Longtime Council member took the long-range view
Joan Campbell was a nurse, single mother and rising DFL activist when she got a phone call in summer 1973 from Tom Kelm, chief of staff to Gov. Wendell Anderson. Campbell’s mind raced as she listened to Kelm say that the governor would like to appoint her to the…
She expected to hear “State Nursing Board.”
When the words "Metropolitan Council" came through the other end of the phone, Campbell blurted out, "Oh, wow."
Formed just six years earlier, the Council had quickly earned credibility and created controversy as it tackled a variety of challenges the region faced related to rapid development, among them:
Water pollution caused by underperforming local sewage treatment plants
Loss of prime natural areas and open space
Inadequate disposal facilities for the region’s solid waste
The Legislature was soon giving the Council additional responsibilities for transportation planning, health care planning and oversight, criminal justice, and more. The region’s first Development Guide had already been written when Campbell joined the governing board.
She felt humbled by the appointment. “The people serving on the Council were outstanding citizens,” she said. When she called her friend Allan Spear, a young member of the State Senate, to tell him about it, she reports that he said, “This means we’ve arrived.”
‘Like going to graduate school every day’
Campbell was one of two women Anderson appointed to the Council in 1973. She quickly got to work learning the issues the Council dealt with.
“The staff was brilliant, and they wanted to help us understand what was going on,” Campbell said. “It was like going to graduate school every day.”
Campbell got committee assignments, including Health and Human Services, and Personnel. On Personnel she had a bit of a shocking experience.
Speaking up for a rational salary policy
The committee was considering the salary of an incoming chair (which the Council then had the authority to set). The men were discussing the fact that the new chair was married and had children, and needed to earn more than the outgoing chair, who was a bachelor.
Campbell firmly suggested to the group that they ought to consider what the job was worth, comparing it to other jobs needing comparable skills and education—rather than base the salary on the person’s family circumstances.
The men looked at her as though they’d never considered that, but realized she was right.
“They had to concede the point,” Campbell said. “I’ve always been proud of that moment. Women were bringing a new dynamic that was a little foreign to some of them—but it was important.”
The Council’s work was supported by a variety of advisory committees with expert community members. In time, Campbell became knowledgeable on issues ranging from housing to health care to sewer lines.
“I quickly learned that sewer lines were very important for stopping and promoting development,” Campbell said.
Campbell ‘was always a long-range planning person’
One of Campbell’s primary strengths was her ability to take the long view, said former State Senator and Council Member Carol Flynn, who served with Campbell on the Council in the 1980s. “Many politicians think only about the next six months, but Joan was always a long-range planning person.”
Campbell is very proud of the work she did in the early years on developing and promoting what became the Metropolitan Land Planning Act. The act requires local governments to develop comprehensive plans, which describe how a community plans to grow in the coming decades. The Council reviews the plans to ensure they are compatible with regional plans for transportation, water resources, and parks and open space.
The Council had good relationships with local elected officials, she said. “We were partners, not enemies. With all the discussions today about the Council’s governance, if the legislators listened to their local elected officials, they’d have a more positive view of the Council.”
The case for staggered terms
In the first decades of the Council, appointments were staggered four-year terms. They were also less partisan, according to former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, who was Gov. Harold LeVander’s chief of staff and responsible for finding candidates for the first Council board.
“Governor LeVander wanted appointees to represent the nature of the districts from which they were chosen,” Durenberger said. “At the same time, [the appointees] needed to understand that they were working in a larger regional context. They were not there to represent folks from [a particular community] or political party.”
Campbell was reappointed by both Republican and DFL governors, and became one of the longest-serving Council members in the body’s history, 15+ years. She had good relationships with both DFL and Republican colleagues, she said, and she’s a proponent of staggered terms for Council members.
“You have the advantage of learning from more seasoned members. I don’t understand why they changed it,” she said.
Fighting sexism in the confirmation process
Over the years, Campbell said she worked with many outstanding colleagues on the Council, male and female, from both parties. She listed several: David Graven, Peter Gillette, Betty Kane, Marcia Bennett, Charlie Weaver, Joe Gasper, Josephine Nunn, Carol Flynn, Dottie Rietow and Mary Hauser.
Campbell shared this story about Gasper that she treasures. When Marcia Bennett went before the Minnesota Senate for confirmation in 1975, one of the Senators grilled Bennett about her marital status, her job, the fact that she was a mother, and how she could possibly carry out the functions of being a Council Member given her other responsibilities. She told him she was already doing it quite easily.
When Gasper followed Bennett, he told the committee, “I’m married, my wife works, we have children, I work full-time, and I think I can do the job quite well.”Both were confirmed.
Take the job seriously, but not yourself
Campbell said that as a Council member, “I never had trouble being taken seriously. I believe this about public service: you don’t take yourself seriously, but you take the job seriously. That’s important.”
In addition to the Land Planning Act, Campbell is proud of setting up the system of recycling and solid waste management that was enshrined in the Waste Management Act. “We used existing government structures, primarily the counties, to accomplish some very important goals. They’ve been doing it ever since.”
She left the Council in 1989 after winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council.
Work that really paid off to save lives
Of all her work on the Metropolitan Council, Campbell is most proud of something that got started in the year before she left, and ended up having huge implications during a later regional crisis.
“We started thinking about the connectivity of the emergency radio systems of local governments,” Campbell said. At the time, every agency had its own frequencies and couldn’t talk to each other during incidents that crossed jurisdictional boundaries. That led to formation of the Metropolitan Radio Board, on which Campbell served as a representative of the City of Minneapolis.
The board developed plans for a regional emergency radio system. It required cities to purchase new equipment, which was very expensive—and the city budget was tight. But Campbell saw how important it was and worked to get the votes for it.
Fast-forward to Aug. 1, 2007 – and the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. “Everyone was able to talk to each other – first responders, police, sheriffs, the fire department.” Campbell said she later got a call from the head of the city’s 911 office thanking her because “we couldn’t have done all this without these radios.”
“And it all started with a staff person at the Metropolitan Council,” she said.