Lisa Bender is wrapping up eight years as the Council Member for Ward 10 in January, including the last four when she served as Council President. The questions below were provided by Southwest Voices readers. Some of the questions and answers were condensed or contextualized for clarity.
You sat down for an interview with the Southwest Journal a year ago after you announced you weren’t running. How has your view of your time in office changed since then?
Lisa Bender: You know, it’s hard to remember the details of that interview. The last couple of years have been a blur of craziness.
I announced I wasn't running right after the presidential election. I didn’t do it how you’re supposed to, with a press release and quotes from people saying how great I am. I really just wanted to make sure my Ward, which is 80% renter, where the issues I've been working on for a long time are so important, so grounded in what my constituents need, I wanted to make sure folks knew I wasn’t running so there was time for candidates to step forward who might be aligned with me and the work that I’ve been doing, so that was my priority in announcing pretty early that I wasn’t seeking re-election.
So you’ll have to refresh my memory about the interview! [laughs] I mean, it’s been a crazy year. We’ve had an election since then. Obviously so much of the focus of the past year was on public safety and policing. For Ward 10, that is a shift. I campaigned twice in this Ward. I talked to thousands of people in both election cycles. Of course people care about public safety, but it was never one of the things I heard most about on the doors. People talked more about housing costs, about transportation safety, there were people complaining about speeding traffic on neighborhood streets, some bigger picture issues around police accountability and climate change.
Those were the big things I heard about, both times when I was campaigning. That’s what informed the focus of my work as a Council Member. Of course, I’ve shifted my own focus in response to my own constituents, and then as Council President as public safety came much more to the forefront of everyone’s minds this past year.
And now I’m in transition mode. Transition to my new Council Member, transition to the next term.
Why didn’t you run for re-election?
LB: I had decided pretty early in this term that I wouldn’t run again, or most likely wouldn’t run again. I honestly think we should have term limits for Council Members in Minneapolis. I don't think people should really stick around for more than three terms. I think people start to amass a lot of power and it becomes hard to hear all corners of the community.
And especially in my Ward I represent a really young Ward with lots of turnover and a lot of renters. To me, the energy just to keep up with the Ward kind of spoke to opening the door to new leadership. I’m thrilled that we have a renter representing Ward 10, I think that’s the right thing for this Ward. I’m really excited to support Council Member-elect Chughtai’s leadership. So for me it was a personal decision, mostly related to how much time I spend working vs. with my family, and also just feeling like we’ve got so much done in these eight years.
I ran for office and spent so much of my time in office really focusing on policy. Transportation policy, housing policy, and we really made significant progress, so I felt good moving on with the next chapter of my professional and personal life and really letting others step up and lead and, in their way, building on the work we’ve done, focusing on other issues, all of that.
Do you see any hope on the horizon for other cities and states to create plans modeled after the Mpls 2040 plan?
LB: Yes, I get asked all the time to speak with planners and elected officials around the country looking at how we've approached housing policy in Minneapolis.
Every city in this country is grappling with the ramifications of racial exclusion in housing. Many cities follow the same course that we had in Minneapolis, where our zoning code, our laws about what's allowed were really building in and baking in the redlining map, the patterns of racially restrictive covenants were codifying that in local law and that's the history that we grappled with in the 2040 plan. The root of that plan in its housing policy was to say, look, we have to be honest about our history, what happened in this city, how we got to where we are now, and that includes baking into our local laws patterns of racial exclusion and housing. So, the very least we can do is start to reverse those land use laws, we can layer on top of that renter protections that start to level the playing field for renters, opportunities for home ownership that support a pathway to home ownership and really starting to allow for so much more flexibility in how people are using building and our already built-out city.
I think the policies that we passed in the 2040 plan and all of the ordinance and budget changes we’ve made in the last couple of years made our city so much more resilient to the COVID pandemic and its housing impacts, so we were able to so quickly work with the county to open new shelter beds when they were needed. We’ve legalized single room occupancy hotels for nonprofit providers to provide supportive housing options. We’ve opened up opportunities for folks to live multi-generationally and to create income streams if they own their place and are also renting out another unit. And it’s just made our housing system more resilient to shocks and changes like the pandemic – so we get lots of questions from folks all around the country.
