By Maggie Rittenhouse, Ward 11 resident
While reading Southwest Voices’ article about Councilmember Emily Koski, I was reminded why I am an extremely frustrated Ward 11 constituent. Koski has tried to build her public image as a councilmember who “listens deeply.” In this article, she states that as a councilmember, you are holding “many other truths in your hands at the same time and thinking and weighting out all of those truths.” What is missing from both the way Koski portrays herself and this statement is any clarity about what her values are and how they inform her decision-making. As constituents, we get no analysis of how she weighs competing “truths” and we continue to see inconsistency between the values she claimed on the campaign trail (justice and equity as the predominant lens she would) and how she votes.
Let’s look at two of the more contentious issues faced by the City Council and see how her public image and purported values line up with her votes.
First, the Hennepin Ave South redesign decision. Koski was one of five council members who refused to override the mayor’s veto of the plan for 24/7 bus lanes - a design that aligns with the City’s Transportation Action Plan to prioritize climate friendly, accessible and equitable transportation. I reached out to Koski prior to the vote asking if she was considering the well-documented phenomena of business owners over-stating the negative impacts of removing on-street parking. I did not doubt business owners were concerned but wanted to be sure she was not overweighting their voices compared to the extremely positive but distributed benefits from the 24/7 bus lane design - benefits that will mostly impact marginalized and disadvantaged communities in need of accessible and efficient transportation. She replied to me: “It is not within my personal code of ethics to tell a directly impacted population, small business owners, who are recovering from the pandemic and unrest, that their fears are based in fiction or false assumptions, assuming that I know better than them, because I do not.”
I was taken aback at this response as it implied that 1. small business owners are a marginalized group whose “lived experiences” should be prioritized in decision making while ignoring the marginalized communities who actually would benefit; and 2. she felt it was unreasonable to consider a well-documented bias as she weighed her decision.
Now, let’s look at her approach in the case of the Roof Dept demolition in the East Phillips Neighborhood. In this situation, we have a majority-BIPOC community who suffer disproportionately from health issues related to pollution and environmental racism. This community is one of Minneapolis’ Green Zones – areas where reducing pollution is the paramount goal. This community has fought for years for the city to listen to their concerns and repair past harms.
Koski initially worked, admirably in my opinion, with Ward 9 Councilmember Jason Chavez to center the voices of the East Phillips community. However, once Mayor Frey vetoed the resident’s preferred plan, Koski flipped her vote and joined five other members in refusing to override his veto. Since then she has worked on “compromises” that have not met the needs of the community. As community member Nicole Perez said in the Star Tribune, “The mayor offered us a ‘compromise’ of three acres if we'd accept their pollution. Do we want to take scraps at the table, compromise our people for three acres, and still be poisoned? You're talking about our children's breathing.”
So, in this case, Koski abandoned the community when it got tough and did not center the voices of those directly impacted. She effectively said she “knew better than them” despite the city’s legacy of harming this community and clearly contested opinions about the safety of the city’s plans.
These two cases tell us about her values and how she “weighs competing truths.” She trusts some people’s lived experiences and not others, seems to misunderstand who is and is not marginalized and therefore how to prioritize impacts and assess decisions, and sides with those who have more institutional power.
Perhaps Koski believes Ward 11 folks want this approach. Yet she never even tries to have deeper, more nuanced, transparent discussions about these key decisions impacting the city. To wit, she sent out a newsletter to Ward 11 two days after the most recent and most contentious Roof Depot vote, which included nothing about the issue, her vote, or why she filed a police report against those protesting the council’s decision (when she hasn’t with other constituents).
It is easy to celebrate small businesses and share links to city programs and snow emergency schedules (the primary content of the newsletter she touts). It is hard to govern with humility, honesty, transparency and care for our entire city. I expect this from my council representative. I expect transparency in how she votes and why. I expect clarity about who she is listening to and who she is not. I expect her to have a clear understanding of power – who has it, who doesn’t, and how that should inform more equitable decision making. I expect her to grapple with what it takes to reduce racial, environmental and economic disparities. I expect her to tell us what her values are and use her vote to push against powerful interests. I hope she can get there, but right now, Ward 11 has given the city another council member who uses the language of allyship and equity when it benefits their image, but ultimately votes to uphold the status quo.