Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Friday, December 21, 2007

Library Merger

Today, the Council voted to abolish the Minneapolis Public Library System and merge it with the Hennepin County system. I was the one Council Member to vote against this. Given the unanimous votes of the Library Board and Hennepin County Board, I am the only person in local government to vote against this, and I thought I should explain my vote.

I don't talk about this very often, but there is a list of principles that I look towards when I'm faced with a difficult decision. This list is the ten key values of the Green Party. When I examined this proposed merger against these core political principles that guide me, two of them seemed especially germane: grassroots democracy and decentralization.

Decentralization demands that power and decisionmaking (political, social and economic) are in more hands, not fewer. Centralization always, always promises efficiency, whether the efficiency of a totalitarian state or a multinational corporation. This efficiency is often a mirage, but even when it exists it is outweighed by the effects of the disempowerment inherent in centralization. This library merger is clearly a centralization of power and decisionmaking. It will mean that those most affected by the decisions about the libraires will be less empowered to influence those decisions.

Grassroots democracy demands that decisions be made as close as possible to those who are affected by them. The Library Board, which will cease to be on January 1, 2008, brought decisions about the library system much, much closer to Minneapolis voters than when the library system is one small part of a massive Hennepin County government.

More importantly, the way that this decision has been made has been less democratic than I believe it should have been. When the library system needed more money for a new central library, they went to the voters (and received two-thirds support). When there was a proposal to use Instant Runoff Voting as our election method, we went to the voters (and received 65% support). This action of removing 6 elected officials and tranferring our libraries (jobs, land, buildings, books and all) is arguably much more significant than either of these decisions - it is a major structural change to library governance, which by our Charter would require a unanimous vote of Council or positive vote of the public - but its advocates worked hard to avoid going to the voters, getting around this requirement by an action of the Legislature.

I recognize that this merger will have many salutory effects. The Southeast Library, which serves the two southeast neighborhoods in the Second Ward, will reopen. Minneapolis libraries, which serve a regional need, will receive regional support. The seemingly intractable budget problems will be alleviated. These are concrete and important pluses to this deal.

However, even with this list of positives, I can't in good consience vote to remove a grassroots level of public decisionmaking and centralize power further away from residents without a public vote.

These concerns also lead me to oppose the push from many of my colleagues to abolish the Board of Estimate and Taxation by unanimous vote of Council. This also represents a substantive change to our Charter and is most appropriately a decision that should be made by the voters, not the Council and note the state legislature.

Merry Keefe

Minneapolis City Clerk Merry Keefe, one of the most helpful, warmest, ablest City staff members we've had the pleasure to work with over the last two years, is retiring. She helped us acclimate to the rules, procedures and culture here in City Hall, and under her leadership the Clerk's office has become one of the very best departments in the City.

Among Merry's many accomplishments: this blog. When our office floated the unprecedented idea of a Council Member blog early in 2006, we met with significant resistance from various parts of the City, especially the Attorney's Office and some of Cam's colleagues who are uncomfortable with too much free speech. Emblematic of her can-do attitude, Merry immediately understood why we would want to blog - to conduct an in-depth discussion with our constituents about the policy issues facing the City - and supported us strongly every step of the way. She never questioned whether we could or should use this communication medium, but focused on how to make it happen. This is the culture of the Clerk's Office that she has helped set, that serves policymakers and the public so well.

So please take a moment to thank Merry Keefe for being allowed to read this. She will be missed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

NRP and Community Involvement

Today, the Council took a very important and positive step for the future of Minneapolis neighborhoods and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program , which has been one of my top priorities this year at the Committee of the Whole Meeting.

The NRP Work Group (made up of Mayor Rybak, Council Members Ostrow, Hodges, Lilligren and Johnson, and NRP director Bob Miller) came to Committee of the Whole with a "Framework for the Future of NRP" report that shows broad and growing support for three key stances I have been strongly advocating:

1. Neighborhood groups should receive adequate, reliable financial support to maintain their basic infrastructure (like staff)

2. The City should provide better support and coordination for organizations working to engage their communities, including neighborhood groups

3. Neighborhood groups should receive discretionary funding that they can target towards their priorities and concerns

This growing (and, to be honest, pleasantly surprising) consensus essentially means that the Council is moving forward with a continuation of an NRP (or an equivalent program) past 2009. This program would, under the report's recommendation, be steered by a resident-controlled governance board. This is a significant departure from the current multi jurisdictional governance of the NRP Policy Board. I think there are strengths to either option and would support a resident board, or commission as it was called in the Community Engagement Task Force recommendations, even if the NRP Policy Board remains.