I always say two things: One, I really do think it is worth taking a step back and taking the citywide approach. We did hundreds of public meetings around the city for two years, we had very explicit conversations about race equity in housing and I think that enabled us to make all of those specific changes based on our values, based on those open-ended conversations that we had with people. I mean, if you go ask people about zoning, first of all you’re missing the point, second of all, you’re really advantaging people who have read the zoning code, who attend all these meetings, and you're really not really catching the vast majority of people who live in our city. So, just start out with open-ended questions – what's it like to live in our city, what’s it like to try to rent a place, to stay in a place.
We reached out to folks in multiple languages, we sat down with specific cultural communities, we went out to Open Streets events, we met people where they were so our policies were really rooted in those values and goals. So I always say that it's worth taking the time to do that kind of process, but it’s also worth starting somewhere and saying hey, maybe our city isn’t ready to make a full-scale citywide change, but we started by legalizing accessory dwelling units only in owner-occupied homes, and by very slightly reducing our parking requirements, which allowed for some smaller apartment buildings in places like Ward 10. We tried it out, we saw how it was working. Some of the resistance or fear about those changes, people could see the effects of those policy changes and they were very incremental and very small, and that helped us build up to that bigger policy change. I think both things are true. It’s great if you can do a big process over a couple of years, but it’s also ok to start wherever it makes sense for your city. A lot of cities are taking inspiration from our work in Minneapolis.
What do you think the “strong mayor” system will do to the city’s government?
LB: I don't know and I think it is a really big deal and I hope that folks who care about housing and care about transportation or climate change or racial justice really pay attention and make sure that their voice is heard in how it’s implemented. I think in a worst-case scenario you end up with less transparency and a much more political environment where council members are incentivized or punished for being on the mayor's political team or not and that could really have damaging impacts in our lower-income communities, especially.
I think best case scenario, there is more accountability. I agree and I can attest to having been that Council President in the system, that there is often this perceived ambiguity about who's in charge. To realize the promises of accountability people have to hold elected leaders accountable, and in our old system, the mayor is fully in charge of MPD. I don’t remember confusion about that, in my first term, when Betsy Hodges was Mayor, somehow this past term there’s been all this confusion about that.
So, it really does require people to pay attention, and to make sure that their voice is heard, both to their Council Member, and for sure to the Mayor, who now has significantly more power. I could see us having a part-time Council in five years with significantly less influence or I can see us having more of the promise of this sort of clear line of the Mayor’s in charge of operational decisions and the council still has strong policy-making authority.
I think Seattle is a good example of a city that has a Mayor that has a lot of power but the City Council is very active in setting the agenda through its budgets and through policy. But that will depend upon the degree to which people pay attention.
Do you have any regrets about your time in office?
LB: I don’t think I’ve had enough time to process it all. I don't have any regrets for my first term in office.
I think a lot about my time as council president. I was elected as a policy leader for the council and I put an enormous amount of time and energy into bringing us together. I did a lot behind the scenes to smooth over the edges and make sure that everyone was talking to each other and to keep that cohesion in the body that really was there. So much of our policy work passed unanimously, or 12-1. That didn’t just happen. That's the result of me and my leadership as Council President, and the whole body really committing to working together that way.
I didn't put as much emphasis on politics, and on defending the Council and communicating about our work. I’m more comfortable as this behind-the-scenes policy leader than I am as this more vocal political leader, and so I think when the City Council became such a center of this last election cycle, when so many people were criticizing the Council, I wished I had spent more time laying the groundwork for the public narrative about how much we were doing and how powerful our work has been, because we really are a model for cities around the country. So many different areas of policy – housing, transportation, public safety, and I wish I could have done more so that work was more recognized.
In the Southwest Journal interview you did, you said in regards to the event in Powderhorn Park, “To me, the pledge that we took was consistent with my position on policing and public safety.” Do you still stand by that, and do you have any more thoughts about the event since that interview?
LB: That’s a perfect example – we had done so much thoughtful, careful work to analyze all the reasons people were calling 911, look up models from other cities, build on a decade of work in Minneapolis in youth violence prevention. The work that we were doing to invest in alternatives to policing was super thoughtful, super incremental, and really based on what we were hearing from constituents and that was such a political moment that all of that careful work was lost.
