Editor’s note: We’ve been reflecting on Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 12-year tenure with our series, “End of the Rybak Era.” To read previous stories in the series and to see an interactive timeline noting pivotal moments in Rybak’s tenure go to www.journalmpls.com/end-of-the-rybak-era
It’s a daunting task to assess the performance of Mayor R.T. Rybak who is leaving City Hall early January after 12 years in office.
Regardless of your position on his policies over the years, it’s difficult for anyone to disagree that the mayor’s charming ways put Minneapolis on the map in a way that many of his predecessors in the mayor’s office had not accomplished.
He embraces so much of what makes Minneapolis a special place to live. We love that he crowd surfs at First Avenue, can be spotted riding around town on a Nice Ride bike, champions our local breweries, restaurants and retailers, and has a knack for rhyming about our fair city on Twitter.
We reached out to nearly 100 community leaders and engaged citizens to share thoughts on Rybak’s three terms. We sought out supporters and critics alike. We asked the following question: If you had to issue a report card to Mayor R.T. Rybak assessing his three terms in office, what would you include and how would you grade him?
Some people declined to give letter grades, but still offered feedback. Here are edited highlights of the report cards.
— Sarah McKenzie
Minneapolis Public Schools Supt. Bernadeia Johnson’s evaluation of Mayor R.T. Rybak
Overall Grade: A
Attends and advocates at meetings and school events throughout the city
Social media expert (taught me how to tweet); stays connected to the community; is articulate on CNN; great at poetry
Strong advocate for LGBT issues (participates in Twin Cities Pride Parade and marries couples)
Good track record of successful snow removal; had to cancel school for two days in 2011-12 due to mountains of snow in Minneapolis streets
Champion for public education; elevated the narrative of the achievement gap among mayoral candidates; supports college readiness by speaking to all MPS high school students about the Minneapolis Promise; hosts a STEP-UP intern each summer; shows infinite support and enthusiasm for Minneapolis schools and students
Plays well with others; a great example for the youth of Minneapolis
Is a funny guy, but not as funny as classmate Mayor Coleman (as demonstrated at MinnRoast)
Was once caught running with extra-large scissors (may have been meant for ribbon cutting) *NOT SUSPENDED; Dangerously surfed crowds at First Ave *TIME OUT
I have read and understand my student’s report card
Signature (Mother): ________________________________
Signature (Wife): __________________________________
*Signed report card due back to Dr. Bernadeia Johnson on Monday.
State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61)
I would give R.T. an A. He’s been a great mayor.
I will say that — and I think he would agree — he didn’t start out so great. His first term was a little disorganized and unfocused. The reelection test [in 2005] was healthy for him.
Once he started figuring out how to move issues through the city and focus his priorities with the help of really strong staff and political advisors, things started crystallizing and gelling really nicely for him.
I especially appreciate he really gets fundamentally how to build a vibrant city that works for everyone. He’s the right kind of guy to lead Minneapolis when people are really hankering to return to urban life. Not all cities have been able to deliver what people want — not all cities are successful like Minneapolis has been.
It’s about delivering a high quality of life that supports a strong middle class, but also recognizing that we have a large underclass that needs to be included.
There is way more to be done. That’s what I’m thrilled that Betsy Hodges won — a big part of her agenda is making sure that all that success is extended to everyone so we don’t have the kinds of concentration of poverty in North Minneapolis with lack of access and opportunity. It’s very difficult work, but can be done.
President of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce
For me, the mayor’s final grades are much higher than those he would have received after his first term. Over time he has learned how to channel his boundless energy and leaves with a powerful understanding of what makes a strong city and how all the pieces of a vibrant, prosperous community align.
Core functions: B+
The mayor deserves great credit for reducing crime in the city and especially juvenile crime. While there were some issues in the Fire Department, they have been addressed and improvements have also been made.
Roads and bridges maintenance has suffered over his term, but a new plan is in place to catch up on repair. Other pluses include a better recycling system, Results Minneapolis and 311.
