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Minneapolis council member Blong Yang, on 100 days in office: "Don't lose faith in government"
Fifth Ward Council Member Blong Yang told NorthNews the most surprising aspect of his new job is how much hard work it is. He said there are lots of meetings with developers and business people, though he is, at 100 days in office, getting a chance to tackle the agendas on which he ran, and hoping to hear more from resident constituents.
On April 17 Yang sponsored a morning-long summit on Bringing Broadway Back (see related article), and on Thursday, April 24 he will host a summit on Affordable Housing from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Shiloh Temple, 1201 West Broadway. RSVP is appreciated to Yer Yang at 612-673-2205. The post card for the event says the aim is “to hear your voice on how to fill vacant houses and empty lots with homeowners and development. Members from the community, non-profits, developers and the City of Minneapolis have been invited to speak.”
The two summits are “my way of connecting to ask the community how to move forward. Those were my two issues, outside of public safety,” Yang said. “In the first couple weeks people called asking ‘can I build this?’ and I thought, ‘do I even have this power?’ The amount of power a council member can have is ridiculous. I didn’t even know how to respond to this,” Yang said. With all sorts of different development ideas he said it would not be good to “Frankenstein” West Broadway.
Yang said he’s having to learn patience, and to figure out how to get things done in the bureaucracy. For example, 26th Avenue North “is awful, I’ve been screaming to everybody but nothing is going to happen until next year.” He’s having to pay attention to decisions that may seem isolated to other wards but actually impact the Fifth Ward by the precedents they set, such as the debate over historic buildings in Dinkytown or the Southwest Minneapolis building moratorium.
Recent StarTribune articles about different areas of town being treated differently have underscored work to be done to bring equity across the city, Yang said. The Northside is treated differently on potholes, street lights, and towing during snow emergencies; the newspaper reported that the towing contractors do not go south of a certain boundary. “We make tough decisions about where money should go, we have to equalize so all are served well. This is where rhetoric meets reality.”
About getting things done, while not necessarily aligned with her, Yang says it has been “enlightening to work with Barb Johnson,” Fourth Ward Council Member and Council President. “She is masterful, that comes from her years of experience and with her mom,” former Council President Alice Rainville.
He says he is independent in his thinking and has “gone against the grain a bit.” During the campaign and now, he said he’s been fortunate to have a group of former elected officials to consult, Paul Ostrow and Joe Biernat among them. Current colleagues “don’t know where to pinpoint me,” or predict what he’s going to do, Yang said.
About the upcoming vote on Southwest Light Rail Transit, Yang said “it will be tough to vote against light rail transit as it is. North Minneapolis feels the need for the connection to jobs,” though the line as it’s configured only has two stops in Ward 5 and one just outside. “How to connect those who live way above the line?”
About crime and safety: “We do need to increase the police force. We’re budgeted for 850 officers, we have around 800 now,” and with retirements happening, the city could be down to the high 700s. To replenish the force through new recruits could take 12-18 months, so for the first time in a long time the city is hiring experienced officers from other jurisdictions.
The fire department is also down by about 30 people, and is a smaller force than Saint Paul’s, “and we have a bigger city.”
Leadership in several key city departments changed recently, and the city will have a new head of Community Planning and Economic Development, and new City Coordinator yet to be named.
Constituents, residents, are welcome to contact Yang’s office. He and staff Niki Mitchell and Yer (Ger) Yang are all at 612-673-2205. While he alluded to it being a tough transition to needing to let his staff “do the heavy lifting” on researching issues, only “10 to 20 percent” of the people he meets with are constituents, so “I’m so excited when they show up. They are the most important. I think it’s my job, and I would love to see more people from the ward show up.”
In this area of low voter turnout, there are barriers to engaging in government that Yang would like to break down. He said he’s enjoyed meeting with people whom he knows didn’t vote for him, and “seeing how we can make it better for them.” A person does not hold a grudge, for the good of the Ward, he said. “I’m a person they didn’t expect would show up and win.”
“I was at a book club recently. A lot of middle-aged white women who said they had lost faith in government in general. If they don’t have faith, what about others who have less?” Yang asked. “My goal is to move the dial up so there is more faith in government.”
“I’m an average Joe,” Yang said. “I’m not that different, outside of my race. The message I would like to leave with people is don’t lose faith in government. I am really open to listening to constituents. We want to do that. Make calls, send emails. Everything will work out well by having common faith.”