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Two months in, Council Member Palmisano is learning the ropes

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The year 2014 in Minneapolis has seen a new City Council and Mayor ready to face the issues of the day. Some of the biggest changes have happened in the 13th Ward, where in last year’s election former Council Member Betsy Hodges ascended to the Mayor’s office. The race to replace her was quite contentious and was decided by one of the slimmest margins of all the races that year. In the end, it was Linea Palmisano of Linden Hills who was elected to the seat. While it has only been two months, there have been a few major stories in the ward. Your loyal Examiner took a look at Council Member Palmisano’s tenure in office thus far and her expectations for the upcoming year.

Your reporter met the Council Member at City Hall on a brisk February afternoon. Council Members Lisa Bender and Andrew Johnson were present, as were plenty of staff. Ms. Palmisano said one of the things that surprised her was how “responsive” the staff was to any questions she had. Our meeting began with a brief walk to grab a bite to eat, as Ms. Palmisano said she rarely has time for that most days. As we meandered through the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis Ms. Palmisano revealed some difficulties early on, including being very late to a committee meeting and getting lost in both City Hall and the surrounding buildings. After a quick walk back from a pizza shop, your Examiner sat down with the Council Member to speak about her first few months in office, and her priorities for the year.

The first topic was close to home for your reporter as it dealt with traffic safety in the West Calhoun neighborhood in light of the recent tragic events there. Ms. Palmisano stated that the best opportunity for change here will be when the Southwest Light Rail station planning begins, saying the city will be able to “focus resources in that area.” She also stressed that the city and county must “do everything we can to make it as safe as possible.” She described the recent memorial held for the pedestrian who died in the accident “community building the area sorely needs.” Ms. Palmisano also wrote an update email to the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council, the group that helped organize the memorial (disclaimer: as you may know from multiple recent stories, your Examiner is Treasurer for that group, a volunteer position) describing her recent efforts in this area:

Short-Term:

What I have been working toward this week is a briefing for the Pedestrian Advisory Committee engineering team, which meets tomorrow and has some time on their agenda to consider this corridor of activity.

Longer Term Improvements:

Additionally, I’ve been in touch with our director of traffic (Jon Wertjes), who has been in touch with the county’s counterpart on this (Jim Grube).

I had extensive conversations with Patrick Sadler (CM Goodman’s aide) on the topic and also Gail Dorfman. I do agree with most, if not all, of Commissioner Dorfman’s suggestions on how to move forward as a multi-jurisdictional unit. I thought that her office would be taking the lead on that for the time being, and if they don’t, I or CM Goodman will.”

Thatcher Imboden, formerly of the Ackerberg group and a resident of the Kenny neighborhood, said “we did communicate after the tragic pedestrian death in West Calhoun and she seemed extremely interested in understanding what had and had not been done with regard to ongoing community concern about bike and pedestrian safety in that area.”

The next topic concerned one of the biggest issues in the ward: the Southwest Light Rail. Council Member Palmisano stated in the email to the West Calhoun board that she had been appointed by Mayor Hodges to the Steering Committee behind this project. Discussing the ever contentious issue of co-location of freight rail, she said that Minneapolis has reached a “consent agreement” to “oppose co-location.” She also said in no particular terms that Mayor Hodges is prepared to go all the way to the Surface Transportation Board on this issue if necessary. She sees a lot of “potential” for the West Lake station to improve the neighborhood, saying it was important to “build communities around this.” Regarding a current proposal by the Met Council, a shallow tunnel running through the Kenilworth corridor, Ms. Palmisano said it would “not be a pleasant construction process” and lamented the nearly “400 trees” that would have to be taken. She also wanted to see what the upcoming water study conducted on the surrounding bodies of water discovers.

