Hennepin County board chair: ‘I thought now we’ve turned some corner … but then it didn’t materialize’

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Marion Greene, Hennepin County board chair

It’s hard to describe how everything has changed. The urgency is huge and appropriate. 

The easiest and most obvious entry point for the county is in economic development and finding ways our sort-of-deep pockets can be helpful. Something I’m working on with the board right now has to do with preventing displacement around Lake Street. There’s a concern about gentrification and just wanting to make sure that any gentrification doesn’t cause displacement. How can we prevent displacement? Is it through land acquisition and holding? Is it the use of a land bank possibly?

Hennepin County, on the official side, is doing all right because we got our CARES Act dollars straight from the federal department. Where we are disappointed is we did immediately move — in the wake of the killing of George Floyd — to add police reform to our Legislative agenda. It’s something we’ve supported in the past but we really wanted to make the step of having that in the platform, expecting that the [state Legislature’s] special session would not only focus on that but yield something. There was a sense of disappointment that the world was watching and the Senate just walked away and clearly didn’t want to take that opportunity. I thought there was a little more unanimity on the issues. I thought one of the weird elements of the protests and something I took note of was seeing interviews here and there with people who I don’t usually find myself in political allyship with, but who were there to speak in support of Black Lives Matter. So I thought now we’ve turned some corner where we’re all getting this, but then it didn’t materialize.  

I feel like nobody’s exempt from criticism, not even the county, though we are more distant from this issue. The murder of George Floyd and MPD — that’s a Minneapolis police force and the destruction has been in Minneapolis. On the other hand it’s the county attorney who needs to have brought the charges and finally did. So I felt like the eyeballs were on me too, and good. It is a time of scrutiny and that feels really terrifying, but on the other hand, it’s what’s needed. I want to not be afraid of that even though it’s making everybody sweat. 

What’s on my mind, and I think it’s a stress and an honor, is: Am I going to be one of the leaders who’s needed at this moment? We have got to collectively pick up the baton that’s been handed to us and carry it forward. People are really engaged and looking to their elected officials for both transparency and leadership. It depends on the day what the topic is. There are issues with bringing the [legal] case. There are issues with the medical examiner’s reappointment. There is also what’s going on in Powderhorn Park and the region’s ongoing challenges with unsheltered homelessness. 

Homelesness is something I’ve been thinking about and working on for a while, but the presence of the encampment in Powderhorn puts the issue front and center for some folks who haven’t been aware of it. The challenge for us at the county is not a resource question any longer. We’ve had buildings offered to us, and we don’t have the staff. We’ve reached out to our partners at Catholic Charities and St. Stephens, and they don’t have the staff either. We’ve recruited as many Hennepin County employees as we can to work in shelters. Before this time the county never ran a shelter; we always worked with outside contractors. Now we are running shelters and the contractors are running expanded shelters, and everybody is doing everything they can. If somebody were to hand us a multi-million contract, I would say, “I’m sorry, we just can’t accept.” There’s nothing more we can do; it’s beyond a money issue. Even if we were handed several hundred staff, we’d need the staff person to organize them. It’s not just people hours, it’s the infrastructure that supports developing staff to do that work. 

The other thing on my mind is Hennepin County has made race equity a part of our work in recent years. I think that’s great, but the dial needs to be moved and the people want to see new urgency in that work. How can we inject new urgency in that work? That’s something that’s on my mind. 

On the county level, I think about the issue of probation. We might hear county workers say with probation, “We do what the judicial bench asks us to do.” What are ways we can use both our systems — the bench and county administration — to not perpetuate systems of racism?


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.