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Teardowns, Styrofoam and Uber: How the new Minneapolis City Council members have changed the city

The seven newest members of Minneapolis City Council have now been in office for six months. How are they doing? 

It’s been six months since the gang of seven new members joined the Minneapolis City Council. They are younger, some are new to government work and — with seven of the thirteen votes on council — they could set their own agenda for the city.

Instead, they are each finding their own path, navigating days filled with public policy decisions, constituent services, and meetings that start early in the morning and last late into the night.

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And yet, they have already changed the way the city goes about its business.

Case in point: the new ordinance that allows residents to use app-based ride-share services like Lyft and UberX. “I’ve never used an app to call anything,” veteran Council Member Lisa Goodman said when the ordinance was being discussed. “I’ve got a neighbor who drives a taxi and I call him on his phone if I need a ride.”

Two new council members, Jacob Frey and Abdi Warsame, worked for months on the new ordinance, along with a companion law that revamped the rules for traditional taxicabs. “I think there is something here we can feel that has to do with a generational change on the Council,” said Goodman. “I don’t use apps like that, but I understand that this is progress.”

‘We work for you’

It did not take long for the new members to flex their muscles.

The council convened immediately after their January 6 inauguration to elect officers and make committee appointments. They were followed to the meeting by a group that filled the hallway outside of the council chamber chanting, “Let the people speak.”

Alondra Cano

Alondra Cano
Represents: Ward 9
Previous job: Aide to former City Council Vice President Robert Lilligren
Known for: Being the first Mexican-American elected to council. Being a go-to on questions of civil rights and equity. “We are one of the worst cities, in terms of racial disparity, in the nation. People want to see action, want to see movement on this front.”

That’s when new Council Member Alondra Cano moved to suspend the rules and allow those in the hallway to come into the chambers and address the Council for 15 minutes.

That didn’t end up happening, but it was a sign of things to come. “I think allowing folks to speak their minds for 15 minutes at a council meeting is the very least we could have done for them,” Cano said in an interview last week. “When the community comes to you and they say we want to speak, we want to be heard, my natural tendency and intuition is to say absolutely, we work for you, we are your public servants.”

This is not Cano’s first job at City Hall. She previously worked for former Council Vice President Robert Lilligren. The first Mexican-American elected to the Council, Cano represents Ward 9, which includes the Central, Corcoran, Phillips, and Powderhorn Park Neighborhoods, including the Lake Street commercial corridor.

“She’s got a lot of issues on Lake Street, a lot of development going on and some of the challenges the businesses are having,” Council President Barbara Johnson of Cano. “She’s really working hard.”

Cano has also become the go-to person on questions civil rights and equity, which, along with health, development and the environment, are her top priorities. “We are one of the worst cities, in terms of racial disparity, in the nation,” said Cano. “People want to see action, want to see movement on this front.”

Young, inexperienced, and don’t know what they’re doing?

“I’ve got socks older than some of these people,” said Council Member John Quincy, who is both majority leader and chair of the Ways and Means Committee. “What they bring is a different perspective. They ask questions. They are not deferring to my judgment, but they are asking what I think.”

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“Their very presence makes me different,” said Quincy, who is beginning his second term at city hall. “I’m the 52-year-old white guy who knows something, and I want to share that with them. But I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to make sure they are successful.”

In the first months of the year, the new council members cut their teeth with ordinances that require free earplugs for music patrons, ban the use of polystyrene (better known as Styrofoam) and placed a construction moratorium on parts of Southwest Minneapolis.

This did not go un-noticed by radio talk show hosts, who criticized the new laws — and the people who made them. “When you propose something, this wider audience is looking at you,” said Barbara Johnson. “I think all of them have had the experience now that what they thought was a great idea wasn’t necessarily viewed universally in the same frame.”

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
Represents: Ward 12
Previous job: Systems engineer for Target
Known for: Authoring the ban on Styrofoam. “It was something that required, overall, very little of my time yet it suddenly became this big thing.”

New Council Member Andrew Johnson, from Ward 12 — covering the southeast corner of the city,  including the Howe, Hiawatha, and Keewaydin neighborhoods — authored the ban on polystyrene and was surprised that it got so much attention. “It really took on a life of it’s own,” he said. “It was something that required, overall, very little of my time yet it suddenly became this big thing.”

“The unfortunate part is it plays into a stereotype of young people. Right? Because the council is mainly young people,” said Johnson. “What is that stereotype? Young, inexperienced, don’t know what they are doing, don’t have their priorities straight, can’t handle the responsibilities.”