You know, our city was in crisis, the city had burned, we had the other National Guard in the city, our constituents had gone through days of being hunted down by the police. We’ve now seen videos of that, that’s what my constituents were experiencing. I had constituents that were shot at on their own porch in Whittier contacting me to say, “What is going on? This isn’t acceptable.”
Of course the property destruction isn’t acceptable, of course feeling or being unsafe isn’t acceptable, and it’s also not acceptable for the people that are supposed to be protecting us to be attacking members of our community, and that is what was happening. There was this enormous outcry about the behavior of our police department, from the University of Minnesota, from major law firms, from civic leaders. The Park Board and the School Board both took official actions separating themselves from the Minneapolis Police Department.
We had also been working with the leaders who organized the event at Powderhorn for years on the budget, ever since Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police. That group of advocates had been pushing for investments in safety that weren’t relying on police. To me, it was a continuation of this conversation that I had been having with my constituents and organizations that had been organizing around the budget, with a high presence in Ward 10, which I represent. Looking back and especially at how it was displayed, and the effect with the national media there, I think that the impact that it had was to make people feel like they were being left out of the conversation and that was never our intention. In fact, what we literally said on the stage, which I don't think anyone heard, was that we were pledging to do a year-long process to invite people in our community into this conversation about transforming safety.
I think one of the challenging things about being a leader and an elected leader is that, I mean, I've only been in office for 8 years, but through that time there's been these peaks and valleys in people's interest. When police kill someone, there’s a high peak of interest in police reform and accountability, and then it wanes and people go back to their lives. I’ve seen that happen again and again, unfortunately. So, you know, I think that we need to find a way to keep this conversation alive so that we're not waiting until the next time our police department kills someone to revisit this conversation.
You know, of course I’ve asked myself a million times, I’m sure everyone who was on that stage has, should we have just said no, and not done that event? At the time, with the level of crisis in the city, based on what I was hearing from my constituents, it made sense to me to be there. What I said on that stage was a continuation of the work I was doing, and still believe. I believe strongly that we need, even more than ever, with the police department’s budget eating the city’s budget, we need to invest in alternatives to the police department.
We cannot rely only on police to be synonymous with the only way we’re keeping people safe. It's causing more and more problems. I have homeless encampments in my Ward. The police department isn't really involved anymore in responding to encampments, because we don’t want to take a violent approach to clearing people out, but we also don’t have anything else. We have two staff that I was able to move in last year's budget who are managing all of the encampments in the city. So, when we say we want to do things differently but we don't actually invest in an alternative, we're just left with nothing and that is what is the gulf between what we imagine is possible, which is a community where everyone is safe, and what we have now, which is enormous disparities in safety.
In that Southwest Journal interview, you also touched on the work that you all had already done on public safety, from community-based violence prevention to creating a new department of community safety and violence prevention that included law enforcement. How effective do you think that work has been, and how can the next council strengthen it?
LB: I still believe that the work that we've invested in, the violence prevention, the mental health response, homelessness support, support for folks who are using drugs, all of these targeted responses. Right now, those are all sprinkled throughout seven different departments in the city, and I really believe they will be much stronger if they were combined in a Department of Public Safety. In order to add police to that mix, that required the charter amendment.
But the city could continue on the path to create a Department of Public Safety that doesn't include police, for now, that focuses on violence prevention, mental health response, that starts to build up these alternatives to police – for lack of a better word, that's still centering police in our public safety. You know, this broader toolbox that builds up our public safety solutions. At least in my Ward, that is very popular, people want us to continue to invest in safety solutions.
More and more, the police themselves are asking for support from the Office of Violence Prevention or the homeless response team for a number of reasons, either because they recognize that they're not the best response, or because there’s increased conflict between members of our community and the police department, and that puts everyone in a really bad and unsafe position.
Some examples recently are protests over the death of Winston Smith, who was killed by federal law enforcement officers, homeless encampments, there are some particular geographic areas in the city where there’s high conflict between police and residents, where MPD has asked the Office of Violence Prevention go in and provide support. All of this is stretching our violence prevention staff very thin, and there's also this tension when they either are or perceived to be coordinating with the police. It's degrading the trust that our violence intervention staff have when they're operating more independently. So, it’s actually clear that we need a range of responses, some that work closely with police and some that have a stronger wall between the police and community safety.