There are other aspects of the report to like, as well. It recommends something I have advocated for a very long time: a division of Community Engagement within the Coordinator's office that will help all City departments do a better job seeking and using stakeholder input.

One crucial, difficult task ahead of us over the next year: finding and dedicating sources of funding for these programs. The Framework suggests setting side $2 million to support basic neighborhood capacity. I wonder, will that be enough for 80 some neighborhoods. It offers no indication about how much funds would be needed to make discretionary spending meaningful.

I thought the Task Force's recommended action today could use small improvements in two areas, so I proposed and my colleagues agreed to the following. I amended the action to require that all neighborhood group presidents or chairs and all City advisory boards and commissions receive a copy of the report, as well as the Community Engagement Task Force's recommendations, for their review and to solicit input. I also directed staff to report back to the Council in mid-February explaining the consequences to the City's "Legacy Fund" (proceeds of the sale of the Hilton hotel), the city’s present and future discretionary development funding, and NRP funding, if we stopped transferring funds from the Common Project to the Legacy Fund. Before we decide whether to keep using Common Project dollars to pay back the Legacy Fund, or save them for NRP, we need this sort of information.

The specific wording of the staff direction is as follows:
"Direct staff to report back in 3 cycles explaining the consequences to: a) the legacy fund, b) the city’s present and future discretionary development funding, and c) NRP funding, if we stopped transferring funds from the Common Project to the Legacy Fund."

Though I believe that today's action is extremely important to the future of neighborhood groups, there is still a great deal of work to do. First we need to listen over the next months to what the residents, neighborhood associations and others think of the Framework and Task Force recommendations. We have only gotten this far, after all, because of the earnest involvement of so many people who care about the future of our neighborhoods, NRP and our City. I hope they keep talking and we keep listening.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hard Times to reopen

I am delighted that the Hard Times is set to reopen this weekend. I wish them great success and look forward to eating there again and holding my open office hours in the ward there the first Tuesday of each month (from 9:30 - 11 AM). I can hardly wait to see all the new improvements and taste the familiar dishes. I know that the extended closing and renovations have resulted in a significant loss of income so a big boost in business in the weeks ahead would be greatly appreciated I am sure.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Civilian Review Authority Openings

We need your help! The City currently is advertising 7 vacancies on the Civilian Review Authority (CRA) board, and we have not received the response we would like.

The CRA has great potential to be a vital part of how we improve police practices and hold police accountable for misconduct. It is very important that we have a diverse, committed and effective CRA board. Please consider applying and help us pass the word to anyone you think would be interested in this important and challenging volunteer opportunity!

Find information on the vacancy here.

Adopted 2008 Budget

The Council has adopted the 2008 budget. Among the most interesting last-minute amendments were the following:

- An unsuccessful attempt by CM Remington to take $300,000 from the police overtime budget to hire two more cops (which I was sympathetic towards but did not vote to support)

- An unsuccesful attempt by CM Samuels to take $10,000 from the highly successful Energy Challenge Micro Grant program for non-germane bike lanes on the northside (which I strongly opposed)

- A successful, convoluted motion to undo the Mayor's recommended $100,000 cut to the Minnesota Telecommunications Network (MTN) by funding Wireless Portals (to whom the Mayor had given MTN's $100K) from the self-insurance fund, which itself will be funded from the Minnesota Airports Commission settlement agreement (which I strongly supported - MTN should not take this sort of massive hit to its meager budget)

- A successful motion to keep the City's community engagement positions in CPED rather than transferring them to the Coordinator's office (which I opposed - I believe we should create an team within the more overarching Coordinators office to help facilitate better civic involvement and help improve this work in all departments)

- A successful motion to move three-quarters ($750,000) of the Mayor's proposed water fountain capital project back into the general water fund (which I supported)

- A successful motion by CM Schiff to move $319,000 from general Park Board capital funding to the East Phillips Cultural and Community Center (which I supported)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Seward Coop Groundbreaking

For some fun pictures of the very snowy groundbreaking of the new Seward Coop project, see here.