Fiscal Policy: A-
Reduced debt by $350 million; resolved decades-old pension issues; cut spending by 16 percent; and proposed first decrease in property tax levy in years.
Economic Development and Business services: B
Redesigned the service delivery system with a goal of streamlining the process to offer a more friendly business climate — this is a work in progress; spearheaded the legislation that builds a new Vikings stadium and renovates Target Center; invested heavily in training and placing hard-to-employ and displaced workers in fast-growing sectors; and understood the value of transit to retaining and attracting tomorrow’s workforce.
Ambassadorial Prowess: A
Enhanced the city’s reputation across the country and the world through well executed travel and targeted messages. One of the best at the microphone anywhere.
Regional Leadership: A
One of the founders of the Regional Council of Mayors; led us all through the tragedy of the 35W bridge collapse; a regular participant in InterCity Leadership Visits; and will support the Southwest Corridor once final studies are complete.
Mayoral Legacy: A
Founded the Minneapolis Promise which provides young people with free college and career counseling, free and low-cost access to college, and high-quality summer jobs. Created and passionately supported the STEP-UP Jobs program which has placed 18,000 youth — 86 percent of whom are youth of color — in real-life jobs with Minneapolis employers.
Moving to a new job which will continue the important work of preparing tomorrow’s leaders.
Overall grade: A-
While we welcome Mayor Elect Betsy Hodges, we are sorry to see Mayor Rybak leave. He has made it clear, however, that his love for, and devotion to, Minneapolis has not diminished. Good news for all.
Vice president of the East Downtown Council
As you well know, Mayor Rybak (along with the City Council) has undertaken and accomplished much during his tenure and has proven to be an effective leader so I won’t attempt to recite a laundry list of them all. However, accomplishments I consider overarching are as follows:
• Merged an independent development agency then streamlined processes, integrated and created new business lines, and aligned the disparate departments within CPED to improve the economic business environment of Minneapolis.
• Launched the Great City Design Teams (composed of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and developers) to work with residents and community groups to help develop design visions for their neighborhoods. One of the results of this effort that affects my community is the Washington Avenue Redesign Project.
• Tackled paying down the city debt and restoring its AAA bond rating.
• Held down property tax increases.
• Invested in the Fire and Police Departments to improve public safety.
• Invested in streets/bridges/bike paths infrastructure (the 35W bridge collapse is still fresh in my mind) to improve transitways throughout Minneapolis.
• Championed effort to keep the Vikings stadium in Minneapolis to generate thousands in construction-related jobs.
• Paved the way for proposed Ryan Companies mixed-use development and park project in Downtown East.
Therefore, I believe he will leave a very strong legacy and would give him a grade of A.
Gov. Mark Dayton
He started out very good and kept getting better and better.
The STEP-UP program is a momentous achievement. He had a strong focus on preventing youth crime. Crime has dropped while he has been in office.
He retired more than $300 million of debt. It doesn’t grab the headlines, but it’s a very laudable accomplishment.
He’s got an upbeat spirit and walked his talk all the way. …
As for the big picture on the stadium deal, it’s a blighted area that will be made more vibrant and revitalized.
City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward)
I believe R.T. has been one of the best mayors not only in our city but in our nation in modern history. He has taken on issues that many would prefer to ignore, made them a priority for those in elected leadership and helped make them happen. He has dealt with tragedy gracefully, promoted change enthusiastically and raised collective spirit of our city. He will be missed.
City Council President
With regard to a grading system, I think I would give him a “C” for the first term and “As” for two and three. He made some rookie mistakes — we all do, but he became extremely successful in the last two. The senior staff team we have now is outstanding.
What I always find remarkable about him is his energy and his love for this city. He is so recognizable, when you would walk with him on the street, people would come across to say “hi.” It was like being with a rock star. People feel very connected in a personal way to him. When I was doorknocking for reelection this fall, the question I was asked most frequently at the door was, “Why isn’t Mayor Rybak running for reelection?” He was exactly what a Minneapolis Mayor should be — a spokesperson, salesperson and promoter of our city.
