As the Door Revolves
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."
According to Rybak, the Idelkope appointment is considerably more complicated than the politics of airport noise. Because Northwest has close ties to the downtown business community, he argues, for Idelkope to abstain on "any issue that could possibly affect" her current employer, she would have to recuse herself from a good part of the Planning Commission's business.
In negotiations with the mayor's office, says Rybak, ROAR members were told that Sayles Belton was hesitant to make airport noise a major issue because she didn't want to antagonize the downtown business community. Business leaders have vocally opposed moving the airport further from the downtown core, and they have joined forces with Northwest in lobbying for an expansion of the Convention Center--a project dear to Sayles Belton. Because both downtown businesses and Northwest have a vested interest in publicly subsidized development projects such as the Convention Center, Rybak argues, having the airline's lobbyist serve on the commission responsible for recommending projects to the city sets a worrisome precedent. (As it happens, two of the airline's contract lobbyists are registered to lobby for Ryan Companies, developer of the heavily subsidized downtown Target store.)
Northwest executives have not been shy about reminding city officials of their role in supporting development. In direct response to the city council's night-flight resolution in December, Northwest executive vice president Richard Anderson penned a letter to council members and Sayles Belton, asserting that the company "was critical to the mayor's effort to obtain funding for the Convention Center expansion." (Northwest executives have also supported the mayor's efforts to obtain funding for her campaigns; in Sayles Belton's 1997 reelection bid, eight major contributors--donating the legal maximum of $500 each to a total campaign fund of some $200,000--listed affiliation with the Eagan-based company.)
"Northwest has worked hard to meet the needs of Minneapolis and to find grounds for cooperation and compromise," Anderson's letter continued. "We don't expect you to always agree with us, but we at least deserve a chance to be heard and to be treated in a collegial manner. Can we somehow improve our relationship because we share many common interests?"
The appointment of Idelkope has left Rybak and his fellow anti-noise activists wondering just how congenial the relationship between the city and the airline has become. "Northwest obviously believes they have an interest in projects like the Convention Center," says Rybak. "So how is the city supposed to objectively look at whether to put more money into those projects when Northwest's lobbyist is sitting on the Planning Commission looking over their shoulder?"
For now, Rybak still holds out some hope that Sayles Belton will back down. Because the mayor holds a seat on the Planning Commission ex officio, it is unclear whether the city charter will allow council members to contest the appointment (the City Attorney's Office declined to comment on the matter last week). Zoning and Planning Committee chair Lisa McDonald has nevertheless called for a public hearing on December 14. "[Idelkope] is a lovely person; don't get me wrong," says McDonald. "But this doesn't pass the smell test. We as politicians have to be above suspicion. It's such a heated issue--why do you pick someone who looks connected?"
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