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: http://secondward.blogspot.com/2006/05/disclaimer.html#links

Friday, November 30, 2007

No-Heat/Low-Heat

A newly-formed tenants union under the auspices of Children and Family Services has brought a problem to my attention, and I have been working with my colleague Ralph Remington to address it.

Under the City's current ordinances and policies, certain unscrupulous landlords have been allowed to get away with not providing adequate heat for their tenants, especially in autumn.

The current ordinance is a convoluted mess. It requires that landlords begin providing heat when the temperature stays below 60 degrees for 24 hours or more. At this point, a 72-hour clock starts, at the end of which landlords face a small fine of $200 and risk having their property condemned. However, if the temperature goes above 60 degrees during that 72-hour period, the clock restarts. Landlords who wish to save money by not providing heat have learned how to play this game with the City, leaving their tenants cold for much of October.

Ralph and I have already succeeded in convincing staff to change their administrative citation policies to begin giving fines to property owners after a building is inadequately heated for 24 hours (down from the current 72). The timeline for condemnation is still 72 hours, however, to prevent unnecessary evictions. This policy also allows scrupulous landlords with major heating system repairs on their hands to avoid fines by providing a UL-certified electric heat source to each unit while the heating system is being fixed.

In addition, we are proposing a change to the ordinance that would require landlords to provide heat based on a simple date range of September 21 through May 1, rather than the complicated temperature formula in existing ordinance. I expect this change to come forward early next year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Auto Theft Impound Fund

One of the concerns my office has heard from victims of auto theft is that when the auto is found and towed to the City's Impound Lot, the victim must pay the towing and storage fees. This understandably places an even greater burden on folks who have been victimized by criminals.

I'm happy to announce that the Council on Crime and Justice is one of ten recipients of the Auto Theft Impound Fund, established by the Minnesota legislature in 2007. The purpose of the fund is to provide auto theft victims assistance with towing and storage fees incurred due to impoundment of a recovered stolen vehicle in Minnesota.

In order for a victim to receive funding they must have simply filed a police report and have had insurance on the vehicle at the time it was stolen.

To apply for funding, auto theft victims can call the CCJ hotline at 612-340-5400 between the hours of 8am and 4pm, Monday through Friday.

For more information, you can call the above number or the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office at 612-673-3549.

Monday, November 26, 2007

School election reform and the "Davnie Bill"

I encourage Minneapolis residents to consider supporting a school board election reform proposal (known as the “Davnie Bill”) that will be coming to the School Board next month and possibly, if they do not approve it, to the voters in 2008.

I believe that this proposal offers us a way to improve representation, help hold elected officials accountable and make them more responsive, simplify our government structure, improve possible collaboration between jurisdictions and open up the system to political diversity.

If enacted, it would change the School Board from the current 7 at large seats to 9 seats voted in by 3 at large seats and 6 district seats. Those six districts would mirror the Park Board districts (although district lines could be redrawn after 2010). The enabling legislation states that the School Board can implement this law or let it go to on the 2008 election ballot. The School Board is scheduled to vote on this issue during their December 11 meeting.

Arsenic Biomonitoring

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is proposing a "biomonitoring" pilot project in the South Minneapolis Arsenic Contamination Site. Biomonitoring basically means measuring the amount of a chemical in people's bodies to determine how much exposure to that chemical they have had. It's a good way to determine exposure to a chemical because it indicates the amount of the chemical that actaually gets into people, rather than the amount that could potentially get into them.

By statute, the scope of the pilot project is to measure arsenic levels in 100 people. MDH is proposing to measure arsenic in children, as they are most likely to be affected by arsenic exposure. Children will be selected by MDH based on eligibility criteria and invited to participate in the pilot project. With their caregivers’ informed consent, these children will be asked to provide a sample (such as urine or hair) so that the level of arsenic in their bodies can be measured. The measurements will probably occur in the summer of 2008.

Individuals who participate in the biomonitoring project will find out what level of arsenic is currently in their body. Caregivers of children who have elevated arsenic levels will be advised to consult a health care provider and will be given information to help them determine all of the ways children might be exposed to arsenic and to take steps to reduce the exposure in the future.

When MDH combines all of the individual participants’ results, they will be able to determine whether the community as a whole has elevated levels of arsenic compared to a published reference value.

