Diane Hofstede had the name and the money to run when the Third Ward seat on the Minneapolis City Council opened up in 2005.
She's the sister-in-law of former mayor Al Hofstede. She spent more than $103,000 to win her seat, $62,000 of it from her own pocket. That's the most ever spent by a Minneapolis council candidate.
But questions persist as she starts her second term about what some colleagues, former employees and constituents perceive as ineffectiveness and a controlling style.
While one neighborhood activist in her ward called her "fabulous," several others said they can't even get her to call them back, and her history as a boss has bred fear and anger in city hall. While several council members have the same two staffers they started with, Hofstede has employed more than 20 in just over four years. She's the only one of 13 council members for whom the city paid a consultant $5,700 to coach her on managing her office. One former aide said she learned Hofstede was planning to let her go when she read a want-ad for her job.
"We strive to deliver the best service possible given our very active and busy office," Hofstede said Monday, declining to discuss personnel specifics. "I enjoy working with a variety of people and believe in giving people an opportunity to test the waters of public service."
In interviews, five of her council colleagues describe her as a weak link on the body. Although they wouldn't discuss her on the record, they said she's indecisive and poorly organized, has yet to forge major city policy and isn't heeded during debate.
Some neighborhood activists find her lacking compared to her Third Ward predecessors. Kevin Kuschel of the Hawthorne neighborhood remembers Joe Biernat posting himself in front of Kuschel's house, jotting the license plates of taxis suspected of running drugs. Don Samuels hauled in the owners of problem properties on the block for a tongue-lashing.
But Hofstede's office doesn't respond to his calls or e-mails, he said. Some residents of Hawthorne prefer to call Samuels for help instead.
Hofstede's political path to the council was through the library board, where she served for 20 years and was the perennial top vote-getter. Hofstede is from a well-known northeast Minneapolis family and previously worked as a waitress in college, a teacher and a financial adviser. She took a lead role as a library trustee in getting the downtown library built. She ascended recently to two important posts, chairing the nonprofit Mississippi Riverfront Corporation that will reshape the heart of her ward and the city's new audit committee. She's a tireless attendee at neighborhood meetings in her ward, has attacked problem properties through a ward-wide committee that brings residents and city enforcers together, and has actively responded to concerns about spillover impact from the University of Minnesota.
"She's been fabulous," said Melissa Bean, a staffer for the university-area Marcy Holmes neighborhood group. Hofstede said she's focused on crime and neighborhood livability issues. "I think I work very hard, and I think I've been successful, and I have a very long list of successes," she said.
The Third Ward, split by the river, historically was difficult to serve and was made more so by the addition of part of southeast Minneapolis. "It's actually three wards in one," Hofstede said. That's fueled suspicions in areas such as Hawthorne that they get short shrift compared to vote-rich areas such as St. Anthony, where she lives.
"Her heart's over there," said North Side blogger John Hoff, who nevertheless voted for her last fall for lack of a credible alternative. Hofstede won almost two-thirds of the vote, her name and money intimidating more vigorous challengers.
Former Council Member Ralph Remington is still irked at Hofstede's last-minute flip as the deciding vote against his proposed ban on wild animal circuses in 2007. He said that Hofstede also flipped several times on a nonprofit housing development in her ward. Hofstede heeded neighborhood complaints about behavior of Gabby's Saloon patrons, pushing the council into slapping restrictions on the bar. A lawsuit by the bar got those limits declared illegal, costing the city $201,000 to settle. More recently, developers Steve Minn and John Wall allege in a lawsuit that Hofstede schemed with other council members to deprive them of their rights to build an apartment in her ward. She declined to discuss an active case.
Hofstede hires staff through a temporary agency, the only council member to do so. One of them, Susan Keener, worked for Hofstede for most of 2009 until discovering she'd be leaving after spotting a help-wanted ad for her job.
"Diane is very, very difficult to work for," said Keener, echoing complaints by a half-dozen others who have worked for her or nearby in the council suite.
Keener said she saw that Hofstede was more comfortable dealing with the university and St. Anthony neighborhoods than others in the ward. People from her neighborhood or long acquaintances got a much quicker response. Jason Alvey, a constituent trying to start a speciality beer store in the ward, felt he got short shrift. He called and e-mailed repeatedly to try to get a meeting with Hofstede, only to have her cancel. "It was just incredibly unprofessional," said Alvey, who instead opened his store in St. Louis Park after months of frustration. Critics say that's due to high staff turnover.
"It looks bad for the office. It looks bad to the constituency. It's bad for consistency," Keener said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438