Commissioner ‘No’: a look at Jeff Johnson’s record on the Hennepin County Board

On the campaign trail, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson often talks about his two school-aged kids, about growing up in Detroit Lakes, even about his dog, Chester. And he talks a lot about the time he spent in the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he served the Plymouth area for six years in the early 2000s.

What he doesn’t talk about much is being a commissioner on the Hennepin County Board, the gig he’s held for the past six years. In some ways it’s understandable: County boards aren’t a common launching board for statewide office, and commissioners don’t craft policies. Much of their job is managerial: overseeing things like public safety, transportation and health care, all of which is mandated by federal and state governments.

But it’s not as if it’s a small job. The commissioners who run Hennepin County, the largest county in the state, work with a huge budget and represent large constituencies. Almost 1.2 million people live in the county — nearly a quarter of the state’s entire population, and each member of the board represent about 160,000 people. (For comparison: a member of the state House represents about 36,700 people.) And with 45 different cities, more than 11,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $1.8 billion, Hennepin County’s operations rival that of a small state. As the commissioner from the 7th District, Johnson represents the largest chunk of the county geographically, stretching from his hometown of Plymouth up to the northwestern suburbs of Maple Grove and Rogers.

In his first run for Hennepin County commissioner in 2008, Johnson pitched himself as the board’s fiscal hawk, someone who would scrutinize new spending projects and try to make county-level programs run more efficiently. “It’s a lower level of government that doesn’t get a lot of media coverage, and is not highly scrutinized,” Johnson said.

But over the last six years, that role has mostly manifested itself in  “no” votes on the county board, where Johnson is the lone conservative member, according to an examination of Johnson’s votes and interviews with commissioners who have served with him. Not surprisingly, he routinely votes no on budget proposals and levy increases. He was the only commissioner to vote against Hennepin County contributing to a bike-sharing program in Minneapolis. And in August, he was the lone no vote against approval of the Southwest Light Rail project.

In that role — at least before his run for governor — Johnson was an avid blogger, dubbing himself the Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog. He has given out sarcastic awards to projects considered wasteful spending, and even awarded the so-called “Golden Fire Hydrant” to projects that he finds to be particularly egregious misuses of public dollars. Among them: “garbage burner beautification” — $700,000 for landscaping at the waste disposal plant — and $14 million to make the Lowry Avenue bridge “look really cool,” he said.

“There are a lot of 6-1 votes, and he is usually on the side that doesn’t prevail,” said Mike Opat, chair of the Hennepin County Board who, it should be noted, is serving on Gov. Mark Dayton’s campaign finance committee. “He doesn’t work very hard to try and convince the rest of us to move any of our positions. I don’t know if he considers that a productive use of his time.”  

Yet Johnson says he’s more than just a no vote. “If my only role is to vote no and lose, it’s really kind of a waste of my time. I do feel that I’m able to point out where we are not being all that effective with taxpayer money,” Johnson said. “It’s important to find that happy medium in the minority. Some would be satisfied just being the bomb thrower, but that has never been my style. I’ve tried to find that balance between being the sole no vote and actually working with members to accomplish things.”

Instead, Johnson said, he picks his battles so he can also get things accomplished on the DFL-dominated board, and he ticked off a handful of issues where he lives up to his promise to be a fiscally prudent voice on the board while also trying to move things forward: 

  • He helped institute pay-for-performance provisions in the county’s contracts with various vendors. The program has started out small, Johnson noted, but it has forced various programs to prove they are working before they receive funding from the county.
  • He is pushing to consolidate the county’s 11 watershed management organizations into three. Each one would be populated with elected officials, follow the same set of rules and have taxing authority. “We would have better collaboration rather than have so many entities doing the same thing, and we would have better collaboration between cities,” Johnson said. Johnson pushed a pilot version of the idea, which was also recommended in a University of Minnesota study, but it has run into pushback from other members of the board, who have concerns about putting elected officials in charge of watershed districts.
  • Johnson supported a new 911 call center opening in Plymouth. At a cost of $33.75 million, the newly opened facility will replace the Hennepin County Sheriff Department’s aging Golden Valley facility. “I generally don’t carry any spending resolutions,” Johnson said. “That was a pretty big ticket item. But public safety is one of the most basic functions of government.”

As chair of the county’s public safety and judiciary division, Johnson has been on the ‘yes’ side of other projects that have cost money. In March of 2012, for example, Johnson supported a successful resolution putting temporary weapons security screenings in suburban court buildings for safety. The screening equipment cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the county.

Working closely with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, Johnson has also been looking at examples from around the country about how to keep people leaving the county jail from re-committing crimes. “He is very pro-public safety,” former Hennepin County Board Chair Mark Stenglein said. “He wanted to make sure the residents of the county were kept safe, and you saw his tune change on issues in that area.”