In his previous job as a systems engineer for Target, Johnson developed web applications. He says his “engineer’s mind” helps he explore an issue in detail, and has helped him develop his own checklist for ordinances, old and new. “What are the unintended consequences?” he said. “How does this ordinance interface with individuals? How does it get to the desired outcome? Are we addressing a root cause or are we just treating a symptom?”

‘You can facilitate extraordinary projects’

Former City Council President Paul Ostrow recalls being surprised by opposition to something he supported shortly after being sworn in as a council member, in 1998. A thrift store operating illegally out of a church in his northeast Minneapolis ward had been shut down. Ostrow favored re-opening the store and went to a neighborhood meeting expecting others to agree. “There were close to 100 people there, and of those 100 people there may have been two or three who were in favor of the thrift store,” said Ostrow. 

“One of the lessons I learned was that if you work with people, and you inform them on an issue and you’re willing to take the time and you’re willing to take a short-term hit, you can bring people along,” said Ostrow.

Eventually the thrift store re-opened and “almost everybody was fine” with that decision. “There are so many folks who are immediately ready to pounce on you for anything new, they don’t even want you to have the conversation, so the conversation gets stopped,” said Ostrow, who’s now an assistant county attorney in Anoka. “What you are there for is to have the tough conversation.”

Jacob Frey

Jacob Frey
Represents: Ward 3
Previous job: Attorney
Known for: Pushing for ambitious building projects: “We don’t need to settle for satisfactory anymore in the neighborhoods, the developers have the capital to do great things.”

Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents Ward 3 — which includes parts of Downtown, the North Loop and Northeast — sponsored the earplug ordinance. But that law is not at the top of his list when asked about his achievements in office so far. What is? “I promised a new school that would serve downtown, north loop and Eastside families,” he said.

The Minneapolis School Board has since agreed to renovate the now closed Webster School as a K-through-2 facility in the fall of 2015, with the goal of eventually accommodating grades K-through-5. 

Frey and his campaign staff kept precise records of what issues interested individual voters. When he took office those records became organizing tools to turn people out for meetings — like those the School Board held to consider the request to re-open Webster.

His list of accomplishments also includes tearing down what was left of the Superior Plating facility on the east side of the Mississippi River to make way for development. “Council Member Frey has demonstrated great leadership in economic development especially as it related to downtown,” said Quincy. “Everybody is starting to understand, probably more than they thought they would, the impact of downtown as a residential and as a business center.” 

“What I have found is that by pushing back on developers you can facilitate extraordinary projects,” said Frey. “We don’t need to settle for satisfactory anymore in the neighborhoods, the developers have the capital to do great things.”

Not scared of controversy

“The new members don’t realize how big of a megaphone they suddenly have,” said Quincy. “When a council member says something, it has a much deeper meaning to a lot more people and that will stir controversy. That will also solidify support.”

Linea Palmisano

Linea Palmisano
Represents: Ward 13
Previous job: Product development manager, UnitedHealth Group
Known for: Getting a temporary moratorium on tear-downs in several SW Minneapolis neighborhoods. “It brought a lot of immediate attention and urgency to an issue.”

Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents Ward 13 — covering the southwest corner of the city — learned this lesson three months in to her new job. She pushed for a construction moratorium for parts of her ward, including Linden Hills, where small houses were being torn down to make way for huge homes that pushed the building and zoning codes to the limit.

“It brought a lot of immediate attention and urgency to an issue,” said Palmisano. That issue turned out a huge crowd for a public hearing on the matter, one that included angry contractors, homeowners and people with plans to build. It also started a conversation about what needed to change. 

A month later, the moratorium was lifted. Since then, contractors are required to post their contact information at each building site and sign a 25-point management agreement with the city. The Council is also working to revise the building and zoning codes. “I think we were able to knit people together a little bit better from the regulatory side of things,” said Palmisano.

“The moratorium was certainly very bold,” said Quincy. “But it was also not revolutionary. It helped us achieve a number of things we wanted to achieve. … I think we came out better at the end than we were going into the beginning. We’re not particularly scared of controversy, and we’re not going to make long-term decisions that are bad.”

The expectation is very high.’

Council Member Warsame is the first Somali-American to be elected to the City Council. He is not given to speeches. After a very competitive, hard fought campaign, he is surprised at how friendly everyone is at City Hall. His focus so far has been the residents of Ward 6, which includes Cedar-Riverside, Elliot Park and Seward.

“My biggest surprise was the expectations the community I represent, the East African community,” said Warsame. “The expectation is very high. I have to do a lot of things. Immediately.”

