Wednesday night’s Minneapolis City Council meeting was remarkable in many ways, and not just because of its five-plus-hour length.
The meeting — convened to take public testimony and to debate, amend and adopt the city’s 2015 budget — was marked by highly emotional exchanges between council members, and between elected officials and those who came to protest proposed cuts in Mayor Betsy Hodges’ budget plan.
It also walked a political path, the end of which was unknown when the meeting convened. Cuts enforced at a committee meeting the previous week by an ad hoc seven-member majority were met with loud protests, and were partially rolled back. In the crowd, expressions of sadness and anger were gradually replaced by tolerance, if not agreement.
The best way to capture that story is in the voices of the council members who engaged in the debate. That took place after a two hours of public hearings, during which all but one person voiced opposition to the cuts to the property tax levy and the reductions in proposed spending to environmental and racial equity initiatives. That is when the council members who lost the budget battle last week learned that the majority would try to reduce the size of a proposed property tax increase even further — and make additional cuts to the Hodges’ budget:
Council Member Cam Gordon: “Some of us on the council are already hurting pretty severely from the last meeting we had, where it seemed like our colleagues wanted to go after some of the things that were the dearest and most precious to us; some of the things we’d worked eight years to build up enough support, until the city was ready to embrace them, and I think that it is.”
Council Member Alondra Cano: “I’m quite shocked to see this motion being put forward by the most-diverse council that the city of Minneapolis has ever seen. My heart is racing right now. The poorest people in the city have come out to speak for equity and what Council Member (Blong) Yang and Council Member (Abdi) Warsame are proposing is to once again cut the levy. And where exactly would the amendment authors find the money. Please be specific, cite your sources, clarify for the rest of us, have some respect for your colleagues.”
Cano was warned by Council President Barbara Johnson that council rules prohibit her from speaking directly to other members. Instead, she was to address her comments to the council president.
Council Member Lisa Bender: “I would like to speak directly to the community members who here tonight. What I hear you saying is that you didn’t support the original levy decrease and you did not support us taking those precious dollars from equity. And this motion is doubling down. It is doubling down on exactly what you came here to fight — and I am sorry. I am sorry and I want to say this is not the end, that your voices matter, that it is powerful to have you here and you have to come back and come back again until the city council listens.”
After the motion to further reduce the levy, some in the audience shouted at those who voted yes. “Shame on You. “ “Shame.” “You’re a sellout.”
Council member Blong Yang then offered a second motion to restore some, though not all, of the reductions that were made a week before to the Hodges proposal. Money would be returned to the Clean Energy Initiative, the One Minneapolis Fund that promotes leadership development among poor and minority residents, and to a homeownership and foreclosure counseling service. Yang, the first Hmong-American on the council and a former investigator for the city’s Civil Rights Department, then defended his actions.
Blong Yang: “I want to make it explicitly clear to everyone that there is nothing more important to me than making my constituents’ lives better. I represent some of the poorest, most-diverse areas of the city, and equity is not a buzzword or a campaign promise. It’s a fight that I have to take part in every single day for my neighbors to make their lives whole. It’s disappointing to see and hear folks talk about all these different things and yell names… I share the goals and priorities we selected as a council, although I may not always agree with my colleagues on best to achieve the goals.”
Abdi Warsame, a Somali immigrant who last year became the first Somali-American elected to the council, addressed those in the chambers who had criticized his actions on the budget.
Abdi Warsame: “I doubt there are many in this room who grew up as a refugee, who saw his people broken, somebody who was raised by a single mother on welfare. I am insulted when some people try to second-guess something as difficult as understanding the budget and making choices. I know and have struggled with racial discrimination and violence. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to point fingers, to blame and to label people as being against equity, being against myself and my child and my relatives. I am puzzled by the position of various non-elected entities which do very little to help and yet try to monopolize the voices of the poor. What I fear most in all this talk of equity is that equity might just be a new fad, the new buzzword, the new diversity, another time-wasting exercise, another promise with no substance. It is clear that, to some, equity means that we hire professionals to do more research and case studies on the poor of our city. Yet to many, the lack of equity impacts their daily lives … Please do not second-guess us because it is insulting for you to tell me that you are more black than I am, the you care more about black lives than I do. It is insulting and it is unacceptable.”
As votes were taken to restore many of the previous reductions — most by 13-0 votes — the tension lessened. While the six-member minority tried several different amendments to fully restore the funding that Hodges asked for with her original budget proposal, they were for the most part unsuccessful.
Hodges, who had sat at the council dais for the entire meeting asked to speak near the end of the marathon meeting. She seemed to summarize the sentiment that the end result wasn’t perfect — but it was still a success.
Betsy Hodges: “I share the disappointment of so many in the room and the six council members who agree about the cuts that were proposed, and the restorations that weren’t made, and I do think that was shortsighted that it was not a full restoration … but the folks in the room, you all made a difference — a big one. Not as much as you wanted or I wanted on this evening, but it mattered that you made your voices heard. Those dollars would not be in this budget if you all had not done that and I appreciate it very much. That said, the question has been called on a budget that has a lot of really great things in it that we care about.”
The 2015 budget was then approved on a 12-1 vote, with Gordon casting the only nay vote.