In terms of the time my office has spent and the sheer amount of community interest and time, this project is far and away the major redevelopment of my term thus far. Robin and I met with the Riverside Market Task Force for months last year and this year, worked for still more months on various site plan issues (especially the now-infamous "T" alley), and enthusiastically supported the multiple strands of City funding that have gone into the project.

It was good to come together and celebrate embarking on this project's next phase with other people who care about it, including Coop staff and board members, neighbors, City staff (including CPED Director Mike Christensen), Seward Redesign staff and board members and others. I look forward to the next ceremony on this site to celebrate its grand opening.

Bisphenol-A and Phthalates

The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has contacted my office, along with the Mayor's office, asking the City to ban children's products containing Bisphenol-A and certain phthalates, as San Francisco has done, in order to build momentum for possible future statewide and nationwide bans. My office has also received constituent correspondence on this matter. San Francisco took a similar action in 2006, California recently banned some phthalates in children's toys, and the European Union has banned three phthalates in toys and child-care products since 2005.

There is a range of options the City could pursue towards the long term goal of eliminating these toxins from the environment, including, but not limited to: passing a resolution against these toxins, calling for the legislature to ban them and retailers to voluntarily phase them out; banning these toxins in certain products; banning these toxins in certain products pending statewide action or at some point in the future; requiring labeling of products containing these toxins. It almost goes without saying, but for legal and practical reasons, the City's capacity to enact a full ban may well be limited.

I, along with Health, Energy and Environment Committee Chair, Scott Benson, have asked the Citizen's Environmental Advisory Committee and Public Health Advisory Committee to provide us with input on these options and the broader issues surrounding these chemicals.

For more information on this campaign and the chemicals in question, please see the following resources:

MPIRG "Detox MN" campaign homepage.

MPIRG Fact Sheet.

Harper's article 'Toxic Inaction.'

Alaska Community Action on Toxics fact sheet on Bisphenol-A and phthalates.
USA Today article 'Everywhere chemicals in plastics alarm parents.'
Time Magazine article 'What's Toxic in Toyland.'
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics.

San Francisco ordinance.

Dangerous Animals

Prompted by some high-profile dog bite incidents and an impression that a certain sort of people are increasingly "weaponizing" dogs and using them as tools for intimidation, mostly on the Northside, City staff and Council Members Samuels, Hofstede and Johnson have proposed a new ordinance that would severely crack down on dog owners in Minneapolis.

Among their proposed changes:

1) Rather than simply fining owners who are found to have unlicensed pets (both dogs and cats), Animal Care and Control (ACC) staff would be empowered to impound unlicensed pets.

2) Pets (both dogs and cats) could be declared "potentially dangerous" for doing any of the following: causing a person to take a "defensive action," offering a "physical threat" or having a "known propensity or tendency" to be dangerous. If a cat hisses at someone, it could be a potentially dangerous animal. If a campaign volunteer runs out of a fenced yard when a dog runs around the house, it could be a potentially dangerous animal. If there are widespread rumors that a dog is dangerous that are believed by ACC staff, it could be a potentially dangerous animal.

3) If an owner posesses items that could be used to train a dog to fight (not defined anywhere in the ordinance, therefore up to ACC staff's interpretation) the dog is immediately declared dangerous, not just potentially dangerous.

4) In order to own animals declared dangerous, someone would have to maintain a $300,000 insurance policy, creating a de facto "means test" for dangerous animal ownership.

5) A convicted felon would be disallowed from having certain kinds of dogs (weighing more than 20 pounds, for instance).

6) The measures for which dogs felons would be able to own would include subjective and untestable items such as "tolerance for pain, "tendency to refuse to terminate an attack," "propensity to bite," "potential for unpredictable behavior" and "aggressiveness." Staff would be empowered to rule on these matters (which, coincidentally, sound quite a bit like a 'breed ban.' On what information other than breed could staff possibly make these judgment calls?)

Taken together, these proposals would give staff latitude and flexibility to declare dangerous or potentially dangerous basically any animal about which there is a complaint. I fear that this will inevitably lead to a radical increase in the number of animals "destroyed" (a polite euphemism for "killed").

