The first meeting of the new Minneapolis City Council was muffled by chants of “Let the people speak!” from activists seeking an end to racial disparities, an issue the city’s new leaders promised Monday to address.
In her inaugural speech after she and the council members were sworn in, Mayor Betsy Hodges said her chief goal will be to ensure that members of all racial groups thrive in Minneapolis.
“When we get that right, we will become a beacon for the entire country,” she told a crowd packed into the City Hall rotunda.
After her speech, council members went to the chambers for their first meeting and immediately got into a debate about whether the activists should be allowed in the meeting. At times, the debate could barely be heard over the crowd’s chants outside the chamber.
New Council Member Alondra Cano made a motion to allow them to give 15 minutes of public testimony. Long-term council President Barb Johnson opposed the motion, saying that allowing public comment at such a meeting was against normal rules of order.
In the end, Cano’s motion failed even though the council voted 7-6 in favor of it — nine votes were needed to pass.
At her inaugural address, Hodges said that after years of belt-tightening and property tax hikes, the city must be fiscally prudent as the economy improves.
“We still have tough choices to make. To be more than great, as we run the city well, we must continue to keep a firm hand on the tiller,” she said.
Hodges also stressed her goal of growing the city’s population to 500,000 — it is now about 392,000. She said the greatest residential density should be built along transit corridors.
Her speech showed “an injection of new energy” into the city’s longtime priorities, said Jeremy Hanson Willis, the director of the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. “She made it very clear what is expected of us.”
As the crowd dispersed after the ceremony and her address, about 50 activists seized the steps and began singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” beside a banner reading “Equity now/ One Mpls vs. the 1%” with references to a $15 minimum wage and affordable housing.
Hodges briefly joined them on the steps and sang before returning to greet more well-wishers.
“I think this is a respectful celebration of the kinds of values that we’ve been talking about all year,” she said. “This isn’t a disturbance as much as it is a celebration, and good for them.”
Beneath the clamor was a general sense of unity about incoming city leaders’ priorities for closing disparities in jobs and education among whites and blacks.
The organizer of the protest, Anthony Newby of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, voiced support for Hodges’ priorities after the inauguration ceremony.
“We expect she’ll do it; we know she’ll do it,” Newby said of Hodges’ vows to close racial gaps.
They may face some resistance on one of their most specific demands, however: imposing a citywide minimum wage of $15.
Cities have experimented with municipal minimum wages, but some believe that it would not be legal in Minnesota. The city attorney’s office would not comment on the legality when queried in October.
“Minimum wage is really a tough one, because cities in Minnesota don’t do their own minimum wages,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “That would be a hill to climb. But I think we could push hard for the state minimum wage increase.”
Hodges said she could not commit Monday to supporting a city minimum wage, “but I do support raising the minimum wage certainly nationwide.”
Despite a majority of fresh faces on the council and public advocacy for a new president, Johnson retained her title in a unanimous vote. Several council members had supported Elizabeth Glidden for the post, but she was instead elected vice president.
Glidden also will serve as chairwoman of the intergovernmental relations committee, which oversees the city’s legislative agenda.
Two new council members will chair committees under a new organizational structure, announced Monday, that also consolidates significant development and regulatory powers under one panel.
Most of the council’s work is done in committees, where members take testimony and make crucial decisions on development projects, ordinances and contracts. Committee decisions are rarely overturned by the full council.
Blong Yang, who represents the North Side, will chair the public safety committee. Lisa Bender, who has a background in urban planning, will chair zoning and planning.
Lisa Goodman won more power under the new structure. Goodman’s community development committee, which oversees the use of housing funds and steers economic development initiatives, now includes regulatory services.
That brings with it significant authority over inspections and business licensing, covering everything from landlords to nightclubs.
Other winners in the new committee structure are John Quincy, who will chair the city’s budget committee; Kevin Reich, who will chair the transportation and public works committee, and Cam Gordon, who will chair health, environment and community engagement, a new committee.
Other council members will chair committees that meet at irregular intervals. Andrew Johnson will chair the information technology policy subcommittee, Abdi Warsame the taxes committee and Jacob Frey the elections committee.