I hope the work will continue and I hope the investments will continue, I think our city really needs it. I’m really nervous about the police budget. I’ve written about this, but for the 2022 budget, the Mayor proposes the budget, then the Board of Estimate and Taxation sets the maximum levy, then the City Council can markup and adopt the budget. By the time we get the budget, the levy has already been set, and the total amount of taxes and the total amount the budget can be is set. The total levy is going up $21.5 million, the amount of money in this budget for 2022 proposed by the Mayor, just related to PTSD claims and violence lawsuits that are anticipated, is $34 million. In 2022, we’re not raising taxes enough to pay for even the lawsuits related to MPD, much less the additional cost for the department. So, our city is paying tens of millions of dollars more for a police department that is down officers. We’re paying more, we’re getting less in return, and we’re still mostly dependent on police to provide all of the public safety in our city.
To me, it’s a really compelling reason from a practical budgetary standpoint to start investing in other public safety responses, so that we're not just dependent on this police department, which is troubled. I mean, the department is under investigation by both the state Department of Human Rights and the Federal Department of Justice, there are almost certainly going to be consent decrees next term agreed between the city and those agencies that will be monitored by the courts. That’s also very expensive, and we don't know, will another 100 officers quit if the DOJ requires new rules that they don’t want to follow? What will we do then? I mean, being so dependent on a police department that doesn’t seem to want to change makes us really vulnerable to be left with a much smaller safety system than we need and deserve.
What steps do you think we should take to help Uptown?
LB With everything that's been happening in the last couple of years, it's something I wish I had had more time to just facilitate and support as a council member. Uptown has a lot of vacancies. For a long time, Uptown has struggled with its identity. I mean, it’s a running joke, right, “Uptown is dead!” Uptown is struggling right now, and I think a lot of it is that there were a lot of shops that were really catering to being a destination location, so people could drive into Uptown and shop at stores that you would find in a suburban mall. I just don’t think that’s a workable business model for Uptown. I’m not a business expert, I don’t own property, obviously people that do have different opinions.
I do think the new owners of Seven Points are moving in the right direction, starting to try to create local uses. For a long time, the Uptown community has wanted to have more daytime uses, so there's a bank, some of those things that might draw people in, and then they might stay and shop at the bookstore or some of the other local-serving businesses. I think if people are going to come into Uptown from outside of the city, they would be looking for a unique experience, and that's hard to find if everything's just chain stores that are also at Southdale.
I think there's a real need to reimagine Uptown as either a unique destination or to start with the base of population that’s already here. It’s a dense urban area, there are lots of young people around, so starting to cater to that market that's here as a customer base. I think that's the direction folks are trying to go, but they're also really big spaces with high rent, so I think it’s a challenge for local businesses to make it work. To me, that’s the tension, and I think a Council Member can play a role of convening people, starting to think about whether we can work with the business community to set a vision, how we can get neighbors on board. Those are the kinds of things where I think the Council Member can be more of a facilitator rather than policies or stuff like that.
How do you feel about how the Hennepin redesign through Uptown turned out?
LB: My biggest frustration with Hennepin Avenue is that it is a corridor that runs the length of the city, and it's a very important transit corridor, it's part of the E Line bus rapid transit, and just because of the way that capital money works and the different funding sources, this road was designed in three separate chunks which left the middle chunk for last.
First the city did the downtown portion, redesigned and reconstructed Hennepin Avenue downtown, then the city did the Lake Street and farther south section, and then, now we're coming back and filling in that middle gap connecting the two pieces. So, the consequence of that is that I wasn’t able to get Public Works to design the whole length of corridor all at once as a seamless project that would make sense, because of the way that we pay for design and engineering is through the capital program and the middle section is being federally funded through the Metropolitan Council. So, the idea that we would design the whole corridor all at once just didn’t fit in with the way that we do all the consulting contracts. So, we were trying to make decisions about Lake Street and south without knowing what was going to happen with the middle section.
I think the result is that the project doesn't make much sense, because it has a bike lane that ends at Lake Street, and then there's a giant arterial node with essentially 6 lanes of traffic in it. So I think once the whole project is complete, the southern section will both make more sense and work better, but that's not going to be until 2024 and it's too bad that there's such a long gap between the two projects. I also think that the 3000 block is the piece that people feel frustrated about, and I and others tried to push for more of a curb-separated bike lane. I think that would have been the better design solution, to have a nice but slightly less wide sidewalk with a separated bike facility. Then, perhaps there would have been a little room, maybe four parking spaces or some loading space.
