The Hennepin County Board is starting the year with three new members and host of big challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain county resources.
Chris LaTondresse, Jeff Lunde and Kevin Anderson join a young board that had its first two commissioners of color elected in 2019. LaTondresse said the painful year of civil unrest after George Floyd's death and the ongoing pandemic continues to challenge residents' courage, reliance and kindness.
"We found ways to pull together more than ever in nonpartisan ways," LaTondresse said. "We need good government more than ever and we have clear eyes on the future challenges."
The seven-member board oversees a $2.1 billion budget for services and infrastructure for its nearly 1.3 million residents. The board's makeup underwent a dramatic realignment after Mike Opat, Jan Callison and Jeff Johnson chose not to seek re-election last year, ending a combined five decades of experience on the board.
Now the new board must chart a way forward while working remotely, building relationships and getting to know the workings of a complicated bureaucracy that suddenly finds itself on the front lines of the pandemic.
Lunde, the longtime mayor of Brooklyn Park, said he wanted the chance to continue the board's work on distributing the COVID vaccine, public safety and the possible extension of the Bottineau Blue Line light-rail project.
Lunde, a 53-year-old information technology manager, will head the public safety committee, where he is looking to continue the work underway in Brooklyn Park with community policing and building trust between law enforcement and the community. "Not everybody needs to go to jail. If somebody has an addiction, let's take care of the root causes."
A major looming challenge is finding new money to support businesses, landlords and tenants hurt by COVID. The county spent millions of federal dollars in these areas last year, but it is far from clear whether they will receive more federal aid.
"I want to do things different that didn't work so well," he said. "The county has proved COVID has changed the way we can do business."
Anderson, 40, also has an IT background. His mother was a nurse and his father worked for the state parks system, which taught him the importance of serving his community.
This was his first run at public office, but he had volunteered for other campaigns and knew people in politics, "so I just didn't come off the street." When he starting campaigning in 2019, he often heard from people working in city leadership who interacted with the county and didn't feel they had a strong partnership with them.
"I heard from parents who have children with mental health issues struggling to find resources. I want to work with the community to find help," Anderson said.
He said he understands government officials should now expect more scrutiny as public figures. He cited the high voter turnout for his race that proved the public cares about issues ranging from homelessness to affordable housing.
Anderson and Lunde stressed the importance of hiring diverse staffs to bring a variety of viewpoints and opinions into the office. Anderson's policy director has a doctorate in design and sustainability and his district director has a master's degree in public administration.
LaTondresse, 38, and Commissioner Irene Fernando, who was elected in 2019, are two of the younger board members in many years. He has said having five new commissioners is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the seven-member board.
He stressed that government needs to meet residents where they are.
"Government needs help finding ways for parents to feed their kids and keep their homes," he said. "That's where the rubber meets the road."
His priorities include matching the homeless with affordable housing. The county spent nearly $25 million for the homeless response last year, but he said a "Minnesota Marshall Plan" is needed for a comprehensive affordable-housing initiative.
"I will be an in-the-community commissioner," said LaTondresse, the former vice chairman of the Hopkins school board. "Hennepin County will not be an invisible layer of government."
Board Chairwoman Marion Greene, who is now the senior commissioner after five years on the board, said the board lost of a lot of institutional knowledge, but the new members are already showing they will be worthy replacements.
She misses the in-person conversations on issues colleagues had before the pandemic on the 24th floor of the government center where their offices are.
"But we have run government virtually, so how do we reproduce those successes in what will be another tough year?" she asked. "All the commissioners are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465