This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.
Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?
A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?
Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?
A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.
Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?
A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.
Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?
A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.
Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?
A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.
Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.
A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.
Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic
This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.
When the sheriff shows up in cowboy movies, it’s a sure sign the bad guy is going down.
“To make sure he got here in time, [he] hustled the vice president out of town so he wouldn’t be late,” joked Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott, welcoming the top cop to apparently the second-most important event of his day.
The sheriff stared down his nemesis: a slide show on the computer. “Which do you think it is? Arrow to the right?” he mused aloud. “Up-down?”
Everyone waited patiently while he solved the mystery of the puzzling PowerPoint. “Help,” the lawman murmured, proving that sometimes even heroes need heroes.
Finally he got the hang of it and opened with a bit of trivia.
“I will not ask you, Mr. Mayor, what are the names of the three rivers that flow through Hennepin County. But I know you know the Crow, the Mississippi, and–what’s that last one?” he stumped himself.
“Minnesota,” Mayor Elliott replied, acing the rivers pop quiz.
But between those rivers lay a festering problem, and the sheriff turned on the rhetorical lights and sirens for his nearly 200 opioid overdoses.
“If I had 162 homicides in Hennepin County last year, I’d bet that it’d be in the front page of the Star Tribune or on the 4, 5, 9, 10, 11–all news channels in between. But it’s not.”
As frustrated as he was by the drug deaths, the sheriff was also irritated at himself for the crime of third-degree long-windedness.
“I promised you, Mr. Mayor and council members, eight to ten minutes. I took eight minutes and 35 seconds. I went a little bit over.”
As he surrendered the lectern, Mayor Elliott welcomed a former mayor who had since risen to the ranks of the elite.
“Commissioner [Debbie] Goettel, it is good to see you! You’re back in your stomping grounds,” he gushed. “I hope you have some words of wisdom for us yourself.”
“There are some pretty startling facts that he didn’t share with you,” she countered, dodging any happy wisdom and instead beelining to the opioid wisdom.
“They are disproportionately affecting our younger folks. Anywhere from the age of 15 to about 45.”
After waiting a beat to digest the news, Council Member Edwina Garcia confessed, “we still miss you.”
“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the current occupant of the mayor’s seat.
“I mean we,” Garcia quickly clarified, referring to the royal “we.” “Not necessarily sitting right here,” she jabbed at the mayor.
I don’t know who would win in the battle of the mayors. But I will admit: the high point of the meeting was when Mayor Elliott revealed the catchy slogan for “council member announcements.”
“On to ‘Hats Off to Hometown Hits,’” he said.
In his Hometown Hit, the mayor offered the most striking analogy of the day. “Anytime you get a special verdict form that comes back that’s in your favor–this is gonna sound a little strange,” he admitted, holding up an official document. “But when I get one like this, it’s akin to the birth of a child. We got one this past week.”
But Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez used her Hometown Hit to once again ground her colleagues. “This morning we met with our congressman, Congressman Ellison. The opioid crisis, we did talk about that.”
Well, I think we know what Richfield Public Enemy Number One is. Citizens, let’s run these opioids out of town like they are the vice president.
Excitement was high in the Shakopee council chamber as the agenda was emblazoned with one big, bold, pulsating item: the 2017 financial statement. It was so massively important, the half-dozen citizens in the audience made sure it rocketed ahead.
“Anybody that would like to discuss an item that’s not on the agenda tonight?” Councilor Jay Whiting scanned the crowd, which remained seated with their heads down.
With no movement, the finance director/master of ceremonies took center stage to unveil the dollars and cents.
“We will be having plenty of journal entries and lots of receivables and lots of payables yet to come in,” he cautioned as the spreadsheet loaded onscreen.
“Looking at your revenue,” he gestured, “your taxes line item is $331,000 under budget at the moment.” Uh-oh. That’s a lot of moolah not in the bank.
But suddenly, he dropped a whiplash-inducing load of good news–it wasn’t a winning lottery ticket, but it was close:
“We talked a whole year about our licenses and permit revenues coming in high–and they have. We’re close to a million dollars OVER what we originally budgeted. It’s a great year on that end!”
“Are we missing a microphone or something?” came an abrupt gravelly voice from the direction of Councilor Mike Luce. “This thing’s not working.”
“Yeah, I can hear myself reverberating here a little bit,” the finance director acknowledged, tapping the mic.
The presentation halted as Luce fiddled with a device near his ear. “Battery issue. Sorry about that,” he mumbled.
“Can you hear me now, Councilor Luce? Hello? Test?”
“What channel are you on?” Councilor Matt Lehman attempted to troubleshoot. “Channel one?”
But it was no use. Councilor Luce tossed aside the battery and instead leaned forward to listen more intently.
“Your revenues for the year are about 102% of budget,” the finance director continued, before pausing near the bottom of the list in front of a glaring red arrow pointing downward.
“Kind of the whole point of this report is that you’re quickly able to identify something that’s not quite within that norm. A red down arrow is part of that.”
The Scarlet Arrow was painfully stuck to the natural resources department. Well, nature isn’t cheap I suppose. Did iron ore and mineral sands get more expensive?
“What is going on in that department?” the director asked rhetorically. “Neither of us realized that when public works employees aren’t snow plowing in the winter, they’re out trimming trees. And that time is charged to natural resources.”
“Really sound financial year,” he wrapped up, adding almost too calmly that the ice arena revenues had “an increase of about $280,000.”
With no applause or fanfare–although plenty of thumbs up from me at home–the presentation concluded. The attention shifted to councilors’ reports, which could be lively and engaging or, in the case of Councilor Lehman, more depressing than a municipal financial report.