Mark J. Oyaas, managing partner, Neerland & Oyaas Inc.
History will have the final grading responsibility, as it always does in these matters. An easier analogy for me is percentage rankings like those one finds in baseball.
As a mayor, R.T. will end up in the hall of fame. He leaves office batting over .700 in terms of popular support, the statistic he covets the most. The citizenry wants to feel good about Minneapolis. No mayor, including Humphrey, enjoyed this level of popularity at the end of their term. Mayor Rybak’s Hall of Fame seat is a fait accompli.
The achievement is even more incredible given his percentages in the various statistics that comprise the art of mayor-ing; Civic Accomplishment, City Services and Intergovernmental Relations. Overall R.T. is a slap hitter, will take a swing at anything that catches fancy. He has governed by sound byte and press conference which often gets him on base (at least .333). The problem is most of his efforts have been left on base. Too often the mayor has been picked off, distracted by illusions like Washington Boulevard. By any measure his North Minneapolis Initiative deflated when R.T.’s hot air ran out. It takes a lot more than a cruise on a Nice Ride to address the public safety fears in the core and our neighborhoods, but there is no photo op during the long hours and tough struggles to get our cops properly supported and deployed.
The bulk of city service delivery has muddled with little or no improvement under the Rybak watch. Snow plowing is still an art better delivered in every surrounding community. Minneapolis now has a unique leaf pick up policy based on newsletter dates rather than dates that leaves fall. The ballyhooed streamlining of planning and development has left planning adrift and the development process a new and different sort of byzantine.
In the last few years the city has leveraged available federal funds to try and stay ahead of burgeoning demand for bike transit. Unfortunately rather than lead by adopting standards that would bring certainty into bike travel most of the city investment has been in paint.
So given the spotty averages in three important job statistics why nominate Rybak for the first seat in the Mayor Hall of Fame? The good people of Minneapolis, from all walks of life across every neighborhood believe in R.T. They sense his passion for this city and believe that we are evolving into a sustainable model for urban cores that rival any in the world. They tolerate quality of life issues that see little improvement because citizens have faith that this talented caring guy is making the right changes at the right time. Restoring faith in local government is a grand accomplishment and what R.T. will and should be remembered for.
President and CEO of AchieveMpls
Demonstrated concern for the youth of Minneapolis: A
Demonstrated ability to move the City to address the needs of low income youth: B-
Creation of an outstanding youth employment program that relies on private/public/nonprofit collaboration: A
Reduction in youth violence: B
Engagement in strengthening public education – first term: F, second term: C, third term, B+
Chair of the East Farmstead Neighborhood Association board
I would give Mayor Rybak a B for his 12 years in office.
I would give him very high marks for his work on balancing the budget (especially through the recession years), resolving the city’s pension issue, his relationships he has built with the business community and his work to help reduce violent crime throughout the city.
The major areas he fell short were in addressing inequalities (both economic and educational) with communities of color, his support of the city’s $150 million commitment to the new Vikings stadium (at the very least, he could have pressed for a better deal), and reforming city government (i.e. installing a city manager and exploring a change to how city staff reports to/is managed by elected officials). I also think more could have been done to streamline the processes for development, especially at the neighborhood level.
President of the Armatage Neighborhood Association
I’ve only lived in Minneapolis for five years, so I don’t know what the city was like before Mayor Rybak. But as a mayor is give him an A as I found him to be very accessible and willing to work with all parties to find solutions. I got involved on our neighborhood association after he came to the Armatage Neighborhood Association annual meeting in 2011, and I remember being impressed by his passion for Minneapolis and his genuine desire to connect with individual citizens. I think that’s a trait we should always look for in our government leaders.
