I wasn’t going to write about the fountain.
Even though I can see it from the window by my desk, surrounded by barricades and filled with workers, seemingly forever in a state of disrepair, I wasn’t going to write about the fountain in the north plaza of the Hennepin County Government Center. Repair of the fountain has been delayed, again, by uncommon amounts of rain.
The fountain, so often bereft of the water that makes it a fountain, has been criticized almost since the day it was unveiled in 1974, the creation of architect John Carl Warnecke, of San Francisco, where they do not have winters like we do in Minnesota and where they do have fountains that work. Writing a blurb about the fountain being repaired or rehabbed is nearly a rite of passage for city reporters and a staple of one previous columnist, so I vowed to never write about the fountain.
Then I saw that Randy Johnson was retiring after 38 years as a county commissioner. Johnson has been a reliable critic of the north plaza, which he once compared to “an architectural movement of the Soviets meeting East Germany.” In May of 1995, Johnson told former columnist Doug Grow that we needed fountains like they have in Barcelona. Fountains that spout and bubble and splash. Joyous, European fountains.
So I reminded Johnson of what he said in 1995: “With this fountain, you always keep saying, ‘this time it’s really going to be fixed.’ ”
I can’t help but think this recent rehabbing of the fountain is, in a way, a nod to Johnson’s steadfast and diligent work on the commission, and his disdain for the fountain. During decades as a commissioner, Johnson has accomplished many things: He advocated for the Hiawatha light-rail line, led a bipartisan commission on welfare reform, consolidated library systems and doggedly pushed the ordinance that prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants in the county.
But no Barcelona fountains.
“It really does look like something from East Berlin,” Johnson said during a chat in his office, now filled with boxes of Hennepin County history that he’s packing up and hauling to a storage unit (his wife won’t let him bring his files home). “They put the waterfall over the room where we had our mainframe computers. Not a good design.”
Next year, the plaza will be better. More greenery, more tables and chairs, more people-friendly. Johnson can live with it.
I also wanted to visit with Johnson because he represents what appears to be a dying (or retiring) breed: the sane, rational politician. He grew up near Cedar-Riverside in a family of faithful Democrats, later ran as a Republican and more recently has identified as independent. He serves on a commission that has three liberals and three conservatives, he says, with Johnson in the middle.
“We all get along,” Johnson said. “We don’t have many partisan votes here, what we do is too important. We don’t just pontificate and hit the red buttons and the green buttons. The biggest differences we have is that when we plow snow the Republicans start on the right side of the road and the Democrats start on the left. The level of debate at the presidential level is extremely disappointing.”
A small sign on Johnson’s desk is fitting for this election season: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
Johnson counts many friends from both parties. He was looking forward to meeting former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger soon, and says he’s probably one of the few non-DFLers to be on the contribution list of giant DFL fundraiser Sam Kaplan. He even voted for the far left Phyllis Kahn because she was for the smoking ban, and Johnson considers himself “an obnoxious militant anti-smoker.”
Johnson was the deciding vote on the Twins stadium and proud of it, though he didn’t set foot in it until one of the last games of this year, when he threw out the first pitch.
“Let’s just say the scouts aren’t ringing my phone off the hook to recruit me,” Johnson said of his effort.
When Johnson took office, he could see the Mississippi River, he could see Lake of the Isles and on clear days, almost all the way to Lake Minnetonka. Now his window is crowded with skyscrapers, something he says indicates a vibrant community. “I don’t believe you can have thriving suburbs with a dead center,” said Johnson, who lives in Bloomington.
When he retires, Johnson will travel, probably to Vancouver to see family and some beautiful, working fountains. His granddaughter wants him to move in with her family, but “I still plan on living here,” Johnson said. “We have Orchestra Hall, farmers markets, we’re bike friendly.”
In 59 days Johnson will be gone. (He’s got an app on his phone that counts down the time, by seconds.) And the fountain will, supposedly, be working, just in time to shut it down for the winter. Officials say it should be good for 30 more years.
“I won’t miss the 7 a.m. meetings, and I won’t miss fixing the north plaza,” Johnson said. “This time, this time, this time, we will really get the fountain fixed.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin