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Decision to keep Barb Johnson as president highlights new Minneapolis council’s dynamics

With seven new members, many thought there might be a change in council leadership, but here’s why the group is sticking with its eight-year president.

After the new council's organizing votes, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden will serve as vice president and Council Member Barb Johnson will continue as president.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

There was no hint that a battle for the presidency of the Minneapolis City Council had taken place when the newly sworn-in members voted unanimously at their first meeting to retain Barb Johnson as president.

The process in public seemed orderly and polite, but looks can be deceiving.

Shortly after the fall elections, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden had made known her interest in succeeding Johnson, who has held the post for the past eight years.

Powerhouse position

With Minneapolis’ relatively weak-mayor system, the City Council presidency is a powerhouse position.

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The president makes committee assignments, appoints committee chairs and fills in should the mayor be unable to serve. The president also appoints members to 24 city boards and commissions and assigns City Council office space while retaining the large corner-office work space for herself.

The mayor is responsible for suggesting a budget, but it’s the City Council president who presides over the group that ultimately agrees or disagrees with the budget. And if a council president can round up nine votes, any mayoral veto is a minor inconvenience.

The eventual vote for council president offers insight into some of the dynamics of the new council. Here’s how council members explained the vote courting and counting in the weeks before the January meeting.

Behind the scenes, Glidden had succeeded in rounding up six of the seven votes needed to replace Johnson.

She had the support of four of the seven new council members, plus the vote of returning Council Member Cam Gordon and her own vote.

But six is not enough at Minneapolis City Hall.

“I think in some ways Elizabeth thought this should be easier with all these younger progressives,” said Gordon, referring to the council newcomers. With three of the new members backing Johnson, “I think she was a little bit taken by surprise,” he said.

Differing approaches

Glidden has been a voice for progressive policies on the council. She favored exploring the option of a city takeover of the gas and electric utilities while Johnson voted against efforts that could have led to a ballot question last fall.

During her tenure, Johnson makes sure all 13 voices are heard, but she is not one to bend the rules. When a new member moved to suspend the rules to allow 15 minutes of public discussion at the council’s organizing meeting, Johnson quickly opposed the motion and suggested instead a separate public hearing. She prevailed, and the rules were not suspended.

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In early December, Johnson and Glidden talked about the upcoming vote for president.

“I said I’m more likely to put seven votes together than you are,” said Johnson, adding that Glidden was very clear that she wanted to be in a leadership role. “As soon as I had seven votes, I knew I could get to eight.”

“I think there were six solid supporters [for Glidden] so I think for a while we were stuck,” said Gordon. At that time, Glidden counted on the support of newcomers Lisa Bender, Alondra Cano, Andrew Johnson and Blong Yang. (Update: Blong Yang, however, told MinnPost over the weekend that he was undecided until after Johnson had seven votes and then he quickly backed her. He says Glidden may have counted him as a supporter but he was not totally decided.)

Johnson in turn won quick support from returning members Lisa Goodman and Kevin Reich and added new members Abdi Warsame and Linea Palmisano to her list.

The last to fall into place were returning member John Quincy and newcomer Jacob Frey.

“John Quincy actually told me he was going to be undecided and that he was going to be nobody’s seventh vote,” Gordon said. “Eventually he and Jacob ended up aligning with Barb.”

“I intentionally did not want to be the seventh vote,” explained Quincy, acknowledging that the seventh vote on a 13-member panel is a great source of power. But rather than grabbing the power for himself, he decided to let someone else take the lead.

His view: “There’s equal power in not being the decider and letting other people decide.”

‘Steady hand of leadership’

He adds: “I went with Barb because she was the steady hand of leadership, and I thought that needed to be retained.”

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Quincy noted, too, that with a new mayor and a majority of the council members beginning their first term, it made no sense to him to change council leadership. “I saw no reason why we needed to fire the president.”

“Barb works with you. She enables people to take advantage of their interests,” said Quincy. “What Barb brings to it is a great deal of institutional knowledge of the place and how it runs.”

Quincy is the new chair of Ways and Means, succeeding new Mayor Betsy Hodges in the post.  He also will chair the newly revised Budget Committee, which now includes all 13 Council Members.

The new structure replaces a system that limited the power to amend the budget to only the six members of the Ways and Means Committee, which also conducted budget hearings. Now all council members will be able to offer amendments.

“I think by having more members involved in advance, it will make final adoption of the budget go smoother,” said Quincy, acknowledging that the new system also increases the workload. “It requires everybody to learn more.”

Gordon, who praised Glidden and Johnson for working together, said it surprised him that Reich and Quincy “weren’t more interested in a change in leadership.  I think it was significant that Elizabeth went and had a talk with Barb, and they decided they could develop a slate with her [Glidden] as vice president.”

Glidden’s perspective: “Both Barb Johnson and I have a vision that says we need to make this work and we’re going to be professionals and we’re not opponents. There is sometimes an impression of that, but it’s not true.”

Rybak worked closely with Johnson

Former Mayor R.T. Rybak worked closely with Johnson for the eight years she served as president. He says their partnership worked well, despite her tendency to be pragmatic and his bent toward being a free spirit.

“Barb’s not afraid to get in somebody’s face and lay it on the line,” Rybak said. “She will give it to you full bore.

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“She gets angry about issues that embarrass the city,” he said. “She loses her temper when she sees a lousy landlord or crime moving in the wrong direction.”

On the other hand, Rybak said she goes out of her way to make sure everyone has an assignment they like and a chance to succeed. “She is extremely skilled at herding cats.”

By the second week of December, Johnson had the votes she needed. It was time then to begin the tough work of re-aligning the committees and making committee assignments.

“Nobody wanted to see anybody harmed in this race,” said Johnson. “People got what they wanted.”

Gordon agrees. “I think Barb worked really hard to come up with an organization that will keep people satisfied and happy,” he said. “Nobody wants to start a new term, with a lot of new people, with a divisive fight.”

Reorganized council committees

Bender and Yang, two new members who had supported Glidden, were both assigned to chair major policy committees, a privilege usually reserved for more senior members. Bender heads Zoning and Planning, and Yang chairs Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management.

Gordon is the new chair of the Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee. As the lone non-DFLer on the Council — Gordon is a member of the Green Party — his leadership appointment is also somewhat unusual.

“I was a little worried,” he said. “I stuck my neck out when I said I wanted a change in leadership. I’m happy it worked out.”

“It’s a little bit like a dance trying to put people in the places they want to be,” said Johnson of the committee and appointment process.

Even without the top leadership job, Glidden is not without power. As vice president, she chairs the Committee of the Whole, which she says will focus more on studying city issues than it has in the past.

She also chairs the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, once part of the Committee of the Whole. Now it’s a stand-alone committee focused on lobbying efforts on behalf of the city.

“It’s not about our personalities. It’s about how we do the work,” said Glidden. “The public will remember what we accomplished, the issues we worked on, the policies we adopted. Not about a personality-driven agenda.”

“I like the way both of them help other people succeed,” Quincy said. “I didn’t see a need for a radical change, but I didn’t think either of them were going to take it in a radical direction. It was really simple for me.”

Since taking office, the newly organized council has used the luxury of a relatively light workload to allow everyone time to get accustomed to new duties.

But that honeymoon is about to end. With Thursday’s release of Southwest light-rail reports, for example, the council will soon face some tough decisions on whether to support the  route recommendations.