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With 7 new members, Minneapolis City Council could re-shape policies, power structure

It’s also possible that some newcomers could end up chairing major committees.

city council chamber
With seven members leaving the council, there are some very good job openings.

With seven newcomers, the new Minneapolis City Council will have an opportunity to change direction on some of the projects put in play by the current council.

And it’s also possible that some of the new members could end up chairing major committees.

On policy issues, for example, the new council could decide that enhanced bus service is a better alternative to the streetcars championed by current council members and Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges.

They also will have a voice in the future of Nicollet Mall, Peavey Plaza and development in Downtown East adjacent to the new Vikings stadium.

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And if any of the new council members have an idea for ending the standoff at Orchestra Hall, folks will be open to hearing from them.

Their first major decision?

The first major decision they may face, though, may deal with the future of the Southwest Light Rail line. The current 60- to 90-day moratorium on a decision expires about the time council members take their oaths of office on Jan. 6.

The Southwest fight is focused on the narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles known as the Kenilworth Corridor. The current council has taken a strong stand against any plan that would place both the freight and commuter tracks there at ground level.

The original plan to move the freight tracks to St. Louis Park has met with strong opposition in that suburb.

The moratorium was declared to allow more study of options to relocate the freight line and to see if shallow tunnels proposed for the light rail would harm the city’s Chain of Lakes.

If this comes to a head in early January, as expected, the new council members could be facing both intense lobbying from every interest group involved and a tough vote that either would allow co-location of the tracks or possibly kill the entire $1.5 billion commuter train project.

So welcome to City Hall. The good news is the job of council member comes with a parking spot, a nice office, a staff of two people and an annual salary of $80,354.

The job also comes with an entire ward filled with folks who know your phone number and your email address.

Council president’s powers

With a majority of the 13-member council new, a challenger to Council President Barb Johnson could emerge among current members. The council president appoints all committee chairs and makes all committee assignments. The president also takes over in cases where the mayor is unable to serve. The president assigns office space and determines the seating arrangement in the Council Chambers.

The next biggest prize is council vice president, a job now held by Council Member Robert Lilligren, who was defeated by Abdi Warsame. The vice president chairs the Committee of the Whole.

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With seven members leaving the council, there are some other very good job openings. Much of the council business is conducted by six major committees that meet regularly during the two-week cycle that leads to a council meeting.

Four of those six are currently chaired by a departing council member, making for some interesting math.

There are six returning council members. The president and vice president do not chair any of the six major committees. That leaves four senior members and six committee chair assignments.

As a result, it’s likely that some of the newcomers will be chairing a committee. Traditionally, freshman members have to wait four years, until their second term, before chairing a committee.

First in line to move up will be Council Members Kevin Reich, John Quincy and Cam Gordon. Reich and Quincy are currently vice chairs, while Gordon chairs the Elections Committee and is a vice chair of two other committees.

The Election Committee consists of all 13 members and only meets as needed. Chairing one of the six major committees would be a step up for Gordon.

Key committee assignment

The Ways and Means/Budget Committee, currently chaired by Hodges, is perhaps the biggest committee plum assignment.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden is the only one of the committee’s six members returning next year. Glidden is rumored to be interested in moving up in the council power structure. Chairing Ways and Means would be a move up but not as big a leap as becoming president or vice president.

Glidden chairs the Inter-Government Relations Committee, which consists of all council members. She also presides over the Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee, which approves business licenses and permits.

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Glidden and Gordon are the only members of the Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee who will be back. If Glidden moves to another job, Gordon might have a shot at replacing her as committee chair.

The Zoning and Planning Committee is chaired by Gary Schiff, who will not be returning.  Four of the six current members of that committee will be back, but two of them, President Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman, are not likely replacements.

That leaves committee members Cam Gordon and Kevin Reich as possible chairs. But new Council Member Lisa Bender left a state job where she was an urban planner and could be a contender.

Don Samuels, who ran for mayor and is not returning, chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee. Only two current members will be back next year, Johnson and Gordon.

This could also be a place for a new council member and might be an opportunity for Blong Yang, who succeeds Samuels in the 5th Ward. Yang, an attorney who served as an investigator for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, will be the first Hmong American on the council.

Place for newcomers

This could also be an opportunity for one of the other new members, such as Warsame, Alondra Cano, Jacob Frey, Andrew Johnson or Linea Palmisano to serve as chair. Many of them have experience in working to empower members of minority groups.

The Transportation and Public Works Committee, currently chaired by departing Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, could be a place for either Reich or Quincy to take over. Reich currently serves as committee vice chair, and Quincy represents the 11th Ward in south central Minneapolis, where airport noise is a major concern.

That leaves the Community Development Committee, currently chaired by Goodman. Four of the six committee members will return, including Quincy, the vice chair.

Should Goodman decide that she wants to seek one of the top leadership positions, that would clear the way for a new chair. Or she might decide she has a good thing going in a time of great change and choose to stay put.

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Structural changes possible

The Minneapolis ordinance governing the City Council stipulates that no member can serve on both the Ways and Means/Budget Committee and the Community Development committee.

There is, of course, another option: changing the current committee structure and rules.

Ordinances can be changed by a vote of the City Council and approval by the mayor.  Perhaps the arrival of seven new members will inspire a change in the committee structure.

All of this will be decided in the weeks ahead as new council members begin informal meetings with the current leadership. The new members also will go through orientation sessions being planned by City Clerk Casey Carl.