A ‘hidden level of government’ few understand: county boards

Hennepin’s board lacks the diversity of those it represents


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Three of the seven Hennepin County Commissioner seats are up for election this November. If more people understood the importance of these positions, the Hennepin County Board might come to more clearly resemble the diverse population it serves.

The MSR recently conducted an unscientific “barbershop poll” and learned that no one we asked realized that these seats were included in this year’s mid-terms, yet alone understood the commissioners’ influence on their everyday lives. Those individuals who responded asked that their identities not be made public.

Hennepin County’s Commisisoners
Hennepin County’s Commisisoners

“We were just talking about we didn’t like the Viking stadium being funded by the public,” admitted one man, who added during his haircut that he didn’t know that the county board voted for it.

“I haven’t been keeping up with it,” added another man waiting for his turn in the barber chair.

“I don’t think a lot of people are aware of what functions that office does. It is an important office to hold,” said barber Bernard Walters, the only person with some knowledge of the subject. “The commissioner has a certain amount of power that the people aren’t aware of.

“My wife and I are privileged to know all of that, and we vote in the primaries and [the general elections],” continued Walters. “Normally we make our decisions and we vote jointly. If you ask me who’s running, I couldn’t name the candidates,”

According to its website, the Hennepin County Board is the county’s governmental body. It approves a county budget and tax levy, establishes policies, and oversees such services as libraries, transportation, social services, law enforcement, corrections and environmental services. The seven commissioners are elected by their district and serve four-year, staggered terms.

All seven current commissioners are White — and all seven persons, including three incumbents, who filed for this year’s elections are White as well.

With the county’s overall population becoming more diverse, is the county board representative? “These few people are deciding for many,” stated Walters. “Times are changing, and the minority population is increasing in Minnesota, and especially in Hennepin County. Most people of color aren’t made aware of [of the county board].”

Asking this question in the Black community “is a stunner,” Walters said. “I don’t think the average person understands the importance of that job.”

“I have a theory that the County is really a hidden level of government that many people do not understand or recognize for the significant impact that it has on our lives,” added Toni Carter, a Ramsey County commissioner. “We think about the city council, school board, the state representatives and senators, mayors and the governor. We don’t have a county mayor, but we do have a county board chair. Each one of us as county board members can make a tremendous difference.

“[Commissioners] are not as visible as a mayor or a [school] superintendent,” said Carter. “But the County, in essence, is the delivery vehicle for most federal and state services, [yet] gets very little attention.”

There are a handful of persons of color in county commissioner roles around the state, Carter pointed out. “I am the first African American commissioner [in Minnesota],” she told the MSR, adding that she knows that there is a Native American who is serving as a commissioner, and Rafael Ortega is a fellow commissioner in her county.

After serving on the St. Paul School Board in the early 2000s, Carter said she was encouraged to run for an open seat. “I did not aspire to running for county commissioner. It kind of found me,” she explained. Through encouragement from family, friends and community supporters, Carter filed and later won election in 2005: “We made it happen.”

Carter noted that the county commissioner’s job has changed since she joined the board. “I came in with an idea of what the job might be. I have grown over time to understand that it is that and more.”

The now up-and-running Central Corridor Light Rail project was a big focus, she says. “Now [what] has become a big discussion piece is the role of the County in economic development for our community. The need to add more jobs and get people employed, and develop our tax base so that we can even pay for the services that we need and create greater prosperity in our communities. The need to look at communities of poverty as opportunities for prosperity and connect economic development investments in those places where people need a leg up.”

This is not just for her county; Carter believes this applies statewide as well as being a national discussion for county commissioners.

Walters noted that perhaps the Black church could provide a place to disseminate information on what the county commissioner does. Another barbershop patron, after briefly learning about the county commissioner’s role, said that he will be seeking more information in order to make an informed choice when he goes to vote this year.

“A lot of us need to know what is going on,” he said. “I think we all need to get involved.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.
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