It’s been about a year since a new Minneapolis City Council promised to work well together. Did they?

Minneapolis City Council
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson
A leadership shakeup reflected a new push among Minneapolis’ voters to make municipal government more progressive — and allowed an opportunity for those at City Hall to make a fresh start.

It was around this time last year when Lisa Bender made her first moves as Minneapolis City Council president, and among them was visiting the office of every council member to question what they wanted from her as their new leader. Every official, she said, had this main request: Let’s just all get along.

That request followed four years of a council divided on several key issues though seen from the outside as politically monolithic and a contentious 2017 election in which voters elected five new faces and Mayor Jacob Frey, a former member of the council.

The leadership shakeup reflected a new push among Minneapolis’ voters to make municipal government more progressive and also allowed an opportunity for those at City Hall to make a fresh start. At one of the council’s first meetings last year, for example, Frey said: “I have the utmost faith in this new government to work together, to collaborate for the community.”

But now, roughly 13 months later, several controversial proposals have tested that pledge for unity. In recent interviews, multiple council members said that while everyone on the council agrees on the same overarching goals for the city increase affordable housing, explore new ways to improve public safety and lift up historically marginalized voices less clear are the detailed steps for reaching them. (Cue heated debates like that over Minneapolis 2040.)

But even with those differences, it would take a hair to separate council members on a political spectrum; they include 12 DFL members and one Green Party member. And their visions for the city have so far resulted in more consensus than that of their predecessors elected in 2013, several multi-term council members said.

“There were real philosophical and political differences last term, and now I think we have so many council members who ran on a clear progressive agenda,” said Bender, who was initially elected to the council in 2013. “We certainly have debates and have discussions on the details, but those high-level priorities … those are strong consensus positions of the council overall.”

Here’s what happened last term

In the first half of the last council’s four-year term, a showdown over the city’s budget was an annual event. In December 2014, council members were split over the maximum for the city’s tax levy, or the total amount of property tax the city will collect, after residents filled City Council chambers to share impassioned testimonies over the tax rate in 2015. Then-Mayor Betsy Hodges wanted to set aside the additional money for several new ideas, ranging from a program to promote leadership skills among minority residents to a study of racial inequities in the city.

Then-council President Barbara Johnson and Vice President Elizabeth Glidden, who four years earlier had competed against each other to spearhead the council, led the two groups for and against a tax levy nearly the size of Hodges’ proposal and many other divisive issues. A 2015 budget compromise eventually passed 12-1.

A similar scenario division among council members, lengthy hearings and anger from residents played out a year later during budget meetings in 2015. Tensions were already high among council members after fights over if, or to what extent, it was appropriate for them to participate in protests against the police after the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark and the dismantling of a protest camp at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th precinct.

Then, in the 11th-hour of budget proceedings, council members introduced proposals to boost police training under a federal initiative and make improvements to the same precinct. Activists were furious and filled council chambers. There were emotional speeches and threats promising political revenge against council members. In the end, they pulled that idea from the budget, and a compromise eventually passed 12-1.

The latter part of the council’s 2013-2017 term took a different direction in terms of budget talks: Council members seemingly decided to get along. Both spending plans passed with comparatively little reaction from activists or each other. Glidden even joked at the end of a meeting over the city’s 2017 budget, for example: “We’re arriving at a place where we’re going to go home and maybe not cry so much on the way out.”

Also in that portion of the council’s term it passed proposals to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 eventually and mandate that all employers pay their workers sick time.

And it was also that council that set fundamental goals on which the next council built Minneapolis 2040, a long-range plan that eventually emerged as one of city’s most controversial issues in 2018.

New dynamics

The council began its current term with a new president, Bender, who did not support Frey in his campaign for mayor and also had faced a rival ticket for the leadership position: Council Member Andrea Jenkins as president and Council Member Linea Palmisano as vice president. Frey and Bender were often in different groups over budget fights during their time together on the City Council. But they made public and repeated promises to work together after their most recent election, especially because they agreed on the city’s big-picture goals around housing and eliminating disparities, for examples.

