Tedís Excellent Adventure

Ted Mondale thought he could sweet-talk the 'burbs into building their share of affordable housing-- but Eagan told him to get lost.

 

Back in 1990, before a run for governor made his first name as well known as his last, Ted Mondale was elected to represent St. Louis Park in the state Senate. He quickly garnered a reputation for being a savvy dealmaker. He also developed something of a fetish for the kinds of nerdy, technical development issues few people understood.

In 1995, toward the end of his second term, Mondale and former Rep. Dee Long co-authored the Livable Communities Act, a law aimed at getting Twin Cities suburbs to help resolve Minneapolis's and St. Paul's affordable-housing crisis. The law established a voluntary Metropolitan Council program offering incentives to cities and suburbs to construct low-income housing. In addition to helping to subsidize the cost of building affordable homes and apartments, the Met Council would give participating communities funds for other projects, such as a new community center or park.

It wasn't the kind of headline-grabbing victory that puts a politician's name on people's lips, but the program got off to a roaring start. At the end of its first year, nearly 100 of the 186 eligible communities had signed up.

In 1998 Mondale ran for governor and lost to Jesse Ventura. Ventura hated the Met Council, which he viewed as an ineffective, invisible waste of tax dollars. Created in 1967 to handle federal transportation money, it was initially praised as a national model of how to administer regional park, sewer, and transportation systems. But 25 years down the road, critics complained that it had become stagnant. By 1993, with a budget of $16 million and 185 employees, the council was too small to wield any influence in the rapidly growing Twin Cities metro area. By most accounts, it was a place where many philosophies and plans were tossed around, but there was precious little action. Ventura had heard Mondale's stump speech during the governor's race, and he thought if anyone could make the agency into something worthwhile, it was Ted Mondale.

For most folks with political aspirations, being appointed chair of the Met Council would be a one-way ticket to obscurity; to most people, the only recognizable thing the agency does is manage Metro Transit, the area's largest bus system. But Mondale enthusiastically took the reins in January 1999. "We're going to quit acting like a nonprofit and start acting like a business," he was frequently heard to say.

The new chairman set to work making Livable Communities a reality. Most of the action during the program's first couple of years had been in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The council had spent more than a half-million dollars to help convert the old Milwaukee Depot in downtown Minneapolis into an ice rink and restaurant, and funneled $1.6 million to the Hiawatha-Lake area for a light-rail station and an adjacent "mixed-use center" boasting shops, affordable housing, and a park-and-ride.

But in the suburbs, despite the initial flurry of interest, progress had been nearly undetectable. Housing advocates charged that the law wasn't strict enough, because many communities signed on for funding for uses that had nothing to do with housing the poor, such as pollution cleanup. Meanwhile, suburban governments complained that some of the parameters for the grants--such as having to locate a certain number of housing units near transit lines--shouldn't apply to their communities.

 

Eagan was one of the cities that quickly got on the bandwagon, and then just as quickly got off. In 1996 the Eagan City Council voted 3-2 to sign up. (Awada, not yet mayor, cast one of the opposing votes.) The following year, the council reversed itself. Awada and her fellow naysayers had become more resolute that the Met Council had nothing to offer the city. "I think we've gotten one $10,000 grant from the Met Council in ten years," she says. "We've decided that whatever we need, we can get it ourselves."

By way of example, she points to Sibley Memorial Highway. Awada had hoped the road would be revamped with Met Council money. But after she was elected mayor in 1998, the agency declared that the city would have to rejoin Livable Communities if it wanted the Met Council to consider building a light-rail transit stop along the road. Awada declined, and instead found federal money to underwrite the reconstruction. The city and the council continued to argue.

In June of 1999, according to published accounts, Mondale told Dakota County Board members that unless Eagan rejoined Livable Communities, the city could forget about being included in future light-rail plans and about collecting any of the federal transportation money handled by the council. Further, Eagan had wanted to expand a park-and-ride on Yankee Doodle Road, but Mondale threatened to withhold the Met Council's portion of the funding for that, too.

Awada countered that Eagan was being "bullied" into participating in Livable Communities, and that a park-and-ride was part of the regional infrastructure that by law the Met Council was obliged to help provide.

The dispute made headlines. As a result, Awada says, Mondale called her and asked if they could try to smooth it out in private. The two arranged a breakfast meeting at the Lincoln Del in Bloomington and invited about ten people, including Eagan city administrator Tom Hedges, members of the Dakota County Board, and Met Council staffers. A truce was declared, with Mondale agreeing to help fund the park-and-ride, but insisting that Eagan would not get light-rail money without rejoining the housing program.

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