Jeff Johnson
Johnson for Governor
Jeff Johnson

A vote on public safety is also one of Johnson’s few regrets while serving on the board, he said. He initially supported a request from the Hennepin County Sheriff to spend $426,150 to obtain the so-called KingFish cell-phone tracking technology. Johnson said the tool had been successful around the nation, particularly in tracking victims in child abduction cases, and he felt he had proper assurances from the sheriff’s office that there were strong personal privacy protections in place.

But news broke ahead of the 2014 legislative session that law enforcement needed only a court order to intercept large swaths of cellular phone signals. Lawmakers held hearings and questioned law enforcement over their use of the technology, including information about how long they stored location data collected from cell phones. 

“In 2010 when I supported the Kingfish purchase, I was confident it was the right thing to do,” Johnson wrote in a Facebook post about the vote. “Experience, however, is a tough teacher. Since 2010 a trickle of stories of government abuse of technology has turned into a flood. Nationally, we have NSA surveillance tactics that, under the guise of security, infringe on privacy rights and civil liberties. Locally, we have widespread unauthorized and unwarranted access of individual data in state databases. These abuses can’t be ignored. Given that experience, I would not support the Kingfish purchase today.”

Overall, Johnson’s colleagues say he’s straightforward and easy to work with, though most say his level of engagement with other commissioners is far less than his predecessor on the board, Penny Steele. 

“I’m sitting here trying to think of an issue he’s taken a lead on,” said 2nd District Commissioner Linda Higgins, who represents part of the city of Plymouth alongside Johnson. “I can’t think of anything too major.” 

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/21/2014 - 09:06 am.

    Commissioner No should

    Have run for congress in the 6th district and joined that Republican group of No’s

  2. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 10/21/2014 - 10:39 am.

    Perhaps at some point

    We’ll realize the value of “No” when our debt (now $17 trillion) becomes unsustainable.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/21/2014 - 11:50 am.

      and likewise….

      realize the value of a reasonable tax structure that maintains the level of government and helps reduce and not grow the debt. The debt has ballooned since the time of Reagan because primarily Republicans cut taxes without any equal cut of the spending. Of course they blame the Democrats for the spending but they didn’t bother to consider that spending was harder to cut than taxes. Then they gave it a cute name to make it sound well thought out: Supply side economics.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/21/2014 - 03:43 pm.

      Jim, do me a favor…

      …point out to me a site where you posted your deficit concern when we decided to use credit cards to charge the cost of 2 wars. Seriously, give me a link, ANY link to a site where you posted your “worry” back then. Cue the crickets.

      • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 10/21/2014 - 08:56 pm.

        2 wars and an unjustified tax cut

        I am curious if Jim expressed his concern not only when we put two wars on the credit card, but also the Bush tax cuts. I wonder if Jim expressed his concern to those who took the Clinton surplus and turned it back into a deficit.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/22/2014 - 08:14 am.

        And the Bush tax cuts

        And the prescription drug benefit. Republicans like all kinds of things, just not paying for them. See for example the MN Republican Party.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/21/2014 - 12:45 pm.

    Would it have been too much to ask,

    that you interview Johnson for this piece?

    I’m not avid (or even less than avid) supporter of any candidate for governor, but expect a profile such as this to be based on more than a review of his voting record and the opinions of members of the opposition party, who reasonably can be expected to be inclined to further the prospects of their candidate.

    Certainly, Johnson could have told you whether he took the lead on any issue that’s come before the County Commissioners during his tenure and, if so, what. His inability to do so would have been equally telling. As it is, I can only write this piece off.

    • Submitted by Mark Iezek on 10/21/2014 - 01:40 pm.

      I assumed Johnson was interviewed.

      There are a lot of direct quotes of Johnson in this article that aren’t attributed to any other source. I assumed that meant the author interviewed Johnson to obtain those quotes. What in the article makes it look like Johnson wasn’t interviewed?

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2014 - 03:10 pm.

      Whut?

      Johnson was interviewed for this story. That’s why there are quotes attributed to him about the subject matter of the story.

  4. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 10/21/2014 - 02:04 pm.

    About That New Sheriff’s Office In Plymouth . . .

    Jeff Johnson supported the $33.75 million building project because it was in his district, not because he has any genuine interest in funding new public safety projects. You can bet your last dollar that he would have voted against spending $33.75 million on the new Sheriff’s facility if they had located it in Richfield, or Minneapolis, or anywhere else other than in his district.

  5. Submitted by Tim Kaiser on 10/21/2014 - 02:57 pm.

    Largest County?

    “The commissioners who run Hennepin County, the largest county in the state…” You are off by a factor of 10. St.Louis County is over 6000 square miles. Hennepin is something over 500. If you meant largest by population, you need to qualify “largest.”

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/21/2014 - 03:07 pm.