They are still in the development stages of the project, and are planning to present their preliminary proposal for the project at a community meeting on Thursday, December 6, at 7pm at the Midtown YWCA at 2121 E Lake St.

For more information about this project, please contact Michonne Bertrand at the Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-3661. To learn more about the Environmental Health Tracking and Biomonitoring Program at the Minnesota Department of Health, visit www.heatlh.state.mn.us/divs/eh/tracking.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Administrative Review

I am starting work on an amendment to the Administrative Review process for new housing under four units.

The current process features a list of 24 design standards of quality housing, and requires builders to get at least 15 points. It has quite a bit of support on the Council and among Planning staff, because it significantly streamlines review of the most common, and usually least controversial structures in our communities: new single family homes and duplexes.

However, some neighborhoods, especially those with substantial student populations, object to the type of single family home construction going on. In these neighborhoods, there are some well-documented examples of very large houses with inadequate numbers of windows, incomplete porches and other structures, clearly built as cheaply as possible to extract maximum profit from student renters.

The Administrative Review process does not include any opportunity for formal comment by neighborhood groups. The downside to the efficiency of the process is that significant concerns of surrounding residents are not being taken into consideration.

The Administrative Review process is here to stay, but I think there are ways that it could better serve neighborhoods. I am currently exploring the following options for reforming it:

  1. Using the same 24 design standards, but increasing the number of points necessary for approval
  2. Reviewing, expanding and raising the standards, with community input, to help limit construction of some of the most objectionable houses from being built
  3. Adding a new design standard for formal community review, and increasing the points required for approval by the same amount that this design standard would be worth
  4. Creating a bifurcated process by which certain ‘gold standard’ projects (for example, those that get over 20 of 24 points) do not require neighborhood review and approval, but houses in the ‘acceptable’ range (15-20, for instance) must obtain formal approval from the appropriate neighborhood group

I will be working with staff and my colleagues to find an option that seems workable, with the goal of introducing this item by early next year.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Morningstar Coffee Appeal

On November 6, Morningstar Coffee appealed four different administrative citations issued by Minneapolis Environmental Management: two $400 fines issued in August and fines worth $800 and $1,600 in September and October.

Environmental Management Supervisor Dan Huff and Inspector Anne Stahn did a great job of laying out facts and complaints underlying the citations. Jose Vido, owner of Morningstar, presented three main arguments against the fines: 1) he was not given enough time to come into compliance, 2) the odor is not that bad, and not very many people are bothered by it and 3) the neighborhood is interested in redeveloping the piece of land on which his business sits as part of the Bystrom Brothers site. I also spoke, to share the breadth and intensity of concern among residents of west Seward about the negative impacts Morningstar has created, and to rebut Mr. Vido's three defenses. Staff pointed out that the violation orders were written in January of 2007, giving the company more than 6 months to comply before the first fines were written.

The Hearing Officer has returned his decision, which is mixed. First, he found for the City on the factual basis of the citations - Dan and Anne convincingly made the case that the fines were appropriate. Morningstar is required to pay the two $400 fines from August within 30 days.

However, the $800 and $1,600 fines from September and October have been waived, with the following caveats:

1. Morningstar will have to pay both fines (for a total of $2,400) if not in full compliance (afterburner fully operational and no odor) within 60 days.

2. The $1,600 citation will come back into effect if Morningstar receives another odor violation within a year.

Our office and Environmental Management staff are disappointed by the 60 days given by the Hearing Officer for Morningstar to come into compliance. In my opinion, Mr. Vido neither needs nor deserves more time to come into compliance, and I fear that he will use this extra time to continue to degrade quality of life in west Seward until early next year.

On the other hand, I believe that the Hearing Officer's decision to leave the $1,600 citation dangling over the company for the next year will help the community hold it accountable. I have confirmed with Dan Huff that the next fine his department writes to Morningstar will be worth $2,000. Those two fines taken together will provide a sizeable financial incentive of $3,600 for Mr. Vido to use the afterburner for every roast, once it is fully operational.

