All in the Family
IT'S LIKE ONE of those holiday family fights: Everyone's offended, nobody will say exactly what happened, and the real issue is something else entirely.
The way Minneapolis officials tell the story, it's all about the way two state legislators recently read a city lobbyist the riot act. The exchange at the Capitol led to a volley of letters between city officials and the legislators in question, state Sen. Jane Ranum and Rep. Jean Wagenius. The vehemence of the exchange suggests that somewhere along the way, a nerve was struck. That nerve, it turns out, is the city's frequent use of big-bucks contract lobbyists who also represent potentially conflicting interests.
On the surface, the point is hard to argue. Documents filed with the state Ethical Practices Board show that of
11 people registered to represent Minneapolis at the Capitol as of January, all but three were professional contract lobbyists, who have other clients whose interests could run up against the city's. To wit:
* Four city lobbyists also represent the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns the Metrodome and is a key player in the debate over a new, possibly partly city-financed, Twins stadium.
* Five lobbyists are also on the payroll of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which frequently clashes with the city over flight paths, noise regulations, and a proposed airport expansion.
* Four represent the National Solid Waste Management Association, the trade group for such city contractors as waste haulers, recyclers, and landfill operators.
* Two city lobbyists are also under contract to the University of St. Thomas, which stands to receive a major city subsidy to expand its downtown campus.
* Three represent the Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association, a trade group whose members--landlords--are regulated by the city and are often affected by city-sponsored legislation.
* And finally, one lobbyist is registered as working for both Minneapolis and the Tobacco Institute, the cigarette-industry group whose top concerns include fighting any increase in tobacco taxes.
That last lobbyist is Andy Kozak, who in the 1970s worked as an aide to Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede and later joined him in the consulting firm North State Advisors. Kozak is the city's best-known and most experienced lobbyist; he's also represented the Timberwolves, the Target Center, Northwest Airlines, the Minnesota Twins, and many more.
Kozak and North State made headlines a couple of weeks ago when proposals to fund a new stadium with a cigarette tax pitted two clients against each other. The firm ended up dropping the Twins from its client list. Kozak says there currently isn't any issue on which he sees a similar conflict with his work for the city. "The term conflict of interest has been used very promiscuously," he says. "It's actually something very specific. To us it means that you're in a situation where if you help one client succeed, you're going to hurt another."
Which is, say Ranum and Wagenius, exactly what may be happening. For example, they told Minneapolis officials in their letter, lobbyists dedicated strictly to the city might have suggested funding an expansion of the Convention Center--a top item on the city's legislative agenda--through a metro area cigarette tax. "Common sense suggests," they wrote, "that that kind of solution would not have been suggested by your contract lobbyist because his firm lobbies for both the City and the cigarette industry."
Kozak scoffs at that example. He says that in general, legislators are too sophisticated to fall for such double-dealing by any lobbyist. Minneapolis City Intergovernmental Relations Manager Andrea Hart Kajer adds that city lobbying contracts are already reviewed for conflict-of-interest potential by the city attorney's office.
Ranum, however, remains unconvinced. She says two years ago, she and Wagenius introduced a proposal for all-day kindergartens in Minneapolis, to be funded by levying property taxes on the airport. After the bill failed, they discovered that Kozak, who represented the city, also was a lobbyist for Northwest Airlines, which opposed taxing the airport. He ended up withdrawing from the airline account, Ranum says, but not until after she and Wagenius raised the issue.
What the city needs, Ranum argues, is "a clear position on conflicts of interest." She'd like it to get rid of some of the contractors, and hire more staff lobbyists with the money saved. At least, she says, city officials could sit down and discuss the matter--something she claims they've refused to do, opting instead to cry verbal abuse as a "diversionary tactic." If so, it worked: A Star Tribune article on the whole flap didn't have a single reference to the conflict-of-interest charge.
Beth Hawkins contributed to this story.
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