The next topic was the ever-exciting one of housing density. Mayor Hodges has mentioned this as one of her top priorities for her term, and your Examiner wanted to know CM Palmisano’s plan for keeping density in the neighborhood but also ensuring new apartments are affordable. Unfortunately, the Council Member said she had “no good answer” on making apartments more affordable. She also stated her desire to create “density along transit corridors” that should in turn drive prices down. She then pivoted to the issue of housing teardowns in the ward, worrying about their “high cost to the whole community.” She is concerned that replacing normally expensive homes with prohibitively expensive homes was “creating an economically gated community.” Ms. Palmisano also stated that in a comparison between a city teardown and a developer one, “cost favors” the developer. She wants to look at reducing permit times for the large dumpsters these developers place on city streets during the teardown process, and said the large amount of these teardowns mean “we’re not managing it well.”

The next question dealt with CM Palmisano’s position on the City Council’s Transportation and Public Works committee. Despite her early reservations about being Vice-Chair, she said these are the “most important functions of our city” and deal with the “common land the city takes care of for the public.” She said this includes such items as repairing potholes, “signalization” at intersections and snow plowing. She said the city spends a lot of money in this area but that there are also ways to reduce debt here by making improvements earlier.

The conversation then turned to a hot-button issue this winter, snow plowing. The general question was: is it working in Minneapolis? Ms. Palmisano said her office is looking at this issue, but that there are no easy fixes. She called out 43rd Street as being “problematic” and wished it would become a “snow emergency” street. She also said her office receives many calls from constituents concerned with the “sheer volume of snow.” Since this problem may get worse due to climate change, the Council Member said the city should spend more money here. Her office is looking at making improvements to how the city tows cars during a snow emergency, saying the city needs to “be ready to enforce” the rules. She is also looking at putting “more teeth” into the contracts the city signs with towing companies to ensure compliance.

Your reporter wanted to use this appraisal opportunity to get a sense of how Ms. Palmisano and Mayor Hodges have liked working together at City Hall. Ms. Palmisano said she was “proud” of Ms. Hodges, saying that since the mayor was from the ward she is intimately familiar with its problems. She said Mayor Hodges “has a deep understanding of a lot of the projects in front of me.” Reached for comment on Council Member Palmisano, Mayor Hodges issued the following statement to the Examiner:

“Linea and I walked in with a great working relationship. We go back more than a decade. We met through our work on the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council, which I was a member of until I was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Linea was then board chair while I was a City Council member. We worked together on a lot of issues, including bike lane issues, and have always had a good working relationship.

I am proud that Council Member Palmisano has taken my old seat on the Council – she is a great advocate for Ward 13, and I know she will be their champion at City Hall. I look forward to working with her, as well as all of the council members, so we can together work on growing the city, continuing to run it well and eliminating the gaps that divide our communities.”

The interview wrapped up with a question about how Ms. Palmisano’s office plans on interacting with the many neighborhood groups in the ward. She is going to strive to have at least one staff person at every monthly neighborhood meeting. She described such groups as “important feeders for policy” and a good way to communicate with ward citizens. She also cited the MSP Fair Skies coalition as an important local group that tackles issues beyond city jurisdiction. Reached for comment about the Council Member’s work in the area, West Calhoun Neighborhood Council board member Richard Logan issued this statement:

“For my money, it is already plenty clear that Linea has an activist approach, is doing her homework in the neighborhoods, wants to hear directly from residents about all of the safety (and other) issues that impact their lives, and that she has taken on an exceptionally competent and energetic staff. This all bodes well for us for the future. For example, she clearly wanted our walk to be a broader Safety Walk and not just a narrower Lighting Walk. Good for her. And good for her too that she brought along traffic and lighting engineers. Clearly she wanted to do two things: Gather as much information as she could about issues in the neighborhood, and get a start right away on doing something about them.”

Mr. Imboden also stated his outlook for the Council Member’s term:

“My hope is that she will be a champion for growing our city, improving transit service overall, improving pedestrian and bike safety (especially in West Calhoun), being a careful steward of our tax dollars, and supporting business districts and affordable housing.”

While only two months into her first term on the Minneapolis City Council, Linea Palmisano has dealt with many of the issues discussed in the interview. It is your Examiner’s desire as a journalist to hold local public officials accountable and to publicize their actions as much as possible. Stay tuned to this space for updates on Ms. Palmisano’s actions in the ward throughout the year.

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