Again, my colleagues are both explicitly and implicitly empowering and asking staff to seletively enforce vaguely written and non-specific ordinances. I believe that staff clearly understand that the full force of these rules is not to be used in Seward or around lake Calhoun, where there is not political will for these sorts of draconian measures. For example, my office has worked on several instances of animals improperly declared potentially dangerous (even under the current 'weak' rules!), succeeding in getting these declarations overturned. We have never yet advocated on constituents' behalf that a certain animal be declared dangerous. Why would ACC staff waste their time taking enforcement actions that will be appealed and likely overturned?

At yesterday's Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee, I moved to change or delete all six of the above. I failed to change the committee's mind on point one, but succeeded in softening part five, making it apply only to violent felons and making the prohibition last for only ten years after they complete their sentence. Bizarrely, the original proposal created a stricter prohibition on dog ownership than on handguns. My amendment used the same restrictions for both.

I also proposed a change to the toothless prohibition against ownership of dog "weaponizing" paraphernelia, to make it a misdemeanor.

After a long and confused discussion, the committee put this matter off until January. I will continue to argue that it is an abdication of our responsibility as leaders to write such vague laws that we effectively cede authority for deciding how to define "dangerousness" to staff. I agree with my colleagues that we must do more to protect people from dangerous animals, but I believe that we must narrowly tailor our laws to address behavior that is actually, objectively, and verifiably harmful.

Note that this is exactly the same philosophical stance that led me to oppose the ordinances seeking to criminalize walking in alleys and further criminalize panhandling, and that is inspiring my work to repeal the "lurking" ordinance.

Major Solar Installation

As you can read here, Minneapolis has been selected to receive a $2 million grant to build a 600 kilowatt solar installation on top of our Currie Maintenance Facility. This is bigger than any existing solar project in the upper midwest.

It's a unique and interesting deal, which I hope we can replicate elsewhere. Here's how it works:

Xcel Energy's Renewable Development Fund, which they were required by the Prairie Island agreement to create, will provide $2 million towards this project. The City will lease space on top of our facility to a third-party solar developer. This developer, unlike either Xcel or the City, will have access to federal tax incentives for solar. The City will enter into a power purchase agreement with the solar developer, paying a little more than we do per kilowatt-hour off of the normal Xcel grid.

This will generate a large portion of the demand of the Currie facility, the equivalent of about 80 single-family homes. It also affords us a unique and exciting opportunity, given the purpose of the Currie facility, which is maintenance of the City fleet. The City, especially the Regulatory Services department, is interested in purchasing Plug-In Hybrid vehicles when they become available. Taken together, these two initiatives could allow us to run a significant portion of our fleet on solar power.

The next challenge for us is to find ways to make this sort of development possible without a large external grant.

The last thing I'd like to mention is that this project would not have been possible without the good work of the City's new Energy Manager, Matt Bye. Creating this position in the 2007 budget was one of the most important sustainability measures the City has taken in my time on the Council. I look forward to more great work from Matt, both on increasing our use of renewables and reducing the total amount of energy the City uses.

Monday, December 03, 2007

West Bank Station Meetings

Two important Central Corridor Light Rail West Bank Station Location meetings are coming up in December. The Metropolitan Council has indicated that they will make a final determination about the location of the station early in January. Both these meetings will present plans and gather community input to help influence that decision.

West Bank Community Coalition Land Use Committee
Wednesday, December 12, 6:30pm
at Brian Coyle Community Center


Public Meeting Convened by the Metropolitan Council
and Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon
Monday, December 17 7:00-8:00pm
at Brian Coyle Community Center

Snow Emergency

Minneapolis declared a Snow Emergency yesterday, December 2.

Today (Monday), from 8am-8pm, do not park on the EVEN side of non-Snow Emergency routes, or on EITHER side of parkways until the street is fully plowed.

Tomorrow (Tuesday), 8am-8pm, do not park on the ODD side of non-Snow Emergency routes until the street is fully plowed.

For more information on Snow Emergencies in Minneapolis, go here, or call the Snow Emergency hotline at 612-348-SNOW. Information is also available in Spanish (673-3819), Somali (673-2141), and Hmong (673-2933). You can look up your street to see parking rules here.

For future snow events, you can sign up to receive an email or text message to your cell phone here.

Lastly, folks in the University area can park for free at one of the four U-area SnOasis parking ramps during the first night of a Snow Emergency.