As the Door Revolves

Julie Idelkope says she can tell the difference between city hall and her Northwest Airlines office. Critics are not so sure.

The gloves came off within hours of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's appointment of Northwest Airlines lobbyist Julie Idelkope to the Minneapolis Planning Commission last week. City council member Doré Mead called the move "completely inappropriate" and "a major punch in the face to residents of southwest Minneapolis." Phones in Mead's office were clogged with calls from outraged constituents; outside city hall, airport-noise activists met in emergency session to organize a public campaign.

Idelkope, who caught wind of the fracas while in Europe on a trade junket with St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, responded via a polite e-mail missive. "To the best of my knowledge," she told members of the Internet discussion list Mpls-issues, "I cannot remember the Planning Commission addressing the issue of the airport or any issues dealing with the current airport site or Northwest Airlines. I can assure anyone concerned that I would abstain on ANY decision that could possibly affect my current employer."

Yet Idelkope's current employer is at the heart of the controversy over her appointment. Although the unpaid, nine-member Planning Commission has no direct say over the airport, the fact that Idelkope has been picked to fill the mayor's ex officio seat has raised questions about the city's relationship with Northwest. Granting a representative of "the largest polluter of south Minneapolis" a pipeline to city hall, argues Mead, is the latest link in a tangled and divisive debate. "I would certainly hope that [the mayor] understands how deeply wounded people feel, and how many old wounds this opens. I hope the mayor understands that this completely undermines the credibility of the Planning Commission."

Marc Asch, president of the nonpartisan political watchdog group Common Cause of Minnesota, says it is not unusual for individuals with ties to corporate interests to be appointed to municipal commissions. But while such appointments are not necessarily unethical, he adds, they may at least hint at conflicts of interest. "How do you separate your corporate persona from your public persona? You'd like to think the people who are taking these jobs are acting out of a desire to help their city, but who hasn't asked themselves whose interest they are acting in at any given time?"

According to critics of the mayor's move, that question will be particularly tricky to answer in Idelkope's case. After working on Sayles Belton's election campaign in 1993, Idelkope was hired as a policy aide to the mayor. During her tenure she was involved in many of the city's largest development deals, including Block E, the downtown Target store, and the Milwaukee Road depot. As the mayor's point person on airport issues, she was also instrumental in negotiating with the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). This January, Idelkope accepted a position at Northwest as manager of state and local government affairs--in other words, as a paid lobbyist.

With Idelkope's return trip through the revolving door, critics charge, Northwest has been handed a pass to city hall. "Idelkope is paid to get access," explains R.T. Rybak, spokesman for the citizen group Residents Opposed to Airport Racket (ROAR). "Fair enough; a lot of people are lobbyists. We just don't want our tax dollars going to make her job easier."

Long before Idelkope's appointment, Rybak and his group had been questioning the city's approach to airport issues. "The mayor has done almost nothing in her time in office" to push for noise reduction, charges Rybak. Activists have been particularly critical of the city's role in the mid-Nineties debate over the airport's future. At the time, Sayles Belton appointed a task force that, under the aegis of the Planning Department--the city unit that prepares recommendations for the Planning Commission-- commissioned a study of the potential effect of either moving the facility or expanding it at the current location. The 1995 report advocated expansion: Although airport noise tended to hurt property values in south Minneapolis, it noted, the airport's proximity to downtown "has generally been considered an important locational advantage for businesses and institutions located there."

Ultimately the Legislature chose an airport expansion plan over relocation. The MAC began talking about a new, north-south runway--a prospect that divided the Minneapolis City Council in 1996, but was strongly supported by both the mayor and council president Jackie Cherryhomes. (The resolution passed on a 7-5 vote with the stipulation that the airport would never build a third parallel runway.)

Over the following years, however, city council support for the anti-noise cause appeared to be growing. In December 1998 the council passed a moratorium on late-night flying by city employees. The measure came in response to allegations that Northwest routinely violates a ban on flights between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.

At the same time, ROAR began negotiating with the mayor's office over possible solutions to the noise problem. According to Rybak, the one concrete assurance offered by the mayor in the eight months of talks was the appointment of a city department as the lead agency on airport issues. Belton's choice was the city's Planning Department.

When they learned last week that the mayor had picked Northwest's lobbyist as her proxy on the Planning Commission, Rybak says, ROAR members were flabbergasted. "We came to the table and we got screwed," he says with more than a hint of bitterness. "We learned the hard way that negotiating isn't going to get us anything."

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