In the 13th Ward, a hard-fought primary

Three candidates, experienced in the halls of government, vie for two general election spots

Former Councilmember Lisa McDonald, small business consultant Mike Hohmann and neighborhood activist Betsy Hodges are in a three-way tussle for the open 13th Ward City Council seat.

The Sept. 13 primary will narrow the field to two.

For more than a decade, Ward 13 has elected independents to City Hall. Steve Minn represented the ward from 1994 to 1999, and Barret Lane has represented it since then.

McDonald and Hodges are DFLers, but McDonald has the backing of former colleague Minn. She also has a ready political network and a host of labor endorsements, including AFSCME, Teamsters and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. She expected to raise $50,000 by the primary and still have $10,000 in the bank, she said.

Hodges concedes she won’t have McDonald’s deep pockets, but she does have the backing of the DFL, Progressive Minnesota and Central Labor. "Our strength and our goal is to have the best grassroots campaign," she said.

Hohmann has the backing of incumbent Lane and other neighborhood activists, which helps, but admits he will need a lot of shoe leather to win. He is running as a small "i" independent and isn’t seeking any institutional endorsements – the kind that come with donations and volunteers.

"I have faith in the voters, that they will vote for someone that will represent them, the taxpayers, and not special interests," Hohmann said.

Each of the three candidates argues he/she is the fiscal moderate that Ward 13 voters want.

Credentials

Hohmann has an MBA and since 1991 has owned and operated a consulting firm for small businesses, nonprofit groups and governments, doing business plans, market research and audits, he said. Prior to that, he was a policy analyst for Minnegasco, forecasting natural gas deregulation’s effects.

He has served on the city’s Capital Long-range Improvement Committee, a citizen group that recommends projects for public borrowing – from park improvements to sewer upgrades. Hohmann served on the Planning Commission for three-plus years, reviewing development proposals seeking zoning changes, conditional-use permits and variances.

"I understand budgeting. I have training specifically in financial issues," he said. "Neither of my opponents in this race have that kind of background and experience."

Hohmann and family have lived in Linden Hills for 26 years, he said. Soon after arriving, he joined neighbors in a successful effort to block the proposed closing of Audubon School (now Lake Harriet Lower campus). He has served on Southwest’s Community Education Advisory Council for 15 years and taught community education classes.

McDonald attended college but never got a degree, she said. Her Web site biography said she moved to Minneapolis 28 years ago, worked in homeless shelters and as a waitress, then started a catering business. In the early 1990s, she became executive director of the Greater Lake Street Council. She moved to the 13th Ward shortly after an unsuccessful 2001 mayoral run.

She is now a board member of the Green Institute and NARAL-Pro Choice Minnesota. But it’s her Council experience that gives her the strongest campaign springboard.

She counts Lyn-Lake revitalization and the Urban Village housing development in Lowry Hill East among her top Council achievements. Others are: leading the effort to rewrite the city’s zoning code as Zoning and Planning Committee chair; getting the Uptown Transit station; working with Metro Transit to get bike racks on buses and working with ROMP, a dog owners group, to promote off-leash dog parks.

"It is about record versus rhetoric," she said. "I have the record."

Hodges grew up in Minneapolis and has done development work for Progressive Minnesota and more recently with the Minnesota Justice Foundation, before leaving to campaign full-time.

She was a founding board member of Family Place, a St. Paul day shelter for homeless families. She co-chaired the city-appointed C-17 Commission, which made recommendations about where (not whether) to put a new baseball stadium.

Hodges has served on the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council since 2000, where she facilitated talks on neighborhood zoning disputes, revived the Linden Hills Art Fair and promoted the Council’s affordable housing policy, as well as an affordable housing development at West 44th Street & France Avenue South.

Hodges worked for County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, providing staff support on such issues as the West 50th Street restriping, she said. She has volunteered with the Getting to the Bottom of the Ballot group in Southwest.

"I have the experience that counts in Ward 13," Hodges said. "I have been imbedded in the community. Š I have a history of bringing people together."

Budget balancing

McDonald said she liked some things about the city’s new five-year budget – an initiative begun after she left the Council – but not its public safety cuts.

She called Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 2006 budget proposal "a good start" because it added 71 cops, but said: "We have to be thinking about those things every year for the next four years, not just in an election year."

How would McDonald pay for more police?

She suggested slowing down city debt repayment to keep the force up. (Ctiy budget staff said slowing debt repayment risks the city’s bond rating, raising borrowing costs.)

Further, McDonald said the city has consistently run large budget surpluses – above the required reserve. Pat Born, city finance officer, said the city closed out 2003-2004 with $14 million above the recommended 15 percent reserve. (City policy requires a 10 percent reserve; finance staff recommends 15 percent, given financial uncertainties.)

McDonald said if the city had budgeted better, it could have increased public safety spending on the front end. Instead, the $14 million surplus overage gets spent on year-end "political things."

Born said the city used $10 million of the $14 million to pay down city pension debt. Reduced-interest-payment savings fund police, he said. The other $4 million went to one-time expenditures, such as starting up the city’s 311 non-emergency help/complaint line.

McDonald said 311 is a good idea, but questioned its priority. "We don’t have money for fire and police," she said. "Should we be rolling out a brand new program?"

In addition to startup costs, the 311 Call Center would have a $2.6 million annual operating budget, according to Rybak’s proposed budget.

However, city officials say eliminating 311 would not free up public safety money. Budget Director Heather Johnston said the 34-person 311 Center would dramatically reduce phone calls to individual departments. The city pays for 311 by cutting other department budgets based on estimates of reduced staff demands.

