Goodbye Golden Boy

Baby Boomers and Block E. Preservation and parks. Urban history and virtual reality. Outgoing city planning director Paul Farmer on the politics and passions that got him fired.

When you came in, the city had a comprehensive plan from the 1970s and a zoning code from the 1960s. What did that tell you about Minneapolis planning?

That they had been busy doing other things. I was asked to jump-start both the zoning effort, which was pretty much stalled out, and the planning effort, which was totally dead in the water. This will be the third zoning ordinance in the city's history. Doing these things is a huge investment of time and effort, a burden for a small staff without much budget to speak of. I don't know of another city that has in recent years at least tried to do both at once. We're trying to make sure they're related one to another, as they should be.

Mark Wojahn

At least on the part of 10th Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald, there was some disappointment that the comprehensive plan your office submitted didn't contain concrete strategic planning. Was there a reason behind it being so broad?

Absolutely. We want this to be continually refreshed. We see it as part of the city's annual planning, priority-setting, budgeting process, to make sure that it never gets totally out of date again. When I came here we had a legally adopted plan for the city but nobody knew what was in it. Not the planning people. Not the neighborhoods. Not department heads or elected officials. It had kind of just dropped out of sight.

At your first meeting with your staff in January 1995 you said planning departments tend to be overworked or irrelevant. Was that true in Minneapolis?

When I was brought here I was told to rebuild a planning department. I remember telling the mayor and the Council's Executive Committee that I don't believe one should expect to be first in everything. You can't possibly be the first to dream up every new idea for a city. But I said shame on us if we're not a close second.


Politics was the last thing Paul Farmer had a mind to tangle with when he arrived in Minneapolis. The City Council wanted a director who could come up with solid planning advice, not involve himself in politics--at least that's what Farmer understood to be his marching orders. It's by now no secret that Farmer will be exiting his office on July 5. That much has been public since February, when the Council's Executive Committee voted 3-2 against renewing his contract. That decision was politically controversial indeed, coming as it did under a disputed 1989 charter amendment giving the Executive Committee power to fire department heads. Two camps have sprung up in the wake of Farmer's firing: those who believe he did his job and did it well and those who don't. His supporters, including the mayor, claim he's a victim of petty City Hall infighting. That he ruffled too many political feathers with his innovative ideas and no-nonsense energy. That in his push to make his office influential again, Farmer crossed swords once too often with those who held his employment fate in their hands. The other side, led by Lisa McDonald and Steve Minn, figures that for all of Farmer's promise, the golden boy never made good. They point to the city's lack of a finalized comprehensive plan and zoning code--among the director's top priorities when he took the job. They cite what they say is Farmer's inability to stay afloat in a political system where the Planning director is accountable to more than a dozen individuals. They offer the fact that 11 of 30 or so Planning staffers left during his tenure as evidence of his managerial ineptitude. "I just don't think it was a good fit," Minn said last week. When it came to nuts-and-bolts leadership and getting things done, Farmer just didn't make the grade. It's been three years, he complains, and the City Council is still waiting for Farmer's big ideas to turn into real plans on paper.

But wait, cautions Perry Thorvig, a 29-year veteran of the Planning Department. "At least seven of the staffers who left left because they got better jobs for better pay, advanced within City Hall, moved out of state, or didn't want to keep the hours that Planning staffers are required to keep. I have no doubt that a few left because of Farmer, but it was a decided minority." Thorvig also takes issue with the Council's demand for quick-turnaround plans from Farmer. The last time that happened, he says, was in 1978, and the plan took four years with 10 people working on it full-time--a far cry from the skeleton staff Farmer inherited.

CP: It seems your department has been understaffed during your time here, with certain key positions left unfilled or closed. It's been reported that you asked for a deputy planning director from the Council a number of times. Steve Minn denies this.

FARMER: I didn't ask for one. When I came here I was given a staffing chart and a commitment that I had one. At the time I was brought onboard, the budget was being passed without that position.

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