“That (mending factionalism of the last term) has been a huge priority for me as president to really help this body kind of heal from that division from last term and the divide, which if you’re trying to describe it to someone from outside of Minneapolis, I’m not even sure what you would say,” since their political differences are so slight, Bender said in a recent interview.

It was not until a public-safety proposal by Cam Gordon, who represents neighborhoods in eastern-central Minneapolis, in June 2018 that the council experienced its first major showdown. He introduced an idea to spread authority of the city’s police department between the council and mayor in an effort to answer the public’s pleas for more accountability over the department. But the measure, which eventually would have needed voters’ approval, quickly divided the council into those open to a change and strong opponents, including second-termer Alondra Cano, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. She said Gordon did not adequately consult her before going forward with the idea. The controversy fizzled out when the city’s Charter Commission agreed it needed more time to consider such a change which meant it did not meet a deadline to go on the November ballot.

But that proposal garnered nowhere near the same amount of criticism from the public as an idea to change housing zoning in the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Palmisano and Lisa Goodman, who represent southwest and downtown neighborhoods, voiced the most criticism of the plan’s idea to eliminate all single-family zoning to allow for multifamily housing everywhere in response to what they called overwhelming opposition from their constituencies. They also questioned the city’s transparency; its hiring of a consulting firm to help “control the narrative” around the plan, according to an outline of the firm’s job; and how council members communicated their disagreements with each other.

At the final meeting where council members gave their vote, Goodman summed up the entire process as one filled with “lot of division and a lot of anger.”

“Through this past year of comp plan development, constantly putting people down because we disagree on the avenues to take in order to achieve these goals, is wrong. And when we do it as council members, when we turn to things like social media and send these insults, that’s an abuse of this office,” Palmisano said before giving the only nay vote. “Yeah, we have the right goals, but we have the wrong comp plan.”

Around the same time, the council debated a $1.55 billion budget proposal for 2019. In one of the final hearings, two new members of the council, Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher, introduced an “public-safety omnibus amendment” to shift around funds in the proposal to pump more money toward alternative, community-led safety programs outside of the police department, including a new Office of Violence Prevention in the city’s health department. A couple council members opposed the change, but it passed with a majority vote.

“I think this council has really come together behind a progressive vision for our city,” Bender said. “The budget really showed that consensus and commitment to invest in the kinds of progressive values that we ran on in the last election.”

What’s happening in 2019

Fletcher, who represents downtown and parts of northeast Minneapolis, said the council’s newly elected members are committed to broadening the type of people who interact with City Hall. For example, a push to diversify who leads neighborhood organizations, as part of an initiative called Neighborhood 2020, is showing that priority now.

“There’s going to be that tension (from) people whose voices have been heard they’ve been at table they’re losing power. We saw that expressed in the debate around 2040 plan. We’re seeing it in the Neighborhoods 2020 conversation,” Fletcher said. “(There’s) legitimate anxiety about what does that change mean. …We are creating healthy tension in the community.”

But, when comparing this council to the prior one, several council members emphasized their different role as local leaders now under the current national political climate. Bender said they face a new pressure to solve “bigger problems” while at the same time handle the same level of city services, such as garbage collection and growing businesses.

Expectations have changed than four years ago there’s this need to collaborate because we know there aren’t other levels of government looking out for us,” Palmisano said. “On the larger stage, things are at such a fraught point. It’s important that at the local level, while we may have disagreements, we share the same goals.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Arthur Himmelman on 02/06/2019 - 01:06 pm.

    According to Jessica Lee’s informative article (2/6/18) on City Hall, Mayor Frey and City Council member Palmisano say they recognize the need for City government to “collaborate” as elected officials and with the city residents they serve. In my professional opinion, based on nationally recognized expertise in community and systems change collaboration, I find very little evidence Minneapolis city government has collaborative relationships with city residents or their community and neighborhood organizations.