“They feel you are their son, their brother, you are the first and a lot of responsibility comes with the first,” he said. “There is a Somali proverb: The person who takes the leadership also takes the blame.”

Abdi Warsame

Abdi Warsame
Represents: Ward 6
Previous job: Executive Director, Riverside Plaza Tenants Association
Known for: Being the first Somali-American elected to city council; co-authoring new rules on taxicabs and ride-sharing services like Lyft and UberX. “What we bring is a younger view of the city.”

Warsame spent months talking to taxicab drivers and owners as he and Frey worked together re-writing ordinances dealing with taxicabs and rideshare services. “There was a meeting of the minds there that made it easy for us to compromise and basically have two different ordinances pass,” said Warsame. “We’re very close politically.”

“What we bring is a younger view of the city,” said Warsame. “I think what we could do is bring new voices into these corridors of power, bring new communities, new ideas to solve some of the big intractable things in the city such as crime, such as unemployment and lack of housing.”

“Equity could mean many things to many people,” said Warsame. “It could mean to some people, what do I have to give away, what do I have to give up. I think our younger group understands this and can work together to reduce the resistance to change.” 

“Warsame is quiet, but he is very active within his ward,” said Quincy. “He has taken a position I find really refreshing, in that he’s not advocating for individual items, he’s more of a process person, he’s more of a taking in information and listening person.”

Willing to take a stand

Council Member Lisa Bender, a transportation planner before she arrived at city hall, chairs the Zoning and Planning Committee and represents Ward 10, which includes Whittier, Lowry Hill, and the neighborhoods around Uptown. Her first big test came in April,  when a property owner sought permission to demolish a residence built 1893 by master builder T.P. Healy.

Lisa Bender

Lisa Bender
Represents: Ward 10
Previous job: Transportation planner
Known for: Being a fierce advocate of increasing density in the city. “I think this council is going to change the city.”

The previous City Council had voted against demolition of the dwelling, which has been converted to a 15-unit rooming house. The house would be replaced by a four-story, 45 unit apartment building. 

“I take really seriously our laws and how we govern land use,” said Bender. To her, the fact that the building had not been designated as historically significant was a deciding factor in her decision to approve moving ahead with demolition. “People are still upset, and I understand why. No one wants to see something torn down but in this case the facts were really clear.”

“Council Member Bender is being very forceful about her ideas for increasing density in the city,” said Barbara Johnson. “She’s taken some flak for that, but I give her credit because she thinks that’s important and she’s willing to take a stand.”

She is also working to establish protected bikeways, and to re-open Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street, which would be vital to a plan that calls for a streetcar running from Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis to Lake Street via Nicollet.

“I think this council is going to change the city,” said Bender. “I know I have a strong vision for where this city is going. This is a council full of leaders, potential leaders, we’re a more diverse Council and we have a generation gap.”

Not going along to get along

The other newcomer to chair a major Council committee is Blong Yang, who represents Ward 5, which includes Near-North, Harrison, Hawthorne and parts of the North Loop. Yang chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee. He is also the first Hmong-American to be elected to the City Council.

Blong Yang

Blong Yang
Represents: Ward 5
Previous job: Investigator for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights
Known for: Often being the lone “No” vote on council. “I want make things work because my folks up in Ward 5 need it more than most people.”

Yang is not shy about sometimes being the lone “No” vote on council. He recently voted against the new ordinances dealing with taxis and cars-for-hire because he didn’t think they treated the residents of his ward, many of who rely on public transportation, fairly.

“I might not be the person who will go along to get along,” said Yang. “I’ve never been really good at that. That’s not to say that I don’t have a lot of shared interests with everybody else here. I want make things work because my folks up in Ward 5 need it more than most people.”

The problems of Ward 5, though, start with crime, and work their way through all of the equity gaps of housing, education, employment and poverty. “People of color have a small piece of the pie, and some people don’t want to share,” said Yang, who has encountered racism himself in his ward. “When I hear the murmurings about how Blong Yang stole the African-American seat. It’s a little bit disturbing, but it’s a reality.”

“I’ve always thought the measure of my success in four years is not how well the Hmong people did, the measure of my success is how well African-Americans did under me,” said Yang. “If we as a society do what is right for people then at the end everyone gets a piece of the pie and we’re all okay.”

“Council Member Yang has worked really hard on the public safety end of this,” said President Johnson, who represents Ward 4, which shares a border with Yang’s ward, and has worked with Yang on several issues. “He has a sense of what’s important to northsiders for the future health of Minneapolis, what needs to happen.”