On a warm summer day in the spring of 2015, people were gathering at the Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park for a community meeting on the Southwest LRT project. A man wearing a suit pedaled through the parking lot on a bicycle, got off at the door and went inside to chair the meeting. Adam Duininck, chair of the Metropolitan Council, was practicing what he preached about using transit to get around—and using his bike to complete the critical last mile of his trip.
This month, Duininck is getting ready to step down as Council chair. He’s been offered a position that he “can’t refuse” with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, handling legislative and public affairs in a six-state region, representing 24,000 union carpenters. People who have worked with him across the region will look back on his ability to handle complex and contentious issues by simply keeping people talking.
Connecting to communities around the region
When Duininck replaced Chair Susan Haigh in January 2015, Governor Mark Dayton made him the Council’s first full-time chair. The governor had concluded that the seven-county metro area is too big and the Met Council’s mission too expansive to handle on a 20-hour-a-week basis. Duininck took hold of that idea and immediately began a regional tour, meeting with city and county officials, viewing projects and raising the Council’s profile.
“Ultimately my approach was to put a human face on the Council and be out there, be engaged in the region,” said Duininck. “How do we talk about our priorities and the issues that affect the region, like affordable housing, transit, water supply and wastewater treatment. “
Another way he was out there was on his bike. Duininck regularly commutes to the job by bike and bus. Being in the community and using the services the Met Council provides for the region is one of the ways he stays grounded to what matters.
Squarely facing controversial issues, keeping people talking
Duininck took over as engineering reports and new estimates determined the Southwest LRT project needed to have its costs reined in. Legislators and transit opponents seized that opportunity to try to kill the project outright. Additionally, Duininck worked to negotiate agreements with partners like the Minneapolis Parks Board and Southwest Transit to clear the way for the project.
Additional controversy has surrounded funding for the build-out of the transit system, and whether the Council’s role as the region’s primary planning entity should be changed. In a highly politicized environment, Duininck has worked to remain approachable to all parties.
“It’s hard because sometimes these issues are very polarizing: where affordable housing is located, where transitways are built or whether to build transitways at all. Those types of decisions get to be very black and white to people,” said Duininck. “I tried to do the best I could to nuance the discussion and bring different voices in. It’s a big region and a diverse region and on some of these issues you’re never going to get everyone to agree, you’re just going to try to ensure that people are heard.”
Building relationships is key to working through hard issues
Ultimately, Duininck says the key is to build relationships with as many people as possible.
“I cannot overstate enough the importance of building relationships, it’s a personal value of mine,” he said. “It’s a responsibility we have to lower the temperature of, at times, very polarized debates. It’s easy to attack people or to question their motives. It takes more work to go have a cup of coffee with somebody, or lunch or a drink with somebody and get to know them as a person.”
People who’ve worked with Duininck say his special gift is to keep people talking. Edina Mayor Jim Hovland worked with Duininck on the Southwest LRT project and held a leadership role in uniting local support for it. “He was thrown headlong into the complexities and intricacies of SWLRT, but he never so much as blinked at the pressure involved,” said Hovland. “All the while he stayed cool, calm and collected.”
When the Minnesota House and Senate passed bills that would have severely cut bus service across the region, Duininck used those relationships to keep people talking. “He maintained a consistent, measured approach,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, President and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. After weeks of negotiations legislators backed away from cuts in the next two years and put off the discussion for a later date.
Racial disparity gap is ‘a stain on our region’
Looking to the future, Duininck says the region must keep planning for a larger population and changing demographics. Today, 26 percent of the people in the seven-county metro area are people of color. The Council forecasts that will grow to 40 percent by 2040. Studies show that racial disparities in our region are among the most stark in the nation.
In his time on the Met Council, Duininck has been most proud of the work the organization has done on equity. Inclusion is now being considered in how the Council awards some grant dollars and qualifies projects for funding.
The Council created a new Equity Advisory Committee to bring more community voices and perspectives to the Council. Metro Transit’s police force has become the most racially diverse law enforcement agency in Minnesota.
But it remains a big challenge for the region.
“To me it’s a stain on our region in terms of something that the Council itself struggles with and grapples with – and other policy makers and leaders around the region do as well, no one person or entity can change or fix it,” said Duininck. “We’re either going to address the issues and improve the situation for more people, or it will slow our growth and hurt us economically as well as socially.”
“His approach is visionary,” said Weinhagen. “It’s about building a system that will outlive him and benefit the region well into the future.”