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.)
“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.”
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.
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.”