Lynn Gordon and Steve Shapiro
Owners of French Meadow
Bakery & Cafe and CC Club
Vision should not be underrated! The resurgence of the city during the last 12 years is no accident. R.T. understood that Minneapolis couldn’t just maintain itself and still prosper. As mayor he went beyond improving basic services and initiated and championed programs to bring more life to the neighborhoods and streets, activities to the parks and promote better transit from bikes to light rail. For the first time in a generation the population of the city is growing and that will certainly be part of R.T.’s legacy as Mayor.
Uptown blogger; former staff member at The Ackerberg Group; currently an analyst for Hennepin County’s Transit Oriented Development Program
From my perspective as a community leader, I would give R.T. an A based on:
• His willingness to listen to everyone, not just his confidants;
• His tireless cheerleading for our city, our neighborhoods, and our people;
• His openness to innovation and change;
• His vision for what will make a robust, sustainable city — including making growth a priority!
• His support of small business and neighborhood business districts; and
• His work on a national stage for Minneapolis and cities across our country.
I certainly didn’t agree with him on everything, such as the Vikings Stadium subsidy and the decision to bypass the charter or the attempt to eliminate the BET [Board of Estimate and Taxation]. Those negatives are far outweighed by what he has done.
Owner of Saffron Restaurant and World Street Kitchen
A: For his forward thinking ways, support for small business and the ethnic community, equality rights for all citizens, food truck lovin’ and let’s not forget the crowd surfing at a rock concert.
Executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition
For his work on biking, I would give Mayor Rybak an A-.
Biking has more than doubled in Minneapolis during Rybak’s term and he has played a big role in that growth. He championed Nice Ride Minnesota bike share, supported funding dozens of miles of new bike trails and lanes and pushed for the city’s first-ever staff dedicated to biking and walking.
He has also been a consistent and energetic biking cheerleader on the news promoting Minneapolis as a biking city, riding at Bike to Work Day events and making ice cream on a Nice Ride bike at Open Streets events. The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition was proud to recognize him with our 2013 Bike Champion award. He leaves a great biking legacy for Mayor-elect Hodges to build on.
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman
“A” for Active and Astute (Moving fast and thinking even faster.)
“B” for Bold and Brave (Diving head first into city budgets and into crowds, too.)
“C” for Caring and Compassion (Loves this City and the people in it – there’s no doubt about that!)
City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward)
I love most of the stuff R.T. has fought for, of course notable exception is the Vikings stadium. Financial reform at the top of the list; transportation improvements include BRT, streetcars, light-rail lines; youth focus includes STEP-UP and youth violence prevention.
He has been an accessible leader to many people — hard to replace his incredible charisma and energy.
Urban planning consultant and writer
Perhaps the most overlooked job of mayors is that they are chief urban designer for the city. By this I mean not only ensuring good buildings are built, but much more importantly, ensuring they relate well to each other and the public realm, helping create an economically viable, sustainable and graceful city. Minneapolis is no different.
To this end, Rybak’s legacy is checkered. His tenure is marked by a series of award-winning projects in and of themselves, but too many of these projects fall short when it comes to how well they relate and add value to their surroundings and the city overall. This must change during Mayor Hodges’ administration.
An example of a good result is the Midtown Exchange. It relates well to Lake Street, the parking ramp (a necessary evil) is wrapped on two sides by housing, and it isn’t the mayor’s fault that surface parking has to remain in front because it is “historic.” Or is it? Maybe he could have used the bully pulpit harder to explain to preservationists that saving a parking lot is asinine! The Walker on the other hand is an example of a building that deserves a much better context. Love or hate the design of the Walker itself, it faces a decidedly awful stretch of Lyndale/Hennepin Avenue and doesn’t even have a door facing the sculpture garden. Rybak is the “biking mayor” but the city only has two on-street bike racks. That doesn’t make any sense.
Rybak was mayor when the Hiawatha Line opened, and a lot of building near it has occurred on his watch, but I doubt anyone is proud of the urbanism as a whole along the line. The Guthrie Theater and Gold Medal Park is the most egregious example of two award-winning projects that have no relationship to each other. Worse, they are separated by a surface parking lot.
