Barret Lane: a wary watchdog

The 13th Ward councilmember has long preached fiscal restraint -- and others now see the light. So why does he look so miserable?

What's eating Barret Lane?

Sitting in his chair in the Minneapolis City Council Chambers, the representative of the 13th Ward looks like somebody just kicked his dog. He often appears aloof, distracted, and rarely speaks during Council sessions.

Lane, who was first elected in 1999, is the lone independent on the Minneapolis City Council that also includes two Green Party members and 10 DFLers. If there is an 11-2 or a 12-1 vote on the council, it's a safe bet that Lane will be in the minority. In the official portrait of the City Council, he is standing in the back row on the far right.

So just what is eating Barret Lane?

The budget.

For months, Lane was part of a small group that helped create the city's first Five-Year budget plan. It included a 2 percent annual cap on new union contracts, plus an eye-popping 8 percent hike in property tax revenues for a decade. The bitter medicine would close a $55 million spending gap and substantially pay down the city's internal debt.

It was tough duty for Lane, who represents one of the two wealthiest wards in the city; his constituents will pay more for the fix. But Lane felt the plan was necessary, and was unafraid -- actually, proud -- to take ownership.

Then, at the last minute, his fellow councilmembers changed the deal.

On April 1, with uniformed police officers and firefighters in attendance, the Council voted to shift funds to police and fire and away from several smaller departments.

Lane viewed this as knuckling under. He was mad because the Five-Year plan asked managers of the smaller departments to craft proposals that talked about attrition and goals and how they might function more efficiently. Lane felt these managers had the rug pulled out from under them when the money shifted to police and fire.

People at City Hall say that for Lane, every fiscal compromise is a compromise of principle.

Even Mayor R.T. Rybak, one of Lane's biggest fans, notes that the budget shift -- about $1 million in a $100 million annual general-fund budget "was really no big deal. We took money from some of the smaller departments and put it into public safety."

Lane, Rybak said, "can be a little doctrinaire at times."

Lane is unrepentant. "If the council wanted to change the strategic plan, they should have said so -- instead of changing course because there were a lot of people in the City Council chambers wearing police and fire uniforms lobbying them."

Policy, not politics

Some criticize Lane as being so immersed in the city budget numbers that little else matters, but others laud the trait as visionary.

When candidate Rybak door-knocked around the city, he often spoke of the city's large debt. Most people listening on their front steps found such issues too abstract to grasp, he said.

"Those arguments just weren't working anywhere in the city, except in Barret Lane's ward," said Rybak. "I would knock on their door and people would start asking me about that because Barret had taken the time to educate his constituents about these issues."

"A lot of people get attracted to public life because they like the politics of it and only put up with the public policy aspects of it," said Rybak. "Barret is attracted to the public policy and barely puts up with the politics."

Lane has found himself aced out politically. In January 2002, he lost the chair of the Council's Ways and Means Committee by a single vote when Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) switched her choice at the 11th hour. The committee holds the city purse strings, and many unions opposed Lane because they thought he was too fiscally conservative.

He was not left out in the cold. When Rybak enlisted Council President Paul Ostrow and Johnson to facilitate a new budget proposal, Lane was added to the team-- not because he was part of the Council leadership, but because he had the best bead on how the city could regain its economic health.

Lane said, "The long-term fiscal health of this city is the most important thing to me, as it should be to everyone in this city. My voice dissents on budgetary issues because everything we do here depends on a financially healthy city. If we don't have that, we are not going to be able to accomplish any of our goals."

However, after the council shifted more money to police and fire, Lane seethed. When the Council met on April 1 to ratify budget cuts for all city departments, Lane proposed an amendment to divide the report to consider each department separately. It passed.

He then voted no on every item.

This time, Lane wasn't alone. He had the support of Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) and Scott Benson (11th Ward) on most of the votes that went 10-3.

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) often votes differently than Lane. Niziolek said the Five-Year Plan worked well until Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed cutting local-government aid -- $21 million this year, $80 million over two years -- made it untenable.

Niziolek believes that the current council has to work out a balance between being financially responsible and maintaining a responsible level of government service.

"Barret's whole thing is running the numbers," said Niziolek. "But it begs the question 'what is government all about?' If it is all about numbers, then you forget about the big part."

Lane said LGA cuts were no excuse for the last-minute fiddle.

True, the Five-Year Plan did not take LGA cuts into account. The idea was to deal with the city's internal economic problems first. But Lane said everyone at City Hall knew that because of the state budget crisis, LGA funds were on the chopping block and that there was going to be a major disruption in how much the state gave to Minneapolis.

"This institution has set a new course and I think the leadership needs to be cognizant of that and start thinking about what that means before we set out on the 2004 budget," he said.

Managing risks

The 39-year-old Lane graduated from Plymouth's Armstrong High School and St. Olaf College in Northfield. He earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School. His involvement in community affairs began with the Fulton Neighborhood Association. He is married with two kids.

When Councilmember Steve Minn went to work for Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration in 1999, Lane ran for Minn's seat in a special election. Like Minn, he was an independent and beat the endorsed DFL candidate. He won re-election two years later.

The DFL has not won a City Council seat in the 13th Ward since 1989. Greg Abbott was a DFL-endorsed candidate whom Lane defeated in 2001, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Abbott called his ward pro-choice but fiscally conservative and a place that rejected the high spending and borrowing of former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Council President Jackie Cherryhomes. In Abbott's opinion, a "throw the bums out" mentality prevailed in 2001, and Lane benefited immensely from being a fiscally focused independent.

Abbott says Lane's budget focus neglects neighborhood issues. Lane does not announce his position on local controversies until city staff and neighborhoods weigh in. He claims taking sides too early taints what should be a factual, democratic process.

Abbott disagrees, saying matters like the Boulevard affordable housing project at 53rd and Lyndale get more controversial with Lane on the sidelines.

“He doesn't use the powers of his office to shape the debate, and so you end up with local issues that become bitter and vocal. He would probably make an excellent judge -- I just don't think he makes a very good politician," said Abbott, who like Lane is an attorney.

As a trial lawyer, Lane represented individuals and companies in insurance law while running his firm, Hamlin and Lane.

Asked how his legal practice informs his outlook on the City Council, Lane replied, "It was my job to manage the risk to which my clients were exposed. I'd walk people through the legal process so they understood what their choices were at each point.

"Just like in law, I think it is important that the City Council manages people's expectations about what we can do, when it is going to happen and what it is going to cost," he said.

Rybak said that people who watch the Council meetings only see about 50 percent of who Barret Lane is.

"He has a tremendous sense of humor and he also is a compassionate person," said the Mayor. "But people who watch Council meetings only see the image of a grumpy technocrat."

Lane said he is confident that Minneapolis will bounce back from its current financial crisis. That task is foremost on his mind. In the future, his demeanor in City Council sessions may be one of the barometers measuring Minneapolis' economic health.