What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

Duininck: $2.8 billion for transit will largely expand bus system

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: January 23, 2015 - 5:05 PM

Despite the attention frequently showered on light rail, the new Metropolitan Council chair said Friday that a better bus system is crucial to improving the region's transit.

Speaking to a group of business leaders in downtown Minneapolis, chair Adam Duininck and transportation commissioner Charlie Zelle offered more specifics about Gov. Mark Dayton's transportation proposal. Zelle said the full plan would be released Monday morning.

Duininck said they hope to raise $2.8 billion for transit over the next 10 years through an additional half-cent sales tax. About 60 to 70 percent of that would be devoted to bus improvements, he said, including rapid bus routes along highways and urban corridors.

"A huge majority of what we’re talking about in expanding the system is expanding the bus system," Duininck said. An accompanying slide noted the money would pay for more routes, more frequency, real-time arrival information and 1,000 more shelters -- many with light and heat.

The emphasis on buses may be intended to win more support from Republican legislators, some of whom have been critical of massive light rail investments.

Major bus projects under development include the Orange Line BRT on 35W, the Red Line BRT expansion to Lakeville, a Gold Line BRT east of St. Paul and 11 revamped lines along local bus routes (known as arterial bus rapid transit). That's in addition to two primary light rail projects, Southwest and Bottineau.

Zelle said his agency needs $6 billion over the next 10 years to make up a funding gap for road improvements. About $4 billion of that would pay for maintaining and modernizing the system's existing roads and bridges.

The other $2 billion would pay for "strategic expansion of additional lanes, MnPass lanes, the interchanges that we know [are] not a luxury but actually a necessity to some of our communities in Minnesota," Zelle said.

Conversely, Zelle said, “$250 million a year [$2.5 billion over 10 years] will preserve the system in kind of a crummy condition."

Zelle added that Dayton's proposal will also dedicate general fund dollars to pay for transit in greater Minnesota.

Speaking to transit, Duininck said that the existing quarter-cent sales tax has helped grow the system through large projects, but it hasn't done much for the basic bus service. Buses on busy corridors like Lake Street and Chicago Ave. are so packed they don't stop to pick up passengers, he said.

Duininck pointed to other regions in the country that have much higher transit sales taxes. Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and Houston have a one-cent tax, for example, while Seattle has a 1.8 cent tax.

"I can’t say enough about the importance of this, both because of how it positions us to gain federal funding to leverage the money we have, but also because the clear trend line federally is that they’re going to continue to think about doing less," Duininck said.

He said while they still expect the federal government to pay for half of the Southwest and Bottineau lines, changing politics in Washington make future federal investments less certain.

“The regions that are putting more of their own dollars in on the front end are going to be much more competitive," Duininck said.

Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event, told the room that expanded transit options will ultimately benefit businesses — particularly at suburban campuses where it is harder to attract young talent.

“We love the shiny trains, we know that. But the backbone of the transit system is the bus,” Klingel said. “How would you like to be standing in the cold at a bus stop and have the bus go by because it’s full? Not good customer service. And it’s not their fault if they don’t have the money to do that, because we’re the ones that provide that money.”

Mayor's 'Cradle to K' plan set for release

Posted by: Erin Golden under People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: January 23, 2015 - 2:44 PM

Mayor Betsy Hodges speaks at a July news conference. JEFF WHEELER / STAR TRIBUNE

The first set of recommendations from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges' panel on the heath and wellness of young children and families will be released Tuesday.

The Mayor's Office plans to hold a media conference with several members of Hodges' Cradle to K Cabinet to announce the release of a draft report. The 27-member group, which includes academics, leaders of nonprofit groups and parents, was formed in May. It was directed to come up with ideas for legislation, policy changes and other efforts that could help ensure more children have access to health and education programs.

The panel plans to discuss the process for finalizing the report and provide information on how community members can submit comments and questions.

Yonis sentenced with an eye toward job prospects

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Public safety Updated: January 23, 2015 - 12:42 PM

Choked up but still professing innocence, former Minneapolis public employee Hashim Yonis caught a break Friday when a judge sentenced him to a gross misdemeanor for stealing park rental fees.

Hennepin County District Judge Tanya M. Bransford departed from the felony charge under which Yonis was convicted in November to impose a gross misdemeanor sentence. She did so in recognition that Yonis, 27, a former park and school worker, is seeking a doctorate so he can become a principal.

Yonis was considered a rising star in Somali circles in Minneapolis until the charges, attracting praise from Mayor R.T.Rybak, President Barack Obama and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

"I can’t remember another defendant I’ve had who was working on his doctorate while his case was pending,” Bransford said.  Attorney Ira Whitlock told Bransford that a felony record would thwart his client’s employability as a future school administrator.

Bransford sentenced Yonis to 365 days in the workhouse, but he’ll serve only 59 unless he violates his probation terms in the next two years. He will be able to leave the workhouse for work or school. She also ordered him to pay $480 in restitution to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

She initially moved to order Yonis not to contact park commissioners during his probation, but later withdrew that after Whitlock raised questions about the breadth of the order.

