Minneapolis loses its majority on Hennepin County Board

Reflecting a decades-long shift in population, redistricting will tip power to suburban seats.

Hennepin County saved the Twins. Minneapolis, it appears, has saved the Vikings.

Does that even the score? Hardly.

Stadiums aside, power has been shifting gradually from the city to the county since at least since the 1950s, as Hennepin's robust property tax base has grown and the state's most populous county has assumed more regional responsibilities.

Now, owing to redistricting, Minneapolis soon will lose its long-held majority on the Hennepin County Board, dramatically underscoring the changing dynamic of the past 60 years.

The latest example of that evolution may be seen in Mike Opat's State of the County address Thursday, when the County Board chairman talks about initiatives to expand involvement in two areas not typically within a county's purview -- education and wellness.

"There was a time when we never would have been involved in transit, but we've led LRT; when we never would have gotten involved in the ballpark, but we did Target Field," Opat said Wednesday. "The attitude on this board is, if we see a need that's not being met, we're going to fill it."

At times, Opat said, there's been friction between city and county when Minneapolis presumed the county would help do more things that the city wanted.

"Tension can arise not so much over turf but over roles," he said.

Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said the effect of the County Board's new makeup on the city's future, while significant, shouldn't be overstated.

"We have a huge number of projects that we work on with the county, and that's not going to change," she said. "It is one less person where you have an extra reason to develop a relationship, but it doesn't mean that we don't have any engagement with the commissioners who don't touch Minneapolis. We do."

It was Minneapolis, not Hennepin County, that stepped up this year to partner with the Vikings and the state to build a $975 million football stadium on the downtown Metrodome site. The City Council is expected to ratify that deal next week.

Randy Johnson, who has been on the board for 33 years and is Hennepin's longest-serving commissioner in history, said that the county gradually gained more authority over the past 50 years because of its broader tax base and because the city often left a void to be filled.

"Minneapolis combines a weak mayor system, a weak council system and a weak city manager system, and the result is a city that's very difficult to govern," said Johnson, who like Opat grew up in Minneapolis. "And that's not a reflection on any individuals."

'Crisis' may be required

A hundred years ago, Minneapolis residents made up more than 90 percent of Hennepin County's population. All the county commissioners, or perhaps all but one, came from the city.

That's no longer true. Since at least 1970, suburbanites have outnumbered city dwellers.

Today, one-third of the county's residents live in Minneapolis, even though parts of the city were still represented by a majority of county commissioners. For the past 10 years, Opat, who lives in Robbinsdale, represented four city precincts in his largely suburban district.

Under this year's redistricting, Minneapolis will have fewer commissioners -- three -- on the County Board next year than at any time in the city and county's joint 145-year history. In a plan designed to reduce the number of communities split by district lines, Opat's First District gained all of Crystal and New Hope and surrendered its Minneapolis precincts to the Second District, which encompasses north Minneapolis.

Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who is leaving the County Board this month to become president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said that he didn't think the city would suffer for losing a County Board member. "At times [the relationship] has been strained, but overall, we've done a lot of big things together," he said.

Former Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow, now an assistant Anoka County attorney, said that he had often wished Minneapolis and Hennepin County had a more structured relationship with regular meetings. It was frustrating, he said, to find out that the city and county were working on the same things without knowing it.

Ostrow thinks joint power agreements in such areas as public safety and parks could save money. One example of a merger that's worked is the county library system, although the city system needed rescuing because it was overextended and bleeding red ink.

"The financial realities are, the city doesn't have the financial wherewithal to take on the things it has in the past," Ostrow said. "The average Minneapolis resident doesn't care whether things are run by the county or the city. Yet there seems to be consternation sometimes about giving up control."

The county and city do share some projects. They work together on light-rail transit, have road maintenance agreements and operate a long-term effort to end homelessness. They jointly manage City Hall, which used to house the County Board and still contains the Sheriff's Office.

But the city and county still maintain separate health departments, crime labs and dispatch centers. Maybe that's the way it has to be until a crisis is reached, such as with the libraries, said Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties and a former Hennepin commissioner.

"The county basically has been acting as the backstop if the city has been unable or unwilling to act, and I think that's an appropriate relationship," Spartz said.

"I don't think the county rushes around looking for things to do. And I haven't observed that the city has been neglected at the expense of the suburbs."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455


    Who: Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat

    When: 9 a.m. Thursday

    Where: Plymouth Creek Center, 14800 34th Av., Plymouth

    Broadcast: 8 p.m. Friday, Metro Cable Network, Channel 6

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