It is easy to make excuses for why we get such mixed results: the “weak-mayor” system in Minneapolis, traffic engineers hurt the process by falling back on road standards that benefit the automobile, Starchitects who don’t care about their surroundings; “give it some more time — good development will happen;” downtown workers complain that they need skyways, “everyone needs a place to park!”; NIMBYs!
But visit Charleston or Milwaukee, where mayors Joe Riley and John Norquist, respectively, prioritized and fought for good urbanism, and the results are an obvious physical legacy stamped on development across those cities (Joe Riley is still mayor and continues to build this legacy). Milwaukee’s Riverwalk and Waterfront Park in Charleston aren’t just standalone award-winning landscape architecture pieces — they knit in to the public realm and add value to the city.
Joe Riley is quoted as saying “great cities give their finest edges to the public, without fear.” He also says “we shouldn’t build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of the city.” Mayors can’t do it all, they must choose their battles. But choosing to fight for better urban design and a city that is more holistically knit together in a meaningful way would pay off financially for the city, but more importantly, result in a city that is more loved.
Treasurer of the Minneapolis School Board
Mayor Rybak, in his official capacity, has been a strong presence for the city of Minneapolis. He is engaging, articulate and inspiring. I give him high marks for his visibility, energy and enthusiasm. He focused on Minneapolis being bicycle friendly implementing Nice Ride and advocated for youth employment with the STEP UP program.
He worked with the City Council to be fiscally responsible and pushed to reduce property taxes, which he achieved this year. However, Minneapolis residents who are underserved, underemployed, and underrepresented in leadership positions at the city level (boards, commissions, staff, department heads) needed to experience an intentional investment in their communities, in quality affordable housing, job growth and increased access to opportunity. His biggest job initiative was the Vikings stadium which will create jobs but also costs the city hundreds of millions of dollars. What would have been the impact of directly investing that money to refurbish foreclosed homes?
I would give him a ‘needs improvement’ on his responsiveness to our most vulnerable citizens. Homelessness has increased amongst families and children, north Minneapolis had one of the worst foreclosure rates in the nation and the gaps in employment have increased. Recently Mayor Rybak expressed regret at not focusing on education. As he rightly stated at a school board meeting this summer, ALL of us have a responsibility to ensure our youth have access to quality education and the support to achieve their full potential. The official duties of mayor DO directly impact our gaps in education. Our unique roles in our capacity as elected officials are all interconnected, symbiotic and critical pieces of the puzzle that supports a child’s success. Community stability, access to opportunity and healthy lifestyle choices, and strong community support networks are critical to a child being able to come to school ready to learn.
Third Ward City Council Member
Early in his mayoral career, Mayor Rybak lent his support to a critical building project in our city, the Minneapolis Central Library, co-chairing with me on the new Downtown Library Building Project. It was the largest public building project at the time, and required countless hours of his time, and his staff. His engagement in the project and partnership encouraged broader contributions in order to make the project and the library, an award winning building and a credit to the city.He deserves an A+!
Secondly, his support and leadership in acknowledging the importance of our riverfront, as not only an economic opportunity for our city, but focusing our city’s attention as an its important asset to North and Northeast Minneapolis, as well as our city. Again, another A+!
There is so much more to add, but hopefully others have noted his many contributions to our city!
Cathy ten Broeke
State Director to Prevent and End Homeless
If I had to issue a report card to Mayor R.T. Rybak assessing his three terms in office, I would include: Did he inspire this city to be great? Did he care about all of the city’s residents?
I give him an A+ on both counts! It is hard to imagine a better cheerleader for this city and all of its residents. I know that he has inspired me to give all that I have to make this the best city it can be. He has made it very clear that we all have gifts to bring to this community and, regardless of who we are or where we live or what we do, we can make Minneapolis a community that is more caring, more artful, more connected, more fun, and more just.