Staffers are working around the painter, and the offices aren’t completely furnished, but the sign on Minneapolis’ City Hall door says, “Mayor Betsy Hodges,” and the folks inside are on the job.
That includes the new mayor, who in an interview with MinnPost talked about the themes she stressed during her campaign and about issues facing the city.
“It feels good that I gave a very clear message for the last year about what I wanted to do,” she said.
Throughout her campaign, Hodges focused on the importance of working to close the gaps in education, housing and employment that separate the city’s minority communities from some of the opportunities available to many white citizens.
“It feels very good to walk into this office knowing that the people of Minneapolis have very clearly” endorsed those efforts, she said. “It makes planning the work, moving forward, much easier.”
She did not wait for former Mayor R.T. Rybak to pack up his vast collection of memorabilia and move out before she got to work.
Lots of consultations
Right after the election, she started meeting with council members to find out what they want to accomplish during the next four years and to determine the best ways to work together.
Hodges, who served on the City Council for eight years, says she already is impressed with the seven new council members.
“I think they’re walking in with a real clear picture of what they want to accomplish,” says Hodges. “I think it’s to their advantage and to their credit, knowing they have to work with one another to make that happen.”
The new council members are still in cubicles on the first floor while they wait for furniture to arrive for their third-floor offices.
Hodges was with them until eary this week, when she and her staff moved upstairs to mayoral office space where the old red brown walls of the Rybak administration are being painted in shades of yellow and gold.
“It feels good to have worked with a mayor who is as smart and talented as R.T., and it feels good to be walking my own path as well,” she said. “It’s not that I think of R.T. as a tough act to follow. I think I’m a different person and a different mayor.”
Southwest LRT decision looms
One of her first big decisions may involve the future of the Southwest Light Rail line through the city’s Kenilworth Corridor. Two studies due this month are exploring the possible re-routing of the freight lines there and the impact of the project on water quality in the chain of lakes.
Two public hearings last week drew large crowds of angry opponents unhappy with the current plans’ impact on parts of St. Louis Park and Minneapolis.
“I’m the mayor of the City of Lakes. I’m not the Mayor of the City of Swamps,” said Hodges, who has opposed plans that would locate both freight trains and light rail in the narrow strip of land separating Lake of the Isles from Cedar Lake.
Plans to put light rail in a shallow tunnel, with the freight trains running above at ground level, prompted the two new studies and delayed a decision originally scheduled for last fall.
Now Hodges wants to make sure those studies have been thorough and complete before deciding where she stands on the project.
“I’m the biggest transit advocate you’ll find, but we cannot do it at the cost of some of the best and most important parts of our city and our environment,” she says adding that she is not afraid to make tough decisions.
“I have a proven track record of making very difficult decisions — with the pensions, with our Fire Department, with our budget,” said Hodges.
“I am very clear with people that I am willing and able to make tough choices, and I will do that. But I don’t want to presume a tough choice will be made. I think we are going to have to look at all these options.
“The railroads have said this is what we want and, of course, they want everything, but are there options that might not be everything … but might be sufficient?”
Education was an issue during the fall elections, even though the mayor and City Council have no direct role in education policy in Minneapolis.
Hodges and School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson have met several times and have developed what Hodges describes as a “very good relationship.”
She wants coordinated leadership
“People are surprised when they find that the leadership of the city is not required to meet,” said Hodges, who plans to fix that problem.
She wants to establish regular meetings with the leadership of the city’s park board, school district and City Council to talk about legislative agendas, zoning and children. “We have so many issues that overlap.”
This spring she will deliver her state of the city speech, outlining her agenda for the year ahead, and in August she will present her proposed 2015 budget. She is no stranger to the budget. For the last four years Hodges has chaired the Ways and Means/Budget Committee.
She is promising to present a structurally balanced budget for 2015 but says it is too early to make promises about what it may contain or its impact on property taxes.
“When you couple a recovery economy [with] better partners at the state, that creates opportunity,” said the mayor, who sees the importance of fostering partnerships with other branches of government as a powerful budget tool for Minneapolis. “You couple that with lessons from the recession about having a firm hand on the tiller.”
Another issue is the proposed use of “body cams,” small video cameras that would be worn by police officers to record contact with citizens.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Hodges and two City Council supporters, Gary Schiff and Cam Gordon, hosted a news conference to talk about purchasing the cameras for police officers. The news conference drew some criticism for not including anyone from the Police Department, the Civil Rights Department or the mayor’s office. To some, that gave the impression that it was more a campaign event than a public policy discussion.
Since then, Police Chief Janee Harteau has convened a “working group” to study issues surround the use of cameras, and a start-up program for the cameras is included in the 2014 budget.
“The chief and I are in step with that,” said Hodges. “We both see the advantage of it and want to move forward, and both of us want to move forward with the right policy and procedures.”
“I have the greatest respect for Chief Harteau,” said Hodges. “I was a very firm supporter of hers when her nomination was brought forward, and I think that her goals and values are in line with mine when it comes to the Police Department.”
The mayor chooses her words carefully, a trait she attributes to her mother, who has been a writer, and to a grandmother, who was a journalist.
“There’s just always been that focus on language in my house,” said Hodges, who has written her own speeches and a book aimed at teen readers. “Done right, precision can help clarify, plus it’s fun.”
Rybak isn’t her first tough act to follow. Her mother also set some high standards.
“My mother’s first career was physical therapy, her second was writer and her third career was president of an organic fertilizer company,” she said. “And she’s driven a tank.”
A tank? It was research for a novel.