My next steps

When I was a kid, I had a dream that I would grow up to be Mayor of Minneapolis — but I woke up before I found out what came next. So over this past year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what to do after I am finished being Mayor on January 2.

I have done a lot of soul-searching.  I knew I wanted to keep working on the challenges facing my hometown and I didn’t want to be spread as thin as I am today. I wanted to focus as much energy as I can on one big issue, and it is clear there is one big challenge that dwarfs all others we face:

The young people of our region do not share the same future.

Our children of color are not learning as fast in our schools. Fewer of them are graduating. Fewer of them are getting to college.

We should be proud that Minneapolis–Saint Paul is at the top of so many lists of successful communities, but we should be ashamed that we also top of list of communities with the largest achievement gaps.

A great region cannot become greater if kids get a different education; if their success can be predicted by their race and where they live.  Improving education for all children is clearly the civil rights issue of our time, and there is almost no region in the country that has to close more of that gap than Minneapolis St. Paul.

We have talked about this issue for a long, long time, but it is clear to me there is a growing consensus that we have to stop admiring this problem and treat it like the crisis that it surely is.

When the 35W bridge collapsed, we didn’t spend years talking about how it fell down, and a couple more thinking about how we would fix it: we raced into the water to save lives and broke down every barrier possible to get it rebuilt as fast as it possibly could.

If we can do this about a piece of infrastructure, then surely we can do that with the future of our next generation.

Today, I am announcing that when I am finished serving as Mayor on January 2, I will become executive director of Generation Next.  Generation Next is a partnership of some of our region’s most significant foundation, business, education and community leaders, and has included Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and me.  It is modeled on successful Strive Initiatives in other cities that have built powerful community partnerships and transformed schools to attack the achievement gap.

I have been at the table with Generation Next over the past two years as we have built a strong coalition and foundation. But we have to do much, much more. Now is the time to move to an even higher level, with an even stronger coalition, with an even greater urgency.

We clearly face a crisis, but it can also be our greatest opportunity.  If we can close the gap in our schools, our increasingly diverse next generation can help our businesses soar in a global economy where the most important skill is to cross cultural barriers.  Kids in our schools do that every single day, and they can teach us how if we can only teach them better.

I have loved being Mayor, but my favorite part of the job has always been the STEP-UP summer-jobs program, the Youth Violence Prevention effort, all my visits to schools and the rest of my work with young people.  I am so happy that I can continue to work for the children of Minneapolis — and now, also the children of Saint Paul.

I have a lot to learn.  I will enter the work humbly.  But I will also enter with urgency, because we don’t have a minute, or a young mind, to waste.

Generation Next will take up the bulk of my time, but I’m also pleased to announce that I will have another project: I will be teaching one class a semester at the University of Minnesota, which will be offered jointly by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the College of Design.

The first class that I am teaching this spring will be called “Mayor 101,” and it will cover some of the lessons I learned in my 12 years on the job.

Even though I am leaving a job that I have loved for the past 12 years — serving as your mayor — I am lucky that in both my future roles, I will continue to be able to serve the young people and future leaders of the city, region and state that I love.


Make history, build power, rank your vote

One week away from the mayoral election next Tuesday, November 5 — the first one in 20 years without an incumbent mayor running — I know some people are nervous or confused about two facts: the fact that there are 35 candidates for mayor on the ballot, and the fact that we’re using a new voting system called ranked-choice voting.  But these two facts — the 35 candidates on the ballot and ranked-choice voting — are in fact very different. I believe we should raise the bar for allowing candidates the privilege of appearing on the ballot, but I believe we should be excited about and embrace the ability to rank our candidates. I’ll tackle these two separate issues in order.

Raise the bar

Right now, to get on the ballot to run for mayor of Minneapolis, all you need is $20, a filing fee has remained unchanged for the last 46 years. While that fee may have made sense in 1967, today the bar is simply too low for anyone to get their name on the ballot. As a direct result of that too-low fee, voters in 2013 are faced with 35 candidates to choose from, including far too many candidates who have not made any effort to engage seriously with voters. It’s no wonder people are confused.

