What does a new City Council member do in a routine day? We asked reporter Cyn Collins to shadow Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon for a workday last month.
9:30–11 a.m. Cam Gordon’s office hours at the Hard Times Café on the West Bank.
Cam Gordon lived on the West Bank from 1978 to 1982, at a couple different houses on South Sixth Street, since torn down. He says he holds his office hours at the Hard Times because “it is centrally located on the West Bank in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood and seems easily accessible to folks from the old neighborhood, the high-rises, Seven Corners, students from the U and Augsburg—and [café staff] were willing and interested in having me there.”
There are people having coffee, studying, mostly solo, and a few quietly conversing, an entirely different scene than the night hours hubbub in this 22-hour-a-day restaurant (closed only 4–6 a.m.) that had its own share of hard times with the city a few years back.
A few people recognize Gordon, and stop by to say “hi.” A couple of others shyly approach and ask if he is indeed Cam. Gordon tells them he’s holding office hours so people can bring concerns to him and discuss them at the breakfast table. He mentions that maybe he should put up an “Office Hours” sign so more people know he’s there for them, not just hanging out there like he used to, before being elected to the city council.
Rod Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering, is at the table, wearing a bright red jacket. He’s on a local parking committee and talks with Gordon about potential parking lot development behind the Red Sea, noting there already is a lack of parking on the West Bank. Gordon, agreeing, reassures Johnson the city isn’t selling the lot yet. He also notes, “I’ll make sure people [at City Hall] know there’s a strong, active parking committee.”
Gordon said that the city is working on a 10-year transportation plan, including a streetcar feasibility study and possible bus rapid transit for freeways. The city is deciding whether the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul will be bus or LR —there is a formula used to measure LRT efficacy: “the amount of people moved compared to how much it will cost and how fast it moves them.”
Pablo Fiasco, also known as Doomsday Dan, makes the scene, wearing shades and a baseball cap over his snow-white hair and artistic goatee and the ubiquitous flannel shirt; he says wryly he’s the “West Bank Art Commissioner.” He hands a rolled-up canvas to Gordon as an award for “decentralizing politics by doing outreach.” It’s what he calls a “Greco-Roman freestyle” painting in gray, with blue and black geometric patterns. Gordon seems grateful and they discuss the painting, as well the future of Wi-Fi for about 20 minutes.
10:30 a.m. Photographer Allen Brisson-Smith arrives with lots of energy and two tango dancers. The woman wears a red-and-black dress and heels, and the man is in a dapper 1920s-style suit, looking ready for a night on the town. They’re there early for their 11 a.m. scheduled photo shoot of Gordon for a Downtown Journal article on his work to remove a “no dancing in streets” ordinance from the books. They bide their time posing and taking photos at the cafe.
10:40 a.m. Doug Cain of Minnesota Television Network stops by to check on how Gordon’s Wi-Fi Town Hall meeting went a few days earlier. Gordon says it was well attended but not every house in pilot areas will get to try Wi-Fi as he’d hoped. He noted a Community Benefits Agreement in the Wi-Fi contract is in the works.
Cain asked whether the rumor is true the Twin Cities Daily Planet may become a city-wide home page when the city gets Wi-Fi. Gordon replied there’s a good chance that will happen.
11 a.m. Gordon receives a call telling him city staff will not allow a Bridge reporter to attend a policy meeting in spite of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s and City Council Member Scott Benson’s earlier approval of the idea.
11:05 a.m.We pile into photographer Brisson-Smith’s white VW camper van filled with camera equipment and wool blankets. We drive to a downtown street and stop. Cam camps it up: “It’s too cold and gray. I think we should do this another day!” The photographer laughs and quips back, “Don’t get fussy on me now!” Another photographer redirects traffic while Brisson-Smith poses Gordon kneeling on a blanket in the street. “Don’t let me get run over. That would be bad,” Gordon mock-frets. “I hope we don’t get arrested.” The dancers strike tango poses in their regalia, as Gordon stays on his knees in the street for the 10-minute photo shoot.