    Johnson – Not much of independant thinker

    When his main vote, in the Republican tradition, is “NO” it appears he is afraid to step out side the tea party Republican box. Common sense doesn’t reside in the Republican Party when every answer is “NO”. The Republican “NO” answer comes from the fact the Republicans don’t have a leader who can lead and apparently Mr. Johnson can’t lead either.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/22/2014 - 10:35 am.

    It’s always funny…

    When people complain that the author didn’t write the piece that the reader wanted… i.e. an interview.

    I think the biggest problem with Johnson is his classic republican reliance on magical thinking. He seems to think the idea of an audit is A) New. And B) Magical, as if an audit will manifest all the necessary revenue. Listen, Pawlenty promised the same thing, and he did it, the results: $90 million in savings over the course of 8 years. It’s just math folks, we need what? $6 billion just for road spending? And THAT’S supposed to Johnson’s priority. $11 million a year won’t cut it. Republican magical thinking gave us recessions, deficits and debts, and constant budget crises. Remember that election cycle when they told everyone there was a budget surplus just to find out two months after the election… that we had another deficit?

    Listen, remember that something like 97% of all of our tax revenue goes back out to taxpayers in services, nothing is perfectly efficient but there’s actually a lot more waste in the private sector. Guys like Johnson point to programs they don’t like and vote against them, but that doesn’t mean the program is waste, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s wasteful.

    For instance If you want your city to look like a Soviet city by all means build nothing but drab utilitarian structures because drab utilitarian architecture will certainly attract the “job creators” in droves won’t it? I mean, who wants to live and work next to something that isn’t ugly?

  8. Submitted by Bryan Koster on 10/22/2014 - 12:28 pm.

    Applauding Staus Quo

    I’m sure Johnson and other conservatives would rather undo much of the tax and spend projects the liberals have created. The reality is that just won’t happen. The next best option is to vote no and keep the status quo (at least when you are the only conservative on the board!).

    The idea of “No” is prudent in Johnson’s case. The contrary is a politician who becomes a busy body. One who lives to justify his existence. One who buys votes. One who serves himself. One who pays back favors in the form of crony capitalism, pet projects, or regulations, for those who put him in office.

    I find the previous comment about supporting expensive gov’t buildings hilarious. Why not build all gov’t buildings with amusement parks, space needles, and aquariums and staff them with pension qualifying employees at the taxpayer expense? By that measure, we can attract all sorts of residents and corporations to the area.

    And the next time we have a budget crisis, those who support such lunacy can shout from the rooftops that we can’t cut spending. Why? Because cutting spending will cause children to suffer and police/fire departments to be rendered useless. May ham in the streets.

    This is the best there is to highlight Johnson as a weak candidate? It’s like picking on a boyscout. I suppose MN would rather have a depressed, uniformed, alcoholic in office. He sports a good last name though, doesn’t he? Most people don’t even have a clue who Johnson is. The best defense against Johnson is to not even acknowledge him as contender for Dayton. Most wouldn’t be the wiser, and win reelection for our “Run and Hide” Gov. Dayton as a result.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/22/2014 - 03:16 pm.

      “The idea of ‘No’ is prudent in Johnson’s case.”

      Of course it is. As the lone “no” vote, he can paint himself as a tight-fisted fiscal conservative. At the same time, because he is routinely outvoted, Hennepin County does not have to live with the consequences of his simplistic approach to government spending. Commissioner Johnson gets the political benefits of opposing spending, the residents of the county get the benefits of the spending. Win-win.

      I notice that he’s not so tight-fisted when it comes to bringing home the bacon for his part of the county. There is nothing wrong with representing one’s constituents, even to the point of turning oneself into nothing better than an exurban ward-healer. What is wrong is preaching a sermon against government spending while you’re doing it.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/22/2014 - 04:21 pm.

      Perhaps you’ll point out

      what Dayton has attempted to run and hide from? The rest of your post is sullied by your characterization of him as a “depressed, uniformed, alcoholic.” You are right about one thing, however…no one acknowledges Johnson as a contender, not even most of his base.

  9. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/22/2014 - 02:49 pm.

    The Public Safety Call Center

    “Johnson supported a new 911 call center opening in Plymouth. At a cost of $33.75 million, the newly opened facility will replace the Hennepin County Sheriff Department’s aging Golden Valley facility.” Note that the Sheriff was sitting next to Mr. Johnson when he was endorsed. The new 911 call center is a bit of a Taj Mahal and fiscally irresponsible for taxpayers. The status quo of Hennepin, Minneapolis and several other agencies in Hennepin County having separate centers is inefficient. Minneapolis paying for their own call center when they already pay county property taxes is bit to bad for for them. I’m not seeing much collaboration with surrounding communities from the Stanek/Johnson team. I say the new 911 center deserves the a golden fire hydrant award.

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