To make it more likely that candidates respect voters’ attention and commitment by running real campaigns, not recreational or novelty ones, I believe we should raise the bar for the privilege of appearing on our ballot. I support a higher, more common-sense filing fee, but one that would be waived for a candidate who can garner a certain number of signatures from voters and demonstrate real grassroots support. An effort earlier this year to raise the fee fell short, but I support moving forward with this proposal so that in 2017, when we next vote for mayor, voters can be sure that the candidates on their ballot — however many there may be — are candidates who take them seriously.

Rank your vote

In my opinion, some of the candidates on the ballot this year could be very good mayors, and some could be excellent mayors. Now in past elections, we would have had to narrow our choices of very good and excellent candidates down to one; but this year, ranked-choice voting allows us to vote for the candidate we think is the best, and for two other candidates that we also think are good.

Although voters in other cities, like San Francisco and Oakland, have ranked their vote in recent local elections, we haven’t yet put the system to a real test in Minneapolis. As I’ve looked at our ballot, I’ve found it really exciting that we finally get to do so this year.

Ranking your vote is easy. The City of Minneapolis website has a very informative page that explains very clearly how to rank your vote and how your vote will be counted, including a fantastic two-minute video that you just have to watch. You can even practice ranking your vote on a sample ballot of “candidates” that are actually Minneapolis parks. (Using parks for candidates is actually a brilliant illustration of appeal of ranked-choice voting: most of us would hate having to choose just one of Minneapolis’ amazing parks as our favorite to the exclusion of all others, but most of us can come up with our top three.)

Please join me in thanking the dedicated City of Minneapolis staff who have worked so hard to build our terrific elections website,, which not only explains ranked-choice voting, but which can tell you where to vote, how to register and even how to volunteer to be an election judge. If you’re a Minneapolis voter, you will also be receiving an extremely helpful packet at home in the mail that includes very clear instructions and a sample of the actual ballot that you will receive in your precinct on Election Day, Tuesday, November 5.

I’m very grateful to all the staff and volunteers who are working hard to make sure that all voters know how to rank their vote and that Election Day is a success.

Make history

Two of Minneapolis’ greatest strengths are our dedication to voting and civic participation — our voter-turnout rate in last year’s election was one of the highest of any big city in America — and our openness to new ideas and new experiences. In that spirit of openness, we, the voters of Minneapolis, voted to adopt ranked-choice voting. Now, in the first real test of ranked-choice voting, Minneapolis is once again leading the way on a new way of voting that gives each of us more options, influence and power.

Next Tuesday, November 5, make history, build power, and rank your vote.

My statement at the Southwest Light Rail Corridor Management Committee

As one of the strongest supporters of the Southwest Corridor LRT line in the state, this is a day I have looked forward to for many years. It is especially significant to be here with some of my fellow mayors: we have worked hard to pass transportation amendments, elect people who will fight for transit and make the case to everyone that our region needs to invest more in alternatives to congested freeways.

In every way possible, I want to be able to join you today in a unanimous alignment vote, but, sadly, I cannot do that. I will be voting “no” today, but intend it to a constructive no from someone who will stay at the table and continue to do what we can to get this line built right.

I have said that I would be willing to take a tough vote for my city if the key questions we had were answered, and if all other options had been exhausted.  I am voting no because questions do remain and I do not feel we have completely exhausted alternatives.

The concerns that remain have been outlined in depth by me and my representative at this committee. As mayor of the City of Lakes, one of my and my city’s most important concerns is that with this project, we are proposing to build tunnels in the middle of a sensitive wetland without proper assurances that it will not impact the water in the Chain of Lakes, which surrounds this piece of land in almost all directions.

A second, extremely important remaining concern is whether promises made on mitigation can be kept. If tunnels are proposed, we cannot see that promise value-engineered away at a later date. I do not feel we have that assurance yet.

I also cannot yet tell my constituents that this alignment is necessary because all other options have been exhausted. We were promised three weeks ago that there would be one more hard look at options for relocating freight, but when the selected firm withdrew, there was not an attempt to find another. Making a commitment one week, then withdrawing it one week later, is not going to help build the trust we will need in my community, or any community along this line.

I fully understand that the staff and many of you on the committee have already concluded that there is no other way to get the railroads to explore options.  I understand, but I disagree.