    Collaboration requires shared decision-making power. It requires mutual respect, learning, and accountability for results. In my view, there is no evidence City Hall practices sharing power in collaboration with its communities and neighborhoods nor substantial mutuality. To the contrary, City Hall replaced its only legitimately collaborative program – the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) – with an engagement program in the City Coordinator’s Office called Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR). NCR policies and programs greatly increased ambiguity, which always diminishes accountability, by replacing the clarity of NRP shared decision-making with engagement which, according to the NCR provides “a feeling of being represented.”

    To put it bluntly, City Hall’s practice of engagement means residents can comment on its top-down, citywide initiatives, such as the 2040 Comp Plan and the 2020 Neighborhood Plan, and their recommendations can be completely ignored. Unfortunately, city residents/stakeholders and their community and neighborhoods organizations have become immersed in the diversions and illusions of time-consuming engagement which intentionally limit possibilities for change representing the desires and priorities of those most affected by change.

    City Council member Steve Fletcher put it this way: “There’s going to be that tension (from) people whose voices have been heard — they’ve been at table — they’re losing power. We saw that expressed in the debate around 2040 plan. We’re seeing it in the Neighborhoods 2020 conversation,” (There’s) legitimate anxiety about what does that change mean. …We are creating healthy tension in the community.”

    Healthy tension? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you never saw the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they did tricks for you. Engagement may be a circus for City Hall but growing numbers of city residents are refusing to be amusing and know what they want to eat.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/07/2019 - 11:54 am.

      Yes, Minneapolis is finally doing it right. For far too long, unrepresentative neighborhood organizations have been dragging the city down.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/07/2019 - 02:09 pm.

      Good comment AH, specifically about “accountability” has or could NCR ever provide a; this is what we accomplished with your what $2-3M whatever, in Taxpayer funding, a year budget? , This is what worked this is what didn’t this is how we are adjusting. Something other than, we made people feel good!

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/06/2019 - 07:03 pm.

    As to be expected, lots of this and that, social issues, but not a word about the folks that make it all happen the taxpayer.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/08/2019 - 10:07 am.

    It seems like Minneapolis is finally doing it right, not only with officials working together to get more done but also the city’s model for engaging with the public.

    Minneapolis 2040 is a prime example of this. Between council members and CPED, there were over 100 meetings about 2040. There was a great interactive website that brought transparency to the process and to the plans. Most importantly, there was a concerted and worthwhile effort to engage with communities who have often been excluded from political power in the city. The end result was therefore much more broad based in terms of support, and the legislation passed 12-1 after some amendments that, while notable, did not represent much of a departure from the overall public process and sentiment.

    Council President Lisa Bender is particularly responsible for the success of the current Council, through consensus-building and sorely needed policy leadership. It’s such a refreshing change. She surely had a mandate for this change too, winning her second term with more than three times the votes of any challenger in her ward. She also unanimously secured the support of her colleagues to become president of the body. That was enabled by 2017’s election cementing the shift that started in 2013, with five new councilmembers adding to the new “post-legacy-DFL” bloc.

    These successes in City Hall lead us towards a great opportunity to make neighborhood and community groups more effective – abolish city funding and official recognition of neighborhood groups, and move towards two replacement functions instead. First, create a central support function for community engagement across the city modeled after the successes of Minneapolis2040 community engagement. Second, create a community-led grant program to replace CPP and NRP dollars flowing to neighborhood groups. Let any stakeholder or interested party propose investments in neighborhood improvements. This would free up our 70 neighborhood organizations, their boards and staff, from the bureaucracy and operational needs that are replicated at each organization which is a significant inefficiency and also leads to board burnout and infighting. People don’t join neighborhood groups to run fiefdoms, they join neighborhood groups to get things done in their neighborhoods. The city can be an amazing partner in making that happen.

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