After winning a very close race for the St. Paul 5th Ward City Council seat in 2011, Amy Brendmoen showed up for work with lots of energy but little knowledge of the inner workings of City Hall.
And she knew there was lots she didn’t know.
When we checked in with her two weeks before she took office in January 2012, she was undergoing a crash course on city departments and the budget and learning a little about the city politics that make things tick.
I caught up with her again this week, and she talked more about that council rookie learning curve. We talked while walking around Como Lake, one of the gems in her district, which includes four separate neighborhoods: Como, the North End, the near East Side and Railroad Island.
Brendmoen said she often chats with supporters and constituents during lake walks, saying it’s more productive — and people are often more candid — than when sitting in an office or a coffee shop.
A political science major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she was communications director at Children’s Home Society before taking office. Before that, she was an advocate, mediator and spokesperson in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office during the Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch days. She also worked in advertising and marketing and event planning.
Brendmoen, 43, is married and has three young sons.
The conversation, on one of the first nice days of spring, covered many subjects and took many turns, even as we managed to stay on the lake’s circular path.
Learning how the city works
“You get an orientation, so I was able to tour the water department and public works department and I went along on a plow ride; then we saw the first department and the police department and PED [Planning and Economic Development], learning how much stuff the city does, and how things tie together.
“Behind the scenes at the water plant: Who knew that we get our water from the Mississippi river?
“One of my first observations was that everyone in the city loves St. Paul, and they’re working very hard to make it better. And if there’s one fault, it’s that we’re almost falling over each other to do the right thing.
“On some cases, you watch all these groups come together and see the expertise and passion for doing the right thing. You learn that what everyone thinks is the right thing isn’t always the same. At some point, you figure out what we’re going to go with, knowing that some folks aren’t going to like it.”
Figuring out city politics
“There are times when a council member is doing something at the table, and I know something’s going on behind the scenes, but I only have a 10 percent idea of what that is, and I know there’s 90 percent that I don’t know.
“You wonder: ‘What’s the plan?’ or ‘Why are they laying this over?’
“The numbers are definitely shifting, though, and my goal is to be more like 90-10. But I guess that it’s good to at least realize that there are other things going on, so that you can ask about them.”
Things starting to come together
“I feel like I’m getting it better now when I have meetings with groups. I understand how they’re funded, where they’re doing the bulk of their work, how they’re connected to the community. In the beginning, it felt really two-dimensional — I got information but it didn’t fit in the Tetris.
“Now I have a foundation that helps me take that information and put it in a place where I can recall it later and say to somebody: ‘It’s really cool that you’re working on this. Have you talked to this person who’s doing this project? Because the two of you, if you collaborated, could really do something awesome.’
“I imagine I could continue to learn at this pace for years.”
An early worthwhile accomplishment
“I have community office hours at the Wilder Rec Center, a place where there have been a ridiculous number of police calls, and there’s kind of an edgy feeling in the area.
“The rec center was only open two hours a day from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., not after school or weekends. I understand we have to make changes and save money, but that’s not OK in an area where we need those facilities to be open when the kids need it.
“Now we’ve turned that around, and it’s open four hours a day, and there’s going to be programming all summer.”
Increasing citizen involvement
“I learned that there is a cast of players who do most of the decision-making in the city — not just elected people, but also people who sit on the commissions and boards. One of the reasons I ran is because I wanted to make our processes more inclusive and bring more people into the conversation.
“I don’t think it’s intentional, but our processes are often exclusionary by design. Not everyone can attend long meetings in the evenings; I don’t have the patience myself. The one thing I say I like the least about my job is meetings that go over 90 minutes.
“Are we meeting people where they congregate? When they walk in the door at district council meetings, do we greet them? Do we use acronyms when we’re talking?
“As a newcomer, and really from the outside, I was like: ‘Why does everyone keep talking about this CDBG? What is this CDBG? [Community Development Block Grants, from the federal government.]
“People just threw the term around like it was something that everyone knew. But we can’t talk like that if we want to bring people into the fold.
“I finally asked, but some people might not, because they don’t want to slow down the meeting, or make you go back over something that everyone else already knows.”
Ward’s increasingly diverse population
This city is a living, breathing organism. We’re always trying to adjust for different needs of people who live here, and that’s always changing.
“My ward in particular, I have Karen immigrants from Burma, about 6,000 of them have moved her in recent years, to the North End and [neighboring] Roseville, so the needs and demands are different than they were 15 years ago. We now make sure some classes are taught in Karen, that the soccer fields are lined instead of the baseball fields, because that’s where the demand is for youth.”
Getting to know North Enders
“It’s been a little harder getting to know people on the North End; they’re like Iron Rangers. Tough cookies, but they love each other and when someone is having trouble, they hold fundraisers to support them.
But I’m patient. I don’t shove my hand in someone’s face and force myself on them. I wait ’til they’re ready.
After seeing the Mass Challenge in Boston [an entrepreneurial competition], I had an idea for the St. Paul Foundation Million Dollar Challenge [a local competition to come up with ideas to improve the city] so I pitched the idea to reinvent the area to the North End Business Association. People really got excited and got behind it.
“Not long ago, I was having coffee with Mayor [Chris] Coleman, and one of those businessmen came up and said, ‘We’ve got a great council member.’ I was like, ‘Yes.’
“Whether we win or not with our North End Challenge in the competition, I feel like I made a big stride into that community by pitching the idea and having them buy into it.”
Working with Mayor Coleman
“I think he’s doing great. Like I said, this is a living, breathing city, and he really gets out and learns about other cities, then brings the best ideas back. He has a real vision of how he wants our downtown to be and how he wants our city to be. I have weekly meetings with the deputy mayor [Paul Williams], and I can tell that they’re interested in what my priorities are.”
Working with council President Kathy Lantry
“She’s been a gift. She’s taken me under her wing and been fairly patient in explaining things to me, and I don’t feel like any question is dumb. She welcomes fresh ideas and perspective and is very open to making adjustments and to sharing her wisdom and knowledge.”