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Minneapolis’ new ‘Silent Majority’ busy learning the ropes of City Council posts

In their first month, the seven new members have been scrambling to learn their demanding jobs. Several veterans offer their perspective on the challenges.

Freshmen council members, left to right: Alondra Cano, Andrew Johnson, Linea Palmisano, Blong Yang, Jacob Frey and Lisa Bender. Not pictured: Abdi Warsame.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

In their first month, they have been the Silent Majority of the Minneapolis City Council as the seven new members scramble to learn their demanding new jobs.

Most moved into temporary cubicles at City Hall not long after the election to begin an orientation program orchestrated by City Clerk Casey Carl.

Since then, they have met with department heads, learned the process for creating public policy — and split into different sides as the council elected its officers.

Joining the six returning council members are:

• Ward 3 Jacob Frey

Ward 5Blong Yang

Ward 6Abdi Warsame

Ward 9Alondra Cano

Ward 10Lisa Bender

Ward 12Andrew Johnson

Ward 13 Linea Palmisano

“They bring youth and enthusiasm,” said Council President Barb Johnson of the newcomers.

Diversity, too

They also bring new diversity. Blong Yang is the council’s first Hmong-American, Alondra Cano is its first Mexican-American and Abdi Warsame its first Somali-American member.

“I think there may be more of a coalescing around different issues in different ways,” said Johnson, who worked to make sure all council members, new and returning, got the committee assignments they wanted.

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“There is a lot to learn,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, who joined the council in 2006 after operating a child-care center. “I had a lot of ideas about city government,” he recalled. “I’d worked on some task forces and I’d been to City Hall, but I really didn’t know all that was going on.”

The contrast with life in the private sector was immediately apparent. In his business, he could make decisions and put them right into practice. That was not the case in government, which tends to move at a far slower pace.

“Here we are, a large group of people who make policy and implement the policy,” said Gordon. “Sometimes things take time, especially if they’re going to be successful, so the stakeholders can get on board and give input.”

“With your own business, you can buy pens pretty quickly, but when you’re trying to do something for the entire city, it’s a different story,” he said.

To make things a bit more complicated, all of the City Council offices were cleaned and painted after the last council meeting in mid-December. This required everyone, those leaving and those returning, to pack up everything and move out.

Makeshift headquarters

Some worked from home. Others, like Gordon, plugged in their computers down the hall in the council chambers and worked from there.

Because the returning council members had no place to work, while the new members had their cubicles, offices for returning members were finished first.  

The moving-in process was further delayed when furniture ordered in October failed to arrive as promised. But now furniture and all of the council members are expected to be settled in the council workspace by the end of this week.

“I can hardly wait until we are all here,” Gordon said. “I don’t know if a ‘honeymoon period’ is right, but there’s a time when everyone wants to get along and work together.”

Abdi Warsame
MinnPost photo by Terry GydesenAbdi Warsame

His advice: “I have encouraged people to try to do something early on, work on something and try to own something, because I think that helps set a tone of ‘I can make a
difference.’ ”

Council Member John Quincy, too, welcomes the newcomers.

“I’m excited about our new members,” he said. “I’ve never considered this a revolution. I think this is a great opportunity to have new people coming up with new ideas. We want to be sure we are supporting them.”

When Quincy joined the council four years ago, there was very little in the way of a formal orientation program. New members had to struggle some to balance the demands of constituent service with the workload that accompanies public policy decisions.

“There was a lot of on-the-job training,” he said. “It takes a couple of years to figure out how we work.”

Ex-members’ advice

Former Council President Jackie Cherryhomes remembers arriving at City Hall in 1990 newly elected but with no real idea of what the job required. She recalls getting help from then-Council President Sharon Sayles Belton, who “kept us all moving in one direction.”

She also learned the value of keeping her mouth shut from former council President Alice Rainville.

“I learned what she called the 48-hour rule,” said Cherryhomes. “If you’re making a difficult decision, or you’re asked to speak to the press, take 48 hours to think about what you’re going to say and what you’re going to do. Don’t react. Lessons that have carried me forward.”

Forty years ago, the newly elected Walter Rockenstein was the only Republican on the council. His DFL colleagues didn’t need his vote, but then-President Louis DeMars assured Rockenstein that he would be heard.

“Louie was very cognizant of the rights of the minority. That was something Alice was also very good at,” he said. “She believed there was a role for the minority, and it was proper for you to have a voice.”

The experience taught Rockenstein to seek out new members early and get to know them.

When Van White, the first African-American to serve on the council arrived at City Hall, Rockenstein wasted no time in sitting down with White to talk about the newcomer’s priorities.

“We had like an hour-and-a-half discussion, very helpful, about his vision for that very troubled ward,” Rockenstein said. “On a body that small, there are 14 of you [the council and mayor] who run the city. There’s no excuse for not getting together.”

For this crop of new members, there could be good news when it comes time to work on the 2015 budget if the economy continues to improve.

“We had such a challenge when we were under these fiscal constraints,” said Johnson of the budgets for recent years. “When you are thinking that you have to lay people off — because you’re not going to have enough money — that makes you hunker down.”

“Now that things are a little stronger in the economy, people are going to want to do some different things,” she added. “I think there will be a little bit of a pull and tug around spending issues and priorities … around the city.”

“I think that’s going to be a breath of fresh air,” she said. “I’ve never been in public office when it’s been good times. This will be kind of fun.”