Yonis was accused of taking more than $5,000 in funds collected for rental of a soccer field at Currie Park in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood after Somali residents complained that they couldn’t access the field on weekends. But a jury found he’d taken less than $1,000, an amount that still qualified as a felony because it involved government funds.

Yonis was unable to speak for about 15 seconds when he stood to address Bransford before the sentencing.  “I have already walked to the gate of hell the last four months.  It’s very difficult for me to stand here.  I feel I must be dreaming,” he said. “I continue to say I am innocent.”

Yonis continued to maintain that he was victimized by a political conspiracy involving other park commissioners because he was dismissed after he filed to run for a Park Board seat. However, the investigation of allegations against him began more than a month before he filed.

Bransford made a point of reading from one unidentified juror’s post-trial evaluation that “I was repelled by the conspiracy theory.  It undermined his credibility.”

Yonis, who is married with two children, lives in north Minneapolis. He worked for the park system until it fired him. He appealed and later agreed to resign. The school district also dismissed him as a probationary employee from a post at South High School.

Among the character witnesses for Yonis was Mohamud Noor, a school board member who earlier withheld comment on the charges against Yonis because he said he’d be involved in the personnel matter. He praised Yonis for integrity.  But prosecutor Susan Crumb said Yonis “exudes an air of entitlement.”

Whitlock said he is considering an appeal of the conviction on multiple grounds after Bransford denied his motion for a new trial.

Minneapolis adding positions in equity effort

Posted by: Erin Golden under People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: January 23, 2015 - 10:57 AM

 

City Coordinator Spencer Cronk, who is overseeing the hiring of several new equity roles, attends a meeting in September. DAVID JOLES/STAR TRIBUNE

Two efforts touted as key to Minneapolis' work on racial equity are nearing a launch -- once the city finds the people to lead them.

Next week, the City Council will vote on one proposed new position: a director of an "innovation delivery team," who would oversee work funded by a multimillion-dollar Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. The grant, announced late last year, will provide up to $2.7 million over three years. The city primarily plans to spend it assessing how it provides services -- things like towing cars or cleaning up graffiti -- and analyzing if all residents get the same level of service.

City Coordinator Spencer Cronk said the director position will be the first of several the city will add to help with that work. In total, the city plans to add six full-time positions, all of them funded by the grant money and designed to last only until those funds run out.

The proposed salary range for the director position is $100,167 to $118,092. Descriptions for the other jobs have not yet been released.

The council will get a full update on plans for the grant at its Wednesday meeting of the Committee of the Whole. The council will likely vote on the director's job description Jan. 30, and then he'll post the job for applicants. Grant requirements stipulate that a director must be appointed by the end of February.

Cronk said the grant will provide the city with a "really important asset that we can bring to our residents."

"We've seen during some tough financial times that the city had to cut back in a lot of areas," he said. "And one of those areas was a strong data analytic capacity."

As the city gathers that data, he said residents can expect to be kept in the loop and given opportunities to share their thoughts.

"A lot of the philosophy behind Bloomberg Philanthropies is to be much more transparent and engaging, and to make sure this is an interactive tool you can use with city residents," he said. 

Meanwhile, Cronk's office will soon add another two staff members, who will focus on racial equity efforts. Those positions are separate from the grant. 

The city has set aside $250,000 for its additional equity work which became a topic of controversy in the final stages of the council's budget approval process. Some council members questioned the role the new positions would play solving problems with racial inequities in the city, but the council ultimately voted to spare the new positions from the chopping block.

Cronk said his office expects to hire those two new staff members in the near future.

'Hands up, don't shoot' video features mayor, chief

Posted by: Erin Golden under Politics and government, Public safety Updated: January 21, 2015 - 4:20 PM

A video showing Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau joining a group of children in making the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture is making the rounds on social media.

The clip comes from an Oct. 8 community forum at Macedonia Baptist church, the first of three public meetings the mayor and the chief held to listen to comments and field questions about police-community relations.

It shows Hodges and Harteau dancing with a group of children from the We Win Institute, a youth-focused nonprofit group. At the end of the impromptu performance, the young performers put their hands up in the air, shouting: "hands up, don't shoot." The mayor and the chief also raise their arms.

The chant and gesture has played a prominent role in recent protests that followed two grand juries' decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, in New York City. The community forum was held after both men had died, but before either of those decisions.

The mayor's spokeswoman, Kate Brickman, confirmed that the video was from the Oct. 8 event. Speaking on behalf of Hodges and Harteau, she said the children opened the program with a performance and then "spontaneously pulled the mayor and chief up to dance with them," adding that nearly 100 members of the public and several local media representatives were at the event. 

Officials declined to comment further.

Hodges has said she wants to root out problems in the department among officers who "abuse the trust that is afforded to them," but has also said she supports the city's police force and intends to work to build a stronger relationship with all of its members. 

The mayor tangled with police union president John Delmonico in November. The union head questioned the mayor's loyalty to police after a controversy erupted over a photo of Hodges posing with an election canvasser became the subject of a KSTP-TV news story. The two have since met and said they've moved beyond the "pointergate" debate and are working together. 

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