New Minneapolis City Council President Elliott Payne on cease-fire resolution, encampments

Minneapolis City Council first meeting
Council Member Elliott Payne, representing Ward 1, speaks on during the Minneapolis City Council's first meeting on Monday in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The Minneapolis City Council appointed Elliott Payne as its new president at its first meeting of the new year. And within moments of taking office, Payne found himself pounding the gavel to restore order in a room packed with supporters of a resolution on the Israel-Hamas war.

“Local government is the most accessible form of government,” Payne told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer Tuesday. “They may not be able to get on the phone with President Biden, but what we can do at a minimum is share some of their hurt and some of their pain with our federal leaders so that perhaps they can take action.”

Council members eventually voted 10-2 to refer the resolution to a Jan. 23 meeting.

Minneapolis City Council first meeting
Cease-fire supporters raise their signs during the Minneapolis City Council's first meeting on Monday in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Payne, who represents the city’s northeast neighborhoods in Ward 1, follows Andrea Jenkins in the role. She decided against pursuing it this term.

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Payne spoke with MPR News about the resolution, policing and the recent clearing of an encampment for unhoused people.

The following is a transcript that has been lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation by clicking the audio player above.

Why focus on an international conflict, like the Israel-Hamas war, instead of local issues right out the gate?

It’s really important for people to understand that their city council is accessible to them. And all 13 of us are hearing from our community every day about the issues that matter to them.

And so, as you can imagine, the conflict that’s happening in the Middle East is something that is profoundly impacting the residents of Minneapolis, and there’s been a lot of community desire to hear our voice on the matter and to speak on their behalf.

Local government is the most accessible form of government. They may not be able to get on the phone with President Biden, but what we can do at a minimum is share some of their hurt and some of their pain with our federal leaders so that perhaps they can take action.

What do you think the next step should be?

We referred it to committee so that not only our colleagues can get a chance to review the language and be able to get feedback, but so that the community can see the language and have it publicly posted so that they can see what the intention of that language is and help us refine that to get to a point where we feel confident in passing it past the full city council.

What other items do you want to tackle this year?

I think we have a real affordability crisis when it comes to our housing market right now in the city of Minneapolis. I think we need to take urgent action on housing policy, including rent stabilization. That is a charter amendment that passed with a clear majority in 2021, and we’ve yet to take action on that.

We have to also expand our alternatives to public safety. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there was a real clear mandate that we needed to do policing differently in the city of Minneapolis, and I’m really prioritizing that work.

And then we have climate action that we have to take — we passed a really strong climate equity plan, and it’s time to actually start implementing it.

How should policing be different?

I actually worked on launching the behavioral crisis response [team]. That’s our dedicated mental health responders. So when you call 911, and somebody’s in a mental health crisis, you can get an unarmed mental health professional that can respond to that.

That’s only beginning of the types of new services that we should be imagining, so that we have the right people at the right time when you need help.

Recently, about 100 homeless people were moved from an encampment in the Phillips neighborhood. They settled again, only three blocks away. What do you think that accomplished?

I’ve been a long and vocal advocate that we need to do something different when it comes to how we respond to encampments. At the end of the year last year, we passed a resolution declaring unsheltered homelessness a public health emergency. And that means that we need to take a public health approach to some of these issues.

This isn’t just an economic issue, a jobs issue, or even just the housing issue. There’s a lot of intersectional challenges happening, especially as it relates to the opioid epidemic.

And I think we need to take a wise approach to how those different issues intersect with each other and be planful about how we have policies that can help get those people back on their feet and into stable housing.

And what are the first steps in moving down that road?

So I, along with a number of other colleagues, signed a letter to the mayor asking to delay the eviction because we know that the evictions lead to a lot of distress for the residents of the encampment. And as we already see, in hindsight, it just pushes the problem to another parcel of land.

We need to have an approach that really centers healing and centers some of the cultural issues that are happening in terms of how — particularly in Camp Nenookaasi — there’s the historical trauma of Native folks being removed from their land. And we have not really fully addressed that as a country.

And so I think we need to be really thoughtful as we move forward. We have to think about what kind of support these folks need, whether it’s substance use treatment or mental health treatment in conjunction with our housing referral.

There are some serious public safety issues that affect nearby neighbors. How do you balance the needs of those who need help — those who are homeless — and the neighbors of some of these encampments?

It is not a secret that these encampments can create public safety challenges.

What we have to do is compare the encampment with what the alternative would be. And the alternative to the encampment are those same number of folks scattered throughout the city, without any community and without any level of ability for our social workers and case managers to find them. We see this happen a lot, especially with evictions, where suddenly we have people squatting in abandoned buildings, breaking into houses.

At least when they’re in the encampment, they’re in a controlled space and a space where our outreach workers know where to find them and can get them into the services that they need.

How do you plan to work with Mayor Frey?

Well, the first thing I did yesterday was walk up to his office and go have a conversation with him. I talked about my agenda and some of the things I wanted to accomplish with him. And I just really wanted to set the tone of collaboration with him.

One of the things that was a challenge in our first term was that we had a majority of new council members sworn in, in 2021. And we were restoring our government and really figuring out what is going to be this new system of how council and the executive branch works together. I really reiterated the important role of city council and how we're going to make our city better when we are unified working together.