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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Column | Even with DMC making waves, sea change unlikely in city elections

Column | Even with DMC making waves, sea change unlikely in city elections

In January, Rochester will have a new mayor, the first in 16 years, and at least two new City Council members.

Some are hoping this means a transformational, once-in-a-generation wave is about to crash onto City Hall. More likely, voters will choose a more gentle, incremental ripple. In fact, they already have, by choosing the candidates who advanced from the August primary to the November 6 ballot.

Kim Norton, who was a DFL state representative for 10 years and helped deliver Destination Medical Center in 2013, is the clear favorite to win the mayor’s office, and her supporters expect her to drive a progressive agenda. But the City Charter only allows for so much of that from the mayor. It’s a bully pulpit — as Council Member Michael Wojcik said in an interview this week, “having a more involved mayor will help keep the council focused” — but if you’re expecting big programmatic change to start with a new mayor, you’ll be disappointed.

Norton took 52 percent of the votes cast in the August 14 primary, which like most primaries drew only a small fraction of the total electorate. But given choices for more dramatic change on the right and left, a majority of voters chose Norton, with Charlie O’Connell, a fairly mainstream conservative, as runner-up.

The outcome in the primary races for council also trended toward the middle of the road, and the finalists in Wards 1 and 5 aren’t promising to challenge the status quo. At a time when people are concerned about DMC-powered growth, the runup in property values, taxes and too little housing that’s affordable, none of the candidates have staked out daring policy positions or are promising to shake things up in the Council Chambers.

Former council member and conservative firebrand Paul Myhrom came close in Ward 1, and yes, he certainly would have shaken things up. Among those who made it to the November ballot, none are likely to align consistently with one bloc or the other on the council. Council President Randy Staver may have a harder time winning 4-3 votes with Ed Hruska and Mark Hickey gone, but a genuine realignment looks unlikely.

Patrick Keane, the top vote-getter in Ward 1 in the primary, says he doesn’t see any kind of “sea change” coming. “I actually don’t” see this as a pivot-point election, he told me last week. “All elections have consequences, but so does all the growth” that Rochester is experiencing.

City politics are slow to change, and there’s a learning curve for newly-elected council members who are new to public office, which is another reason not to expect a sea change. Local issues that seem clear-cut no longer seem so black-and-white once you have all the information, hear all the points of view from friends and neighbors, and have to vote.

If it’s transformational change you’re looking for, watch what’s happening with the city’s new administrator and department heads. As several people told me, that’s where real change is occurring. Steve Rymer took over as administrator about a year ago, after Stevan Kvenvold’s nearly 40-year tenure, and there’s definitely action now on issues that were hanging fire for years.

Just to pick one: operation and management of Mayo Civic Center. If you think it’s business as usual at the civic center after the $84 million expansion, talk to the Experience Rochester people.

With all the new staff leadership at City Hall and with DMC barreling ahead, it’s more important than ever that council members are effective, dedicated to the job in terms of hours and attention needed, and fearless in campaigning for an explicit agenda that reflects the priorities of all city residents, not just the interests of people in their own wards.

It all begins with your vote — and early voting begins today in Minnesota. For details, go to the Olmsted County elections webpage, or call 507-328-7650.

Jay Furst is a Rochester journalist who has covered the area for 24 years. Send email to jpfurst@gmail.com.

Cover photo: Licensed / Getty

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