For instance, the mayor’s budget cuts $400,000 from the police budget to pay for 311, based on estimates that it will reduce nonemergency calls to the Police Department. The Coordinator’s office takes the biggest hit for 311 ($1 million), followed by Public Works at $946,000.

McDonald said she would look at cutting city middle management and mayoral and Council aides.

None of McDonald’s proposals had specific dollar amounts, showing how many police she could hire. It costs $75,000 in wages and benefits to hire an officer, according to department planning estimates.

Hohmann gives credit to the mayor and Council for creating and sticking to a five-year budget and paying down debt. He believes the city needs to add police, but he doesn’t know the right number, he said.

"I do know that you can’t solve the crime problem by just throwing money out and hiring police," he said. "We could hire 200 police tomorrow and it doesn’t necessarily mean you would see any drastic changes in the crime situation."

He said ongoing property tax increases would drive people out of their homes.

Where could the city find money for tax relief or other basic services?

Hohmann said the city was spending approximately $10 million a year from the General Fund on affordable housing. "We should limit – cut – the amount of affordable housing being built and rely on the private rental market," he said.

(However, city staff and budget documents say the city’s $10 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund is supported by non-General-Fund money – such as federal Community Development Block Grant dollars. Cutting such affordable housing spending wouldn’t free up money to cut property taxes.)

Hohmann said he also supports reduced affordable housing spending on policy grounds. "We are sending a very mixed message to the private rental market in the city," he said. "If I am a private landlord, what is my incentive to maintain my properties when the city is building properties all around, competing with me?"

Hohmann said he would better coordinate public building projects between the city and various independent boards. "The consistent downfall is the operating [costs] that go with it [a new building]," he said. "We see the parks and the libraries, consistently there is new capital projects and the lack of operational funds to maintain them."

Hodges offered no budget initiatives, tweaks or changes. She said residents wouldn’t let her get away with promising more police unless she had a solid way to pay for more police.

To help the city budget, she said there is no substitute to working with the city’s legislators and other allies to try to boost local government aid. Hodges is supporting Rybak for mayor and said his 2006 budget showed the city could add police officers without resorting to financial gimmicks.

Asked how she would approach the budget, she said she would ask a series of questions when the budget came out:

– Is it structurally balanced, based on reasonable income projections?

– Are we making progress on a long-term plan to get rid of inherited debt?

– Are there wage and revenue policies that provide fairness to taxpayers and among and between bargaining units?

– Are we maintaining smart fiscal policies regarding contingency funds?

Hodges said Rybak and the current Council had to clean up the financial mess left by the previous Council – which included McDonald.

McDonald said she opposed internal borrowing schemes proposed by the majority when she was on the Council. The DFL tried to oust her in 1997 – precisely because she paid attention to the fiscal bottom line, she said.

"I am glad to see that the things that I talked about Š are being dealt with," she said. "I was ahead of my time."

Hodges said McDonald failed to build a successful coalition to pass better budgets.

Dust-ups

The candidates, notably McDonald and Hodges, have been exchanging barbs.

Earlier this year, they sparred on the city’s 2 percent cap on annual salary increases. Hodges said she supported the cap, and said McDonald got union support by promising larger raises. McDonald said she was surprised Hodges was going negative early.

McDonald said she would not commit to supporting the 2 percent policy in advance of 2007 budget talks. More recently, she has criticized city leaders for approving larger raises for top-paid managers after the state raised the overall cap on city salaries.

Hohmann said he supported the 2 percent policy with a caveat – he would consider salary increases if the funds are available.

Condo controversy

A condo development beyond 13th Ward boundaries offers further insight into the three candidates.

As a Planning Commission member, Hohmann voted to approve a conditional-use permit to allow the Edgewater condominiums, 1805 W. Lake St., to rise six stories, a controversial project with neighbors. (The project, on Calhoun’s northeast corner lies just beyond Ward 13’s boundaries, which include the lake’s south and west sides.)

The Edgewater project was inside the Shoreland Overlay District, which limits height to 2.5 stories (or 35 feet) within 1,000 feet of a lake; in this case, Calhoun. It also allows developers to seek exceptions.

McDonald said she would have opposed the Edgewater application; she supports strict enforcement of the Shoreland Overlay District – no exceptions.

"I am a staunch advocate for the shoreland ordinance. I am not sure all the people running in this race are," she said. "The ordinance allows for X amount of height, end of story."

Said Hohmann: "Somebody told me I am being characterized as someone who wants to put high rises around Lake Calhoun. That is not at all the case."

The Shoreland Overlay District allows exceptions based on the context of surrounding buildings, he said. In the Edgewater’s case, the proposed height was consistent with other area buildings. Further, the redevelopment got rid of a surface parking lot and added a green roof, reducing the environmental impact.

"A lot of these people are getting haywire in their interpretation of the Shoreland Overlay District," he said.

Hodges said she opposes tall buildings around the lakes but says the Shoreland Overlay District ordinance is flawed in its ability to stop them. The language allowing a conditional-use permit for more height "is a big loophole," she said.

"It advantages developers, and it disadvantages neighborhoods," Hodges said. "This is, by the way, code that Lisa [McDonald] wrote" and claims as one of her major Council achievements.

In a follow-up interview, McDonald said things had changed since the Shoreland Ordinance District first passed. Today, "basically we have a Council that believes that development is a way to resolve financial problems," she said. "I could not have anticipated that."

She defended her zoning code work, saying, "We covered almost all of our bases. Did we miss some things? Sure, we might have."

She backed off from her stated zero tolerance for taller buildings statement, but only slightly. If she were on the Council, she would seek to limit conditional-use permits in the Shoreland Overlay District to 10 percent, she said. (Ten percent of 35 feet is 3.5 feet, or a total of 38.5 feet.)