County commissioners Irene Fernando (Hennepin) and Mandy Meisner (Anoka) have been in office for six months. The Northeaster decided to catch up with them and find out what their new jobs are like.
You’ve been in office for six months now. What was the biggest challenge or surprise for you?
Meisner: The biggest challenge for me is learning what’s involved in county government, being well informed, just pulling back that curtain. There’s a lot of things in county government that I had no idea we were responsible for.
What kinds of things?
Meisner: It’s more of the depth of it. Working in human services, I knew county government was, for example, responsible for economic assistance and child protection, but when you sit down in these department meetings, you really understand the depth of all the challenges.
For Anoka County, we have our full board meetings, but we are committee-structured. There may be three to four county commissioners on one committee and then the chair of that committee. So the chair may make a recommendation to the full board. For the first two years, I have committed to attending as many committee meetings as possible, even though I am not assigned to them, so I can understand how each department functions and the challenges they face so that when I’m at the full board meeting I can be really well informed and understand what we’re voting on.
How about you, Irene?
Fernando: There are 87 counties in Minnesota, all have five to seven commissioners, all have a county administrator, but all function very differently. At Hennepin, our committees are all Committees of the Whole, so all the commissioners are at the meetings. Hypothetically, I have to make sure I’m aware of everything that takes place.
I’m very lucky that the Hennepin County commissioner job is a full-time job. A portion of the job is the board meetings and committees. The next chunk of time is board appointments. There are a dozen-plus boards that I am appointed to as a representative on behalf of Hennepin. I am on the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board (so is Mandy). I’m on the Greater Metropolitan Workforce Council. As a community leader, I discontinued all my [outside] board service prior to running for office, thank goodness, because it takes a lot of time. I knew that conceptually, but I didn’t really think through how much time it takes to be a good board member for those appointments on behalf of the county.
Every county has a Class 1 city, and Minneapolis is Hennepin’s. When the mayor of Minneapolis starts a new initiative, “Safer homes, safer schools,” he wants a commissioner to sit on the committee. There’s a violence prevention steering committee getting started that wants a commissioner or two.
It was quite surprising to learn that I was automatically assigned to a dozen additional boards.
Have you tried any new approaches to the office?
Fernando: I made sure I was on a texting, first-name phone call basis with all the electeds that overlap in my space and border my space.
Meisner: We’re similar in that way in our spirit of collaboration. I meet regularly with my cities’ mayors and city managers, make sure I’m updated on what’s going on. For me, that’s Fridley, Columbia Heights, Hilltop and Spring Lake Park.
Fernando: Just last week, I received a couple of quick texts from Mandy about the bus barn on 37th and University. It’s not like we’re in lockstep, but we work together.
Meisner: For me as a new commissioner, I want to be well informed, I don’t want to overstep my jurisdiction, but 37th Avenue is the borderline. My community doesn’t care that it’s Hennepin County, it’s [the bus barn] right across the street! I don’t want to misrepresent other jurisdictions and I want to work with other stakeholders as much as possible. We both share that.
Fernando: I happened to have an impact statement on the bus barn ready, and I sent it to Mandy.
Irene, your district is spread out from Plymouth to St. Anthony. Do you find there are great differences across your constituency?
Fernando: People often remark that it looks peculiar even visually! I quite enjoy my District 2. I spent two years studying the county before taking office. About 18 months of that time, I was publicly in community, trying to get to know folks. I enjoy District 2 because it is a representative cross-section of Hennepin overall. I have a very racially diverse, economically diverse, geographically diverse district. It’s quite rural on the western edges. There are really small communities like Medicine Lake and St. Anthony Village, which is unique because it crosses county lines. North Minneapolis, which I call home, is often cited as a place that needs resources, which we do. I also know the wonderful assets and opportunities there. I’ve come to really love the differences. Being elected and wedded to one ideology is not the job.
How about Anoka County?
Meisner: I’ve got the most tightly combined physical space in Anoka County, and also the most diverse district in all of Anoka County. Every city has a different voice and a different distinction. I’m really sensitive to that. I don’t like to lump Columbia Heights and Fridley together, even though they may have some similarities. Columbia Heights has such a history. You’ll hear the story over and over where people grew up here and bought their parents’ house or the house next door. The roots here are really deep. There’s a lot of care and passion for the issues in the community.
Both of you are the first persons of color to be elected as county commissioners in your district. How does your heritage affect how you see things?
Meisner: In Anoka County, I’m the lead commissioner for the Cultural Committee, which is really about diversity and inclusion. When you’re representing a minority, you’re advocating for the people that aren’t in the room. I’ve been doing that for women’s issues for a long time. I get excited about representing people of color because I am the first person of color on the entire Anoka County board. For me, it’s about making it easier for others to follow me. There’s a disconnect when community leaders don’t reflect the community. What are the barriers? Why is it, in 2019, that the first people of color are on two very large county boards? It’s not about me, it’s about the people like me that might deserve a seat at the table.
Fernando: I grew up in Carson, California, which has a very, very high concentration of Filipinos. I’m the second on my dad’s side to be born in the U.S., the sixth on my mom’s side. I grew up in a place where we didn’t necessarily know what the census was when it came in the mail. I was in high school, and I remember saying, “Hey, do we fill this out?” I was addressing a room of 12 people. Some said yes, some said no. Of course that impacts how I do my job. It means I was out in the rain over the weekend with an organizer for the census. Hennepin does a good job with the census, but I think they would have waited a bit longer to get going. Since I’m there, we’re starting now. It’s not that I had to fight about it, I just said, “Hey, this is so important, I want to get started earlier.”
I live in Minnesota, in Hennepin County, in Minneapolis, in North Minneapolis. North Minneapolis has a disproportionate population of people of color. For 166 years, we have not had a person of color on the county board. When we’re talking about people who’ve been incarcerated, have low wealth, these are my neighbors, my friends. They’re not statistics on a chart. They’re the people I represent.
Now that you’ve been a commissioner for a while, what are your goals?
Fernando: First and foremost, I get to chair the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. It’s not very common for a first-year board member to chair this position; it’s a great honor. One of the things we’re pushing is for Hennepin County to build deeply affordable housing. That’s for people whose income is 30% of the area median income (AMI) and lower. That means the county is putting up money for bricks and mortar. I’m also vice chair of the Public Safety Committee. I’m really interested in how we are engaging in our emergency response and how are we embedding mental health in that emergency response.
Meisner: Economic development, promoting jobs in the trades is close to my heart. Making sure that vocational training is not second choice to college. Careers in the trades are wonderful careers. Mental health and addiction issues are key for me. I come from a community service background. I want to activate civic engagement. It is so important. County government is known as the “invisible layer” of government. I really hope to change that. It hugely affects everyone’s lives from birth until death. You don’t necessarily have to run for office, but be informed about who your elected officials are. I want to make sure there are best practices in Anoka County as well as checks and balances.
If you had it to do over again, would you run for office?
Meisner: Absolutely, hands down.
Fernando: There’s the job to run for office and win, and the job to govern and do it well. They’re two very, very different jobs. Campaigning is not for the faint of heart. For me, the ego required to put my name on 1,000 lawn signs, to say, ‘You should vote for me over someone else’, or to ask someone to donate to my campaign instead of buying soccer cleats for their grandkids or fixing up their house, was difficult. Then to get the job and flip and be completely humble and a servant of the people is very disorienting.
Below: Hennepin County Commission Irene Fernando (left) and Anoka County Commissioner Mandy Meisner (right). (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)