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‘It’s time to move on’: Outgoing Hennepin County commissioners say new voices needed on county board

Commissioners Mike Opat, Jan Callison and Jeff Johnson don’t always agree on policy, but they do agree on why it’s time for them to retire. 

Hennepin County Government Center, Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The longest tenured members of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners have all announced they will not seek re-election when their terms end this year. On their way out, Mike Opat, who’s been on the board since 1993, Jan Callison and Jeff Johnson, both elected in 2008, all struck a similar note: It’s time to have other people in charge. 

It’s a bit of peculiar unanimity coming from elected officials who don’t always share political points of view and during a time of intense polarization (though the board is technically nonpartisan). But that’s the tune as the longtime commissioners exit their role on the seven-person commission, which is tasked with overseeing the county’s $2.5 billion budget and the vital service it provides. “It’s time to move on,” said Johnson, adding that a transition to new leadership and new ideas for District 7, which covers the northwest portion of the county, is “probably healthy right now.” 

Opat said he never expected to hold his District 1 seat, representing the northern swath of the county, for nearly 30 years. Like Johnson, he said it’s time for a new voice to represent the district, and for him to move on to new challenges.

Callison expressed similar sentiments about leaving her seat representing District 6, which includes Minneapolis’ western suburbs: “It’s the right time to give someone else the chance to do the job.”

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Opat: Seat needs a ‘unifier’

After decades of experience in county government, Opat says his future is wide open. He said he’s recently undergone an “indoctrination of dog park life.” 

Born in north Minneapolis and currently residing in Robbinsdale, the self-described “Northsider” is wrapping up a 28-year run on the board representing District 1, which includes Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale.

Commissioner Mike Opat
Commissioner Mike Opat
Opat says highlights of his time in office are projects like the Webber Park Library, Target Field and the conjoining light rail station, the teen pregnancy prevention initiative Better Together Hennepin, and a job training program for people on probation called Productive Day.

Opat also has a list of issues that he hopes the next commissioner will address: getting a light rail line to connect north Minneapolis and northern suburbs to Minneapolis; creating a precise audit of the affordable housing stock in the string of first-ring suburbs. But he sees one directive as especially pertinent for whoever will hold his seat — be a coalition builder. 

“I must say, I think it will be very important for my successor to be a unifier and not a divider,” said Opat. “There is more division now than in any time of my career.” 

The two candidates who will be on the ballot for the District 1 seat in November are De’Vonna Pittman and Jeff Lunde. Opat has yet to endorse a candidate.

Opat, who contemplated making a run for governor in 2010, said he has no political aspirations at the moment. Instead, he is “actively looking for something” to do in fields he’s gained knowledge of through his government work, like health care and human services. 

Callison: ready to pass the baton

Calling her decision to retire bittersweet, Callison is bidding farewell not only to the board she worked on for over a decade, but also to her life in local government. Before coming to the Hennepin County Board, she was mayor of Minnetonka, where she’s lived since 1987.

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In 2008, Callison was elected to represent District 6, which encompasses larger suburbs like Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina and parts of Eden Prairie. But District 6 also represents a smattering of smaller cities farther west, including Deephaven, Excelsior, Greenwood, Long Lake, Minnetonka Beach, Northern Mound, Orono, Shorewood, Spring Park, Tonka Bay, Wayzata, and Woodland.

“I think people often don’t understand how complex and diverse Hennepin County is, and I don’t mean diversity in terms of race or ethnicity or anything else,” said Callison. “I just mean, it’s a huge county, 1.2 million people, 45 cities. It’s very different from one end to another.” 

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison
Looking back, she says a high point of her time in office was going to bat for the county’s smaller cities. She helped Deephaven secure infrastructure updates to roads and a bridge, for example, and helped Excelsior get a new library. She also cited the start of construction on the Southwest Light Rail line and moving child protection to more of a “child well-being model,” as points of pride.

But it’s time to go, she says. “George Washington only served two terms,” she said. “I am no George Washington.” 

She feels she’s ready to pass the baton to someone else who will “bring their perspective and solutions” to issues in the county’s big and small cities. 

Chris LaTondresse and Dario Anselmo will be the two candidates on the ballot in November to represent District 6. Callison has yet to endorse a candidate.

Johnson: ‘It’s definitely time’

“I’ll miss it,” said retiring District 7 Commissioner Jeff Johnson, but “it’s definitely time for me.”

After the Plymouth resident’s two unsuccessful bids as a Republican candidate for governor, his six years in the Minnesota House of Representatives and his decade and change on the Hennepin County board, Johnson says he is closing the book on his political life.

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Looking back, Johnson doesn’t point to any big program or initiative as a highlight of his career in either county government or at the statehouse. “That’s not the role I sought for myself,” he said. “My role was to scrutinize the budget and push for more transparency and efficiency,” for taxpayers.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson
Commissioner Jeff Johnson
When he arrived on the Hennepin County Board, Johnson says commissioners were renewing contracts without checking to see if the programs were still effective. After “several years and a lot of arm twisting,” Johnson says he feels the county holds more programs that receive money to a higher standard.

Johnson — whose District 7 includes Champlin, Corcoran, Dayton, Greenfield. Independence, Loretto, Maple Grove, Maple Plain, Medina, Minnestrista, Southern Mound, Rogers, St. Bonifacius, Hanover, Northwest Plymouth and Rockford — believes that all commissioners should strive to be pragmatic and hold the budget up for scrutiny, so that the most necessary services are identified and properly funded, rather than “spending money on anything anyone thinks is positive.”

Johnson has endorsed his chief of staff, Danny Nadeau, to take over for him on the board. Nadeau will face Kevin Anderson for the District 7 seat in the November election.