While the railroads clearly have significant rights, it sounds a lot to me and to my constituents what we were often told about our challenges with the airport.  If we had accepted what we had been told in that case — that airports and the FAA can make and break promises without any recourse — we would never have fought for and won airplane-noise protection for about 10,000 homes in Minneapolis.  I cannot say confidently that in this case we will get the railroads to be more flexible, but I do feel we owe it to those we represent to fight hard.

This is important because I feel that Minneapolis and St. Louis Park are in untenable positions because the railroads have taken the untenable position that they would not negotiate. I know St. Louis Park well: my first job was as editor of the St. Louis Park Sun, and having spent a lot of time in the area that would be affected, I do not think it would be right to have an alignment with massive berms through the city. I do feel, however, that if the railroads were more flexible, we could have a better option on the table to put against Kenilworth.

I have spoken with many of you on this committee and I am very convinced that this is a group of individuals with good motives. We simply see this situation differently.

I also want to say how much I respect those who have raised concerns about this alignment. There are those who have made irrational statements, but the overwhelming majority of those who have questioned this alignment have been transit advocates who want their questions answered and other options exhausted. Their name says it: they just want LRT Done Right.

We will now enter the municipal-approval process. I cannot predict how this will fare at Minneapolis City Hall but I will stay at the table, try to get our concerns fully addressed and our questions answered, and try to assure my constituents that we have exhausted other options. If so, am prepared to vote yes and be a strong champion.  I just want to see LRT done right.

More collaboration and transparency for our schools, not less

Knowing how urgent it is to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color in Minneapolis Public Schools, I was very pleased last week when teachers, in collaboration with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, voted overwhelmingly to accept $9.2 million in State aid. This much-needed aid will create more opportunities for teachers to collaborate with each other in order to come up with creative, data-driven solutions for ending the achievement gap. It was a great step forward for our children.

All of us — parents, teachers, community members, the School Board, Superintendent Johnson and I —agree that we must improve our public schools and make sure that every child succeeds in Minneapolis. But with as polarized as the national debate on this topic can be, it can be hard to tune it out and focus on Minneapolis solutions to the problems that Minneapolis children face. So I congratulate Minneapolis teachers for doing just that with their constructive, collaborative vote last week.

That great step forward was why I was all the more disheartened to learn that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has asked the State of Minnesota to shut out the public from the current contract negotiations between the school district and the union. I agree with Superintendent Johnson that this request comes far too soon, before discussion of the most critical issues — putting the best teachers in front of the children who need them most, making sure our children spend more time in school, rewarding great teaching and diversifying the teacher corps, among others — has even begun.

None of us can do well when so many of our children are not succeeding in school, and especially children of color. To end the achievement gap and make sure that all of them — and all of us — do well, we need the best, most creative minds and every innovative solution at the table. But we can’t have that if parents, community members and rank-and-file teachers are shut out of negotiations.

Every one of us has a critical stake in improving Minneapolis Public Schools: the future of our city, our economy and our entire region depends on it.  We need more transparency and collaboration, not less.

“This project flunks the fairness test”

Statement on Southwest LRT by Peter Wagenius, representing Mayor R.T. Rybak, at the Southwest Corridor Management Committee October 2, 2013

This is a very sad, very disappointing day for many citizens of Minneapolis.  That includes many long-time residents who feel they have been misled for 17 years. Mayor Rybak represents those residents — and on their behalf, I’d like to state the following.

Mayor Rybak is a strong supporter of Southwest LRT.  And he has acted accordingly, going above and beyond on multiple occasions.

The Mayor didn’t want Southwest LRT running on Kenilworth at all. He thought LRT should go where the most riders are — through Uptown.  But he agreed — under conditions that are now being violated — to support the County’s preferred alignment of Kenilworth. That was in 2010.

Now again in 2013, with the cost of dealing with freight rail turning out to be so much higher than expected, most of his constituents wanted him to immediately slam the door shut on the shallow-tunnels option. No delay; slam the door.  And if the Mayor was only thinking parochially, he would have done so and advocated only for his City’s narrow interest, as St. Louis Park has done so effectively.

But the Mayor saw it as his responsibility, our responsibility to the region, and to the greater good, to try to keep multiple paths to success open — even the paths he didn’t want, even paths against adopted City policy. He wanted to try to keep multiple paths to success open — as long others were doing the same.

