Jan 8, 2024 - News

Meet Elliott Payne, who wants to unify the Minneapolis City Council as its new president

A man in a dark suit and dress shirt smiles while behind table during a break in a City Council meeting with a large blue image of the city seal on a screen behind him.

Ward 1 representative Elliott Payne is the new president of the Minneapolis City Council. Photo by: Kyle Stokes/Axios

Elliott Payne is the new president of the Minneapolis City Council.

Driving the news: Council members elected new leaders Monday, choosing Ward 1 representative Payne as president by a 10-3 vote.

  • Council members LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4), Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) and Linea Palmisano voted against his nomination.
  • Ward 10's Aisha Chughtai, a Payne ally, won the role of council vice president.

Why it matters: The president doesn't only set the council's agenda, but also sets its tone. Payne said he'll use his gavel to make the group a "strong counterweight" to the mayor's power and the city's bureaucracy.

State of play: Elevating Payne was the first order of business for the new-look council, which officially began its new term last week. Following November's elections, a coalition that's more skeptical of Mayor Jacob Frey now holds a narrow majority.

What they're saying: In remarks after the vote, Payne said he plans to "unify city council to be a successful check-and-balance to the mayor's administration, with independent oversight and evaluation to ensure residents receive high quality, timely and equitable city services."

Flashback: Two years ago, voters changed Minneapolis' charter to grant the mayor more executive authority, leaving city council members uncertain about how much authority they can use.

  • Some have complained the new structure makes it harder to demand accountability for constituent concerns from potholes to infrastructure projects — and easier for the mayor to end-run around the legislative branch. A unified council could change that dynamic.

Yes, but: Achieving unity won't always be easy. Payne is part of a narrow majority that still differs ideologically on some hot-button issues, such as rent control.

The other side: In a short speech before his selection, Frey was diplomatic, calling on everyone to "start afresh, assuming good intentions."

  • "I will believe that you care deeply about our constituents, just as I do," the mayor said, "and then we will work together to achieve the top level service that they deserve."

Zoom in: An engineer by training, Payne first got involved in city government in 2016. He consulted on Minneapolis' alternative to sending police officers to mental health crisis calls.

  • He won a council seat in Northeast Minneapolis in 2021 making an overhaul of policing central to his campaign.
  • A self-professed "policy wonk," Payne said he has no aspirations to state or federal elected office. He said he's also uninterested in running for mayor.

Between the lines: Downtown Minneapolis' future is of particular interest. Historically, he said, downtown's role "has been to attract suburban people to the economic center as the tax base for the economy of the state." Remote and hybrid work have changed this, he acknowledged.

  • "Minneapolis is the economic engine of the state," Payne said — and as he takes the reins in City Hall, he's aware that the rest of Minnesota is watching.

What's next: As city council president, he promised he'd use his agenda-setting power to oversee a more open and "transparent" legislative process.

  • Last year, the council and mayor clashed several times over late changes to their agenda, including incentive pay for police officers. Payne said he would push back against attempts to get the council to "rubber stamp" legislation at the last minute.

Of note: The Minneapolis City Council does not hold public comment sessions at every meeting, but Payne said he's "thinking about" adding more opportunities for it.

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