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Regional Council of Mayors: a vacation from bitter partisanship

The council acts as a kind of laboratory; the emphasis is on common problems and how to solve them together in a nonpartisan atmosphere.

After Jared Lee Loughner put a bullet through Gabrielle Giffords’ head in Tucson last month, politicians, left and right, lined up to pledge a novel idea: civility in public discourse. My mind ran immediately to a remarkably cordial monthly gathering of mayors from around the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro working together on sticky issues. To watch them closely, as I have for two years, it’s nearly impossible to tell Republicans from Democrats. Seldom is heard a disparaging word.

“I can’t recall a political fight,” said Caren Dewar, director of Urban Land Institute-Minnesota and coordinator of the Regional Council of Mayors (RCM), formed in 2005. Dewar calls the group a “coalition of the willing,” meaning that membership is voluntary and unofficial. About 40 mayors participate, including Minneapolis’ R.T. Rybak and St. Paul’s Chris Coleman.

The big cities don’t hog all the attention, however. The emphasis is on common problems and how to solve them together in a nonpartisan atmosphere. Over its six-year history the RCM has grappled with housing, transportation, environment and now economic development. National experts often drop in to share knowledge and provoke discussion. The object, says Dewar, is to build knowledge and to instill a collaborative spirit that improves metro competitiveness and quality of life.

Mayor Jim Hovland
Mayor Jim Hovland

A laboratory of pragmatism
In a sense, the council acts as a kind of laboratory. Freed from overt partisanship, mayors are able to see more clearly the genuine need for affordable housing in wealthy suburbs, environmental protection for lakes and streams, transit options throughout the metro and partnerships needed to spur job creation and broader prosperity, among other things. Perhaps as important, they’re able to see how all of these things interrelate.

“Over the years I’ve seen a growing understanding that, yeah, mayors want what’s best for their communities, but they also see that the region as a whole needs to be strong and that they can make it stronger by working together,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who co-chairs the council with Burnsville’s Elizabeth Kautz. “Hearing some of the talk around the table you go back to your town with ideas you would never have thought of on your own.”

Dewar credits Rybak and Coleman for the important symbolic act of sitting down with their suburban counterparts on an equal footing, “There’s a genuine attitude of trust and respect, no matter the size of the community,” she said.

Mary Hershberger Thun, mayor of Victoria, a small (pop. 6,300) suburb on the southwest shore of Lake Minnetonka, agreed.

“Building relationships is important, especially for a smaller community,” she said, telling of a time she had a question about parks and called Minneapolis City Hall, not expecting to get much help. “I got a personal email from R.T. that night,” she said.

It’s not that advice from bigger cities can always be applied directly, she said. But there’s always something to learn from the wider experiences of others. “I come from a very conservative and frankly quite wealthy area, so some of the things we talk about here don’t affect me directly. But we’re growing, and we’ll change over time. We’ll be among the largest communities in the southwest metro in 20 years. We have thousands of acres to develop. So I listen, for example, when the mayor of Eden Prairie talks about the Southwest transit line because it might be coming our way someday.”

Seeking a ‘sweet spot’ away from state politics
RCM was founded by two suburban Republican mayors — Kautz of Burnsville and Karen Anderson of Minnetonka — who had been working with then Met Council Chair Ted Mondale on affordable housing. They wanted to expand the agenda to include other regional issues but sought a separation from the Met Council after 2003, fearing its closer ties to partisan state politics. Key funding from the Urban Land Institute, Target Corp., the Family Housing Fund and others launched the effort.

The Washington-based Brookings Institution has also been an important player. Dewer credits Brookings‘ Metropolitan Policy Director Bruce Katz for setting the nonpartisan tone that RCM emulates.

“We form America’s natural pragmatic caucus,” Katz has said of his work with cities. “We’re close to the ground and hungry for results, prizing place over party, solution over dogma and collaboration over conflict.”

Rybak said he relishes working with other mayors. “It’s an incredible gift to somehow find this sweet spot where the partisan baloney gets sort of set aside,” he said.

“The whole point,” said Coleman, “is that our communities depend on each other. It’s no good if we don’t have a strong core, but it’s no good either if you don’t have a strong outer edge. We have too many common challenges to let partisanship get in the way. I’ve begun to tell some of my friends in the Legislature that they should start to think more like mayors.”

Here’s a more detailed look at RCM’s approach to housing, environment, transportation and economic development.