But right now there's a lot of conflict between through traffic, people who are trying to pull over and run in-and-out of the restaurant with to-go food, and a really substandard bike lane. I think one of the lessons from that block is that you should just do things well, the right way, and not make so many compromises like doing this substandard bike lane. I think sometimes people look at that block and think the bike lane was the driving factor in why there isn’t parking, but actually, the width of that sidewalk was the driving factor in why there isn’t parking. Public Works staff were really emphasizing a very wide sidewalk there.
So, I think that project could have been better. I think it will look better once the middle section is complete.
Some people are seeing double digit property tax increases this year. What steps do you think the city can take to mitigate that moving forward?
LB: I think property taxes are going to go up significantly more in the future because of our police department, and the only way to mitigate it is to cut other services.
We held vacant 300 staff positions across the city enterprise, so the police department was affected much less than other city departments in terms of personnel decreases. People are starting to feel it. There are light bulbs out in the street lights that aren’t getting repaired because there’s a big backlog. I just had a constituent that had ordered a “No Parking” sign for a location that hadn’t been installed because there aren’t staff available. We have a staff shortage in our 311 center that is answering a lot of the day-to-day calls that residents and businesses have if they’re looking for basic information from the city.
Now that we have the American Rescue Plan funding, that's allowing us to open up those positions to re-staff up the city departments. Without those American Rescue Plan dollars, we would’ve had very significant cuts in other city departments. So, for the next three years we'll have $35 million or so per year in federal money filling the gap, but if we don't recover economically between now and then, for sales tax and hotel tax, some of those fee revenues, and/or if we don’t get a handle on the police department’s expenses, I would anticipate property taxes needing to go up even more.
Right now, we’re able to use fund balance, because we have, whether it was right or not, the City of Minneapolis has been relatively fiscally conservative during this boom period. We have a lot of savings. We weren't increasing taxes significantly as our property tax was growing, but we do have reserve funds that we were able to use. So, for example, that $34 million dollars and extra expenses for the police department is essentially being covered by fund balance drawdown. We're still above our financial policies, the minimum savings that we need to have. But at some point, that will break down. It's a concern.
Are there any things about you as a person, and as a citizen, that you wish more people knew?
LB: [Laughs] I struggle with this. I don’t enjoy being a public figure, and so, I’ve had this experience where people talk to me for a minute and then they realize who I am, and say “You’re Lisa Bender!?” My public image doesn’t gel with this kind person speaking to them. I think at some point my public persona, or the lore about me became totally separate from who I am as a real human being. That's hard! I wish I could have a one-on-one conversation with more people.
I think people misunderstand how much my work is really rooted in my community, and how much what I’ve heard from constituents drives my work. I think people often erase our constituents and think that I’ve invented these problems, or these ideas, that’s always been very strange to me. Now it’s just reached this crazy level with internet rumors.
But at some point, I just had to let it go. I know who I am. I know what my values are. I have two little girls who keep me so grounded. You just really cannot have the ego while you're raising two little kids. I don’t care, we’ve got to get the lunches packed, everyone out the door. So, I’ve never lost that connection to what really grounds me.
I’ve also never really had any illusion about this. Does anyone even know who the Council President was ten years ago? We get to do these jobs for a little while, hopefully we’ve made a difference for our community, then, you know, they’re the kind of jobs where you’re kind of forgotten after a while. That’s always been ok with me.
Sometimes people ask me, would I do this again? Right now, I always pause and say I’m not sure, but I don’t regret running for office. It’s been a huge honor to serve, truly, it sounds cheesy, but I've gotten to know so many amazing people.
Sometimes I feel nervous that this last election indicated that people don't really care about folks who show up and get stuff done, and maybe they want people who will grandstand, and perform, and not really dig in and do the hard work. But I have to feel optimistic. I think this city is full of people who care a lot about each other, and it’s been really hard in the pandemic to have those community connections that are such a big part of Minneapolis culture. So I think that when and if we can be more in-person and get back out in their community again that people will find their way back to working together and being more connected.