was difficult to manage coordinating, as mean as he was being. But he was in constant pain.
“I’ve known Tom for 25 years. I knew there was something wrong, but how do you, you know what I’m saying. He’s better now. I think he’s gonna mellow out a bit. But he was at a point there for a while that if I said yes, he said no. And if I said no he said yes. And it was like, ‘Tom, what are you doing?’ Again, they’re controlling his pain, and he’s on some very high-powered experimental drugs, and the truth is, you’re probably not going to see him at that many more board meetings.”
This turned out to be true. His appearances at board meetings got increasingly rare in the the second half of 2018. The meetings were swifter, more efficient, and duller.
Commissioners eulogized Rukavina in the first meeting of the year, Jan. 8, 2019, the day after his death. Nelson said, “We fought all the time because we both shared much of the same passion for getting things done for the people of St. Louis County. The difference was, Tom never cared about style. He just didn’t care. And I think that was the piece that endeared him to most people.
“I enjoyed fighting with him all the time. I’m gonna miss that. I’m gonna be looking for someone to fight with on this board, if there’s any volunteers, and it’s important because I think that that passion, that dialogue, that back-and-forth often makes better decisions than just proceeding forward.”
Newly anointed Board President Patrick Boyle isn’t enthused about combat. “I’ve always said, which Commissioner Rukavina argued with me, a boring commissioner meeting is a good commissioner meeting for me. He argued that back with me all the time, but that’s not what I signed up for. I like for our commissioners to do their due diligence with their work done ahead of time, ask the questions to the administration beforehand or Committee of the Whole.”
Mark Rubin explains it all
Last week County Attorney Mark Rubin announced he would hire his son, Tony, as assistant county attorney, out of approximately 30 applicants, with no interviews, prompting a lot of grumbling on social media.
The younger Rubin has four years experience as an attorney with SiebenCarey PA. He was a consultant for the county law library (2011-2014) and the chair of the board of directors of PAVSA. (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, 2009-2013) His resume also lists “residential elevator salesman and installer” (2005-2009) and manager of his father’s election campaigns.
On Jan. 8 the Reader sat down with Mark Rubin and said, “Brass tacks. How is this not a case of nepotism?” Here’s his response:
“Once the county board authorizes a budgetary position, the sole hiring authority is the county attorney by state statute. There is no policy or statute that prohibits the hiring of family members. Period. If there was I would never do it. That’s what’s important for people to understand. Assistant county attorneys and investigators are unclassified and not civil service. There is a classified and a civil service policy for people who are hired for those positions. For instance, all of our clerical are civil service and classified and there are specific interview processes and everything.
“Obviously my job isn’t just to see that the law is followed, but of course to follow it myself. By hiring somebody the way I did in conformity with the state law, with county policy, and again there’s no policy against hiring a family member. People probably don’t realize it, but in my eight years as county attorney, this is the 27th hire or appointment that I’ve made. And of those I think six or seven were direct appointments with even advertising for a position. Not posting it or anything, people that I thought would be a really good addition to serve the public, and they were available, so I offered them an opportunity.
“My three predecessors also followed the practice of occasionally hiring directly from the public. One of them even hired their son as an investigator in Hibbing quite a few years ago. I’m very familiar with this being the practice in the office because in 1978, Keith Brownell hired me right out of law school. In fact I was interviewed on a Saturday morning, I still remember it. He knew me because I was a student intern in this office when I was a student at St. Scholastica in summer of ‘75. So when I got done with law school, I heard there was gonna be an opening, and I was invited to come up, and iI was invited to come to work. There hadn’t been a posting or interviews or anything. So there’s just been an understanding, occasionally that is the way people are hired.
“It’s not always the person with the most experience in a particular area that is the most qualified. We make hiring decisions based upon other factors. How are they going to be of service, what else have they done in the community to show that their heart in really in this, and can they bring something with their experience that’s gonna make a difference in this important work that we do?
“We posted it with litigation and trial experience preferred. The majority of the other applicants were judicial law clerks. We had a number of people with some experience, too. I reviewed every single resume and cover letter, which I do anyway, and after reviewing, I made my decision.”