During the shoot, a squad car drives by. We note that it would be bad for Cam to miss his 1 p.m. meeting because he is in jail. “The cop probably doesn’t know there’s a law against dancing in the streets,” Gordon quips.
11:25 a.m. We’re dropped off at City Hall. On the way up to Gordon’s office, we discuss the current Twins stadium proposal, which Gordon will vote against. He notes the city council is split and R.T. Rybak is for it—there’s a strong possibility it will pass. Gordon says he wants to “attach a citizens’ vote to it. I think I’d feel obliged to vote on whatever they come up with.”
11:30 a.m. Gordon’s office. Gordon inquires of Benson’s aide about the cancellation of a reporter to the policy meeting, and is told that city staffers vetoed outside presence because it would possibly “change the tenor and dynamics of the discussion.”
Gordon and his dedicated, bespectacled and bearded policy aide, Robin Garwood, map out the night’s precinct caucus tour, book-ended by Green Party caucuses, with five DFL caucuses in between. Gordon discusses with Garwood if he should send a press release regarding historic, renovated Firehouse 19 and eminent domain. Garwood responds, “Not if, when.”
Noon: Room 304, city clerk’s office. Garwood and I compare 1963 versus 1999 over-occupancy codes. Gordon and Garwood are investigating changing the code to better suit reality of rentals. Garwood finds a code stating: “A family and up to two unrelated persons are allowed to live in a house.” He comments: “That doesn’t follow the size of a housing unit—it could have five or six bedrooms. It’s not constitutional for us to dictate how many people can be in a family. It’s a problem because people are breaking this law daily. The law is unknown by most, and broken by many, as such. We have serious rental property problems, such as absentee landlords buying up property for students. They may be poor quality, but the city discourages them because inspections could reveal the number of occupants. I think we should have something tied to the size of the housing unit.”
Garwood noted this is not fair to immigrants such as Somalis, who have large families, which some people are against. “We’re going to talk about laws for numbers of children per home. I don’t think laws about certain numbers to keep people out of neighborhoods is appropriate.”
12:30 p.m. Back in Gordon’s office. Gordon shows me letters from Bunge North America, Inc. and Project for Pride in Living (PPL). The letter from Bunge declined an invitation to a Southeast Como Improvement Association meeting to discuss the death of university student Germain Vigeant. The letter from potential buyer PPL lists ways they recommend further securing the site. Gordon talked with a fence person earlier in the week to get price quotes.
1 p.m. Gordon goes to the committee meeting. I go to lunch with Garwood at a place he likes because they have good vegan food. While walking through the skyway, Garwood talks about Gordon’s attempts to get a public policy blog up and running to keep the public informed on what Gordon is voting on, and why he votes as he does.
When we returned, Garwood showed upcoming issues Gordon and he are working on. These include: Campaign Finance Working Group, Circus Reform Yes (talking to Shriners about getting circuses without wild circus animals), Instant Runoff Voting (Benson got a resolution passed to form a task force), and working on incentives for police officers to live in Minneapolis.
2 p.m. Gordon’s office. How is his new job is going? “Great! I’m getting used to the rhythm of it. The committee meetings are light in the beginning of the week. For this [two-week] cycle I’m trying to figure out what the big issues are; I don’t know if there are any big issues.”
How has the learning process been? “People have been really helpful. When I have questions, I ask staff. I had an assumption the “no dancing in the streets” ordinance is handled by Public Safety and Streets and Sidewalks. It’s actually the Public Transportation committee.”
Did he make any errors when he first started? Cam cited the Unruly Assembly Ordinance that Paul Zerby began. After Gordon and Garwood made a change incorporating a one-year review into the ordinance, staff caught it and said that change should have been a staff directive. Gordon and Robin said learning which committees handle which issues and duties was the initial challenge learning the job.