But that is obviously no longer the case — and I think it hasn’t been for some time.

So why did the Mayor want to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket?

Because that is exactly what got this project in such a giant mess on the first place.  In particular, it has proven foolish to put all our eggs in one basket if the project believes the railroads own that basket, which obviously the project does.

There’s seems to have been this impression that at the end of the day the railroads were going to act in the public interest, which is crazy. They are private interests. The failure is not theirs for acting in their own interest; the failure is on the project for not anticipating that.

Which bring us to the representations that were made to the City when it agreed to drop further consideration of Uptown alignments, and support Kenilworth, again with conditions that are now being violated.

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that there really wasn’t a real plan for how to handle freight, and that the can was just being kicked down the road, he never would have agreed to support Kenilworth.

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that rerouting freight meant that we would be required to apply to the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which the region would consider an unacceptable hassle, but that we would not be required to apply to the STB to keep the freight in Kenilworth, then he would have said, “Then the project has a built-in incentive to not keep the very promises you are making to my City and me.”

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that the region would be unwilling to negotiate with the railroads and that the railroads could ask for whatever they wanted and the region would give it to them, he would have said “Then that’s an open-ended cost escalator. You have no idea how much the promised re-route actually costs.”

Of course, no one told Mayor Rybak any of those things. I was there in the room with him. They said, “Mayor, your alignment costs $1.4 billion and that’s too expensive.”  He responded, “But you haven’t factored in freight with your alignment.” And they said, “No, Mayor. That’s separate. We’ve got that covered. We have a plan.”

Mayor Rybak is less prone to regret than anyone I have ever known, but I’m sure among his biggest regrets is the faith he placed in the assurances he was provided about freight rail in 2009.

So this project obviously flunks the fairness test.  This project is breaking the promise made to Minneapolis so as to facilitate St. Louis Park breaking the promise it made to the region.

But fairness is not the only measure. If it was, the Mayor would have slammed the door shut on the shallow tunnel, as he was repeatedly asked to do.

Transparency of the process is also an important measure.

Most of all, this project suffers from “Failure to Factor in Freight.” Seventeen years’ worth of failure to factor in freight.

First, there was the failure to get a binding agreement with either St. Louis Park or the railroads 17 years ago. Some consider that “ancient history,” but we are still living with impacts of that failure today.

Moreover, the failure to factor in freight runs right up to the present day. September 4 was not 17 years ago, it was just four weeks ago. On September 4, the Met Council committed to a new freight-rail study.

On September 4, Commissioner Dorfman said that the existing freight reroute option works for TC&W and CP, the railroads.  It’s building a sort of a Cadillac version they would never invest to build for themselves for so few trains.  So I don’t support that.”

Later, Commissioner Dorfman noted that there were still so many unanswered questions, and added, “So I look forward to the next couple of weeks getting those questions answered. I look forward to hopefully having this group come in, TTCI from Pueblo, Colorado, who I am told are absolutely, I’ve been told, the best in the business to take a look at what we studied in the past, but to give us a second opinion. I look forward to coming back together with more information.”

On September 4, Mayor Schneider, whose advocacy for a responsible process we very much appreciate, spoke of the value of “doing a thorough, exhaustive evaluation, “reining in the expectations of the rail companies,” and how this was “a critical element in not just getting Minneapolis satisfied, but the general public satisfied that we’ve looked at all the various alternatives.”

Finally, on September 4, Chair Haigh said about the study that was going to be performed by TTCI, “We’re going to have a chance to hear from them. So you’ll be able to ask those questions when they come forward.  I just want everyone to know this a thorough, honest, deep assessment of the relocation alternative in St. Louis Park. There are a lot of questions that people have raised. These questions are going to get answered in this study.”

Of course, we know that didn’t happen. TTCI didn’t do the promised study. They are not here to answer our questions. They announced they had a conflict of interest and left town.

We expect that the weeks ahead will include lots of focus on the product. And the product reflects the hard work of great staff of many agencies, trying to make the best of this situation. Staff deserves a lot of credit for their hard work.

But both these products — both the last two options that we are choosing between — are not the logical products of a fair, transparent and rational process. They are simply what’s left. They are what’s left from a process that contained serious flaws.