“School board highlights: closing Pearson School,” he sighed. “One year, possibly two. Taking the sixth graders, moving them to the middle schools. They are gonna reroof it and use it in the future.”
He stopped and tried to remember logistics. “Was it the ninth grade going to the high school? They’re making a shift. Had about a $400,000-$500,000 deficit they’re working on. They’re projecting up to a $2 million shortfall for ’18-’19. So there’s gonna be some hard choices.”
That’s a shame. I know a city that’s rich in licenses-and-permits money, if anyone’s looking.
Noah Hobbs is a first-term councilor in Duluth who has a strong opinion about how his city council should spend its time during meetings. He and I discuss the role of the council president, creative ways to cut off rambling public commenters, and (listen to the audio) I make my best attempt at convincing him to give me the “Distinguished Artist Award.”
Q: Let’s go back to December 2016. The council was considering a resolution to support the Standing Rock Reservation protests against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. You voted for it and seemed to say, “I’m fine with this, but it’s not really our turf.”
A: Yeah, I think that focusing on core local government issues is where we should spend a large part of our conversation. All the press after that about a resolution that was nonbinding [and] didn’t really affect the day-to-day operations of the city….I do get a little frustrated when we get off-track. I’m not necessarily in the majority on the council with that point of view.
Q: I would point out that for weeks afterward, people came into the council meetings to praise you guys for that vote. Did that make you feel any better about it?
A: Not really. It was an organized effort to make the council–that took a beating from the business community–feel better. It was more a continuation of a story that didn’t have legs, that ended up having legs.
Q: This January, you ran for council president against then-Vice President Joel Sipress. Here is what he said:
What we’re really voting on here is two different understandings of the role of the council president. The argument that Councilor Hobbs has made involves a list of priorities. That’s a traditional role of a council president in large cities like New York or San Francisco where the council president is a power position that drives the agenda.
Noah, would your first action as a New York City-style council president have been to declare the areas of the city where–HEY, I’M WALKIN’ HERE!
A: [Laughs] I do think it’s important to have a council agenda. Our core function is pretty much approving the budget for the mayor. You can have nine different councilors doing nine different things and at the end of the year accomplish nothing. Having an agenda is important to show that we do more than approve the budget.
Q: One criticism I do have of President Joel Sipress is that he is way too “Minnesota Nice” when he tries to cut off public commenters who have reached their time limit. If you were president, how would you cut off a time hog?
A: Yeah, as a born-and-raised Minnesotan, I don’t know if I could do much better. Maybe using the gavel to tap once to get attention and say they’ve got ten seconds left. But as a Minnesotan, that is something we struggle with.
Q: Have you ever thought about hiring some muscle to escort people from the podium?
A: I don’t know if the constituents would really enjoy hiring a bodyguard for council chambers. I think we should get a basketball buzzer. Get a shot clock and when it gets to zero, just have the buzzer go….There’s nothing unconstitutional about that.
We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.
And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.
And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:
“It’s encouraging,” Mayor Vern Rasmussen, Jr. quipped after the Pledge of Allegiance, “to not see anybody kneel down tonight.”
That topical humor prompted guffaws from the audience. But faster than you could say “land of the free,” he reached for his proclamation on the splash pad community celebration.
“I think we have a little presentation,” he glanced toward the proud line of ladies responsible for this aquatic masterpiece.
Suddenly, city manager Chad Adams jumped in with a message: stall.
“My computer’s still configuring. If you want to do the check presentation?” he said with a frown.
One woman in a flowing sweater approached the mayor. “This is a check to the splash pad for $28,000,” she announced.
Much to my chagrin, the check was not the gigantic, Publisher’s Clearing House-sized prop. Rather, a normal, deposit-ready slip that was quick to hand over.
“The slides aren’t coming up yet,” said Adams in exasperation. “Do you want to just talk about the fundraising?”
Another woman stepped to the podium and revealed the eye-popping total: “the fundraising cash value is approximately $152,000.”
But before you call that a lot of money, the economic development director stepped forward to provide the play-by-play on a major deal that had Albert Leans abuzz.
“In January, we signed a nondisclosure agreement so we could start working with the client,” he recalled mysteriously, only disclosing that Client X was seeking a “distribution center.”
“In February, a contingency of us went to Saint Paul and pitched to the company,” he continued. Their response? Thanks, but no thanks.
However, “we submitted a revised proposal. The company was impressed and got us back into the running. We were in the final three.”
He braced himself on the podium to conclude with what councilors unfortunately knew already.
“It came down to Austin [Minnesota] as the preferred site and Albert Lea being runner-up. All of us are disappointed. The number one thing we’ve been hearing is we need to provide tax breaks and incentives.”
He looked slightly annoyed as he dismissed the naysayers. “We provided a VERY robust incentive package. We were gonna do water and sewer extensions. Cash. Waive permit and review fees. Tens of millions of dollars.”
Wow. Mister, if you’ve still got those tens of millions ready to go, I’m happy to locate the first-ever City Council Chronicles distribution center in Albert Lea. My only other requirement is a nearby splash pad, which–hey! You’ve got it!
But the director had one more point to make–apparently on the heels of some tumult in the community. “The negativity behind the scenes online…people see that. Be careful what you put out there.”
Councilor Jason Howland was still devastated and turned to the hotshot state executive in the audience. “Any idea why Austin ended up being chosen?”
The man shuffled to the microphone with his hand in his pocket. “Anything I state at this point is speculation,” he prefaced. “The site in Austin has great visibility from the interstate. Folks put value on getting that free advertising.”
(Again, City Council Chronicles has no such demand. Only tens of millions of dollars in cash.)
“I just want to show you a couple of photos,” broke in the city manager, who at last got the splash pad slideshow functioning. It was a nice reminder to be thankful for what the city does have.