How does it feel to be the only Green Party councilmember? “I find a lot of commonality with different people,” Gordon said. “There was a perceived risk that I could be left out of things. That hasn’t happened.” He says he likes working with Benson, who is strong on environmental issues. He liked working with Lisa Goodman on the Public Works issue of opening up a garbage pickup bidding process. “We won that one. It passed 11-2.” He said, “I had a good alliance with Paul Ostrow on this, and on Unruly Assembly.” Regarding tazer policy in the police force, “We ended up not eliminating use, but did get them to tighten up policies and agree to provide training.”
Gordon was the lone council member taking a stand on making Wi-Fi publicly owned rather than private. About being Green, he concluded, “My work extends outside City Hall. I give voice to those who don’t have one.” There are pressures within the council to coalesce and agree, be one voice. “I’m still figuring out what it means to be the Green guy.”
2:30 p.m. West Bank Community Development Corporation (CDC) members Tim Mungaven, Jim Ruiz, Anne Gomez and chair Nigel Grigsby meet with Gordon, primarily to discuss the Dania Hall site development process. Mungaven expressed concerns that the Somali community felt it shouldn’t be for private use; it should be public. Gordon asked if the CDC worked on a building proposal. Mungaven responded, “Not yet,” noting they’re also concerned about Fine and Associate’s proposal, which “may change the character of the neighborhood. We want to keep it international and not like Oak Street.”
Gordon said he wants to see an area plan using West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) and the university. “The Fine proposal could be good by reinvesting in the neighborhood. Instead of selling smaller pieces, it should be included in a bigger master plan. I think there is one.” Mungaven: “That’s slated for one year out. We’re talking with WBCC, which is just starting to turn around.”
When Mungaven introduces CDC member Jim Ruiz as the new WBCC president, Gordon quips, “Now there’s a bridge between the two—there’ll be peace and harmony now!”
Gordon told Mungaven that in Seward, NRP was a separate committee and the coalition was the last filter. He advised Mungaven, “It would be great if you keep some of the old people around who’ve been vested for so long, such as Mary Mellen, Rosemary Knutsen, and Eunice Casper, so they continue to be involved and there will be less fighting.” He suggested that they form a task force of the various groups to plan how to involve the community.
3:30 p.m. Back in the office. Gordon and Garwood talk about attempts to schedule a stadium meeting with Paul Ostrow and Diane Hofstede. They discussed the earlier CDC meeting and what it really meant. They also discussed 27th Avenue reconstruction, and techniques for traffic calming at 26th Avenue and 22nd Street. Residents want to keep the currently existing barrier there, nonresidents prefer it removed. Garwood noted that one of the toughest parts of the job is when people in the ward are split on an issue and he and Gordon see valid points with each side.
Gordon quietly slipped out. When he returned a couple minutes later, he explained, “I don’t use my computer or phone when I need to solve a problem. I walk and get my exercise. I take it to someone in person.”
4 p.m. The University of Minnesota’s Jan Morlock and Gerry Rivehart meet with Gordon regarding their proposal of a new “Greek Village concept” building on a U of M parking lot. Gordon brings up the Station 19 building, informing Morlock he would soon send a press release she’d asked him to hold off on, requesting the U take use of eminent domain off the table.
4:30 p.m. Winding down. Gordon quietly reads email and mail, responding to email. He finally shows signs of being tired after a long hectic day. He shows me a large packet from someone proposing a “Minnesota Sports Mall of America, a combo mega-mall, and triple-stadium.”
5 p.m. What does Gordon like the most about his job? “I like the variety. And all the great people I work with and if we’re successful and effective.” What are some recent successes? “There was a guy who wanted to put in a building with a gym, showers and a locker room, but the building was too small. We changed the code so he could have a smaller gym, with showers.” And, “when the article came out about car allowance for councilmembers being increased, which I declined, one Saturday a guy in a grocery store patted me on the back and said, ‘thanks.’ That felt good.”
Garwood returns and they recap the day, commenting on what people said, and next steps. They planned their precinct caucus itinerary, including stopping at the co-op for a sandwich along the way. We hopped on the light rail and rapidly rode back to the West Bank and Seward.