Lastly, I'd like to give the following update on the company's progress on installing the afterburner. It is fully installed and is connected to gas lines. The gas meter is undersized, and must be replaced by Centerpoint Energy in order for the afterburner to burn hot enough to work properly. City staff have confirmed that Centerpoint is aware that this work must be done, and are scheduled to visit Morningstar within the next few weeks.

Our office will continue to keep the pressure on this company to do the right thing and be a good neighbor. Continued attention from the community will be essential to hold Mr. Vido accountable next year.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Youth Violence Prevention Plan Comes to Committee

The work started with the resolution recognizing youth violence as a public health problem that I introduced last November is approaching completion. The resolution called for the creation of a 30-member Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee to develop a comprehensive plan to address youth violence. The group, made up of City, County and community experts, has drafted an impressive a multi-year approach, coordinating education, outreach, funding and policy across the City and County.

First, I want to let you know I am very proud of all the work we have done so far and very excited about seeing our plan moved forward for approval and implementation.

But, I am writing primarily to let you know that we have decided to bring the Violence Prevention Plan into the Council Process a little sooner then expected. There will be a report to the Health Energy and Environment Committee on Monday. I apologize for this short notice, but during discussion with the chair of the committee, Scott Benson, it became clear that in order for us to have a public hearing and get the full Council to approve the plan by the end of the year we had to get this into the Council process quickly.

So, on Monday November 5th a draft of that plan will come before the Health Energy and Environment Committee at 1:30 pm in City Hall. The Mayor and Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant will present to the committee members the most current draft of the report. The action I intend to “move” includes three things:

1) To receive and file the draft report,

2) To set a Public Hearing on The Plan for December 10th at 1:30 pm,

3) To create a new full time city position dedicated to implementing the recommendations with the hiring contingent on Council approved funding in the 2008 budget (as proposed by the Mayor).

I hope people will pay attention to the draft report presentation this Monday. It is not yet posted on the web, but should be then. I would be interested in learning what people think. Also, if this is an issue you care about, coming and speaking on the 10th at the public hearing may even be more helpful.

If all goes well, I expect we will also have at least one evening community meeting to present the plan. I am not sure if this will be an official “public hearing” of the committee or not.

This has been one of my top priorities throughout the year and, again, I must stress how proud, honored and grateful I am to have been a part of this.

It is only a beginning, but I think it will be a good and powerful next step to help reduce the tenacious and tragic problems of youth violence in Minneapolis.
For more information see http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/communications/YouthViolencePrevention_home.asp

National Night Out - We're Number One

The National Association of Town Watch gave Minneapolis its “National Night Out 2007 Award” for cities with a population greater than 300,000.

This summer, more people than ever participated in NNO events. 62,000 Minneapolis residents gathered at more than 1,117 confirmed NNO celebrations citywide. I’m proud of the work done by the Second Ward Interns along with block leaders to help organize additional NNO parties throughout the Second Ward. I strongly believe that the relationships created and strengthened by events like NNO are among our best crime prevention tools.

Internal Affairs Audit

One of the recommendations of the Civilian Review Authority Work Group I helped form and lead last year was that the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) conduct an external audit of the City's other organization charged with holding police officers accountable: the Internal Affairs Unit.

Earlier this year, the MPD came to Council with a proposal to give a no-bid contract to the Everett Law Firm from Buffalo, MN. The reasoning at that time was that Everett had a good working relationship with the MPD from past collaborations and Everett understands the Minnesota

Driven by objections that I raised, along with Council Members Glidden, Hodges, Schiff, and Remington, the Council rejected that proposal. We frown on no-bid contracts, and the closeness of the two organizations called into question the extent to which Everett could conduct a meaningful external audit of the IAU. The Council directed the MPD to put out a Request for Proposals and go through the formal process.

Today, the MPD received approval from the Council to enter into a contract with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group based out of Washington, DC with a national and even international reputation in police policy work. Note that this is a different contractor than MPD was poised to hire in April.

I consider this a very positive development, given PERF’s national stature and track record and clear independence from MPD. I am hopeful that this audit will help us improve police practices in the future.

I-35W bridge rebuilding update

Construction has begun on the replacement I-35W bridge. Workers will be demolishing concrete and drilling test shafts Monday through Saturday, 7am-4:30am. Pile driving will begin on November 5, but due to the noise of this work, it will only occur between 7am and 5:30pm.