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, August 28, 2009

Park Board Amendment Kept Off Ballot

This morning, I voted against a motion to keep a charter amendment off of the ballot this fall. The amendment, if placed on the ballot and passed by the voters, would have likely given the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board independent taxing authority, contingent on being granted that power by the State Legislature.

I voted against keeping this off of the ballot for a number of reasons, none of them having to do with the merits of the charter amendment itself. As I said this morning, I am not sure that I would vote for this charter amendment if it was on the ballot. More importantly, I am a strong supporter of the agreement, reached by Council Members Benson and Johnson, Mayor Rybak and Park Board President Nordyke, to establish a blue ribbon commission next year to study the relationship between the City and the Park Board. In fact, I had put forward a very similar suggestion earlier this spring calling for further study before any amendments considering the elimination of our elected boards were put before the voters. I would have preferred to have kept the amendment to eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation off the ballot and wish that the Park Board and supportive citizens had not felt they needed to move forward with a charter amendment this year until after such a commission could have been formed and study completed.

However, as some of my colleagues on the other side of this question noted several times, the decision before the Council this morning had nothing to do with the merits of the charter amendment itself. It was both a narrower question about the constitutionality of the amendment, and a broader question about how we respect direct democracy in Minneapolis. My reasons for voting “no” are as follows.

The petitioners followed the process. Minneapolis has an established process for citizens to place charter amendment questions on the ballot by petitioning. The advocates of the Park Board charter amendment followed this process – that is not in dispute. They submitted more than enough signatures. It is my strongly held belief that we, as a City Council, must meet a very, very high bar, both legally and philosophically, to prevent a legally certified petitioned question like this from being placed on the ballot.

The City Attorney did a very good job making the case that we did have the legal authority to not put it on the ballot. However, the fact that we have the power to do something does not mean that we should. My basic position is to always err on the side of respecting the will of voters, who have followed legal, established processes, and not let my own feelings about a given charter amendment rule.

Some of my colleagues questioned the level of knowledge of those who signed the petitions, or the honesty of those who gathered them. In my opinion, this is not relevant and the argument shows disrespect for the voters of Minneapolis, a sort of disrespect that is corrosive to the very idea of democracy.

I disagreed with the City Attorney’s opinion. The first three points of the City Attorney’s opinion are that 1) the amendment is unconstitutional, 2) it is preempted by state law, and 3) it is contrary to state policy. The fourth is that it is essentially a waste of time, because it would only take effect after an affirmative vote of the Legislature enabling it to take effect. In my opinion, the fact that the matter is contingent on legislative action negates the first three concerns. The legislature will not pass something in violation of the constitution. This makes our decision this morning purely about one question: should we place questions on the ballot that would change our Charter dependent on action by another unit of government? The City Attorney and Council majority clearly believes we should not. I disagree.

There were several key examples given by my colleagues to prove their point. One dealt with the medical marijuana charter amendment that came before the Council before I was elected. Again, in that case the Council clearly had the power to keep that question off of the ballot. If I had been on the Council at that time, I likely would have disagreed with the Council majority on that question as well. A group of petitioners followed the rules, gathered enough signatures, and the Council’s belief that it’s inappropriate to put something in our charter that would be dependent on state action is simply not a compelling enough argument. Another key example given was the City of Saint Paul’s decision in 2008 to keep ranked choice voting off the ballot, because they received a very similar City Attorney’s opinion telling them that a) they had the power to keep it off the ballot and b) there were constitutionality questions. I strongly disagreed with this decision by the Saint Paul Council as well, and felt that they overstepped their authority.

One more extremely important point to note is that, according to our City Attorney, absolutely nothing required the Council to keep this question off of the ballot. It was clear to me that we had the clear legal authority to allow this to be placed on the ballot.

We must not base these decisions on our personal positions on the merits of a charter amendment question. There is an established process for the Council to choose to place a question on the ballot because we decide it is a good idea. We followed this process to place ranked choice voting on the ballot. However, there is another process that exists for citizens to place a question on the ballot whether the Council thinks it’s a good idea or not. When responding to these sorts of petitions, we must be extremely careful not to allow our own personal positions on the question to motivate our actions.

For example, I strongly opposed the question that Council Members Ostrow, Remington, and Samuels brought forward earlier this year to abolish the elected Park Board. I would have voted against placing it on the ballot by a majority vote in the Council. However, if they had gathered enough signatures to place a question on the ballot, I would have voted to place it on the ballot.

I am concerned that many of the reasons my colleagues had for voting to keep this question off of the ballot had to do with the merits of the amendment. They think it’s a bad idea. In my opinion, this puts the Council in the unenviable and potentially dangerous position of appearing to have seized upon a convenient legal argument to kill an amendment that we wanted to kill for other, more policy-driven reasons.

There is a disturbing trend towards asking the Legislature, not Minneapolis voters, to make these sorts of governance decisions. Several years ago, I was the only Council Member to vote against asking the Legislature to abolish the Minneapolis Library Board. Similar to my reasoning today, my reasoning then was not based on my opinion that the Board should not be abolished – that wasn’t the question. The main question, for me, was whether these sorts of questions should go to Minneapolis voters, through the charter amendment process, or should be resolved by legislators from places as far away as the Iron Range.

I was also one Council Member to publicly call for a referendum on the imposition of a new sales tax for the Twins Stadium, rather than allowing the Legislature to decide the question without any input from Minneapolis voters.

I strongly believe that questions about Minneapolis governance should go to the voters first. This is what the amendment the Council majority voted to keep off of the ballot would have done. I see a clear pattern of this Council preventing the voters from deciding these sorts of issues, and I find it profoundly antidemocratic.

As I said above, I wish that we had not been in this situation. I wish that Council Members Ostrow, Remington and Samuels had not raised the specter of abolishing the independent Park Board earlier this year. I wish that the Park Board had not responded by gathering signatures to attempt to grant itself fully independent taxing authority.

This year the Council and Park Board have behaved like ships miles apart at sea, lobbing poorly aimed cannonballs towards one another. As we do so we make no progress solving the real problems and issues at hand. In my opinion, very little of what has divided us has been about a constructive vision for the future of our parks; on that question, everyone basically agrees. We want great parks and green spaces. No, the questions that have divided us have been about power: who’s got it, who wants it, who should have it, who can be trusted with it.

We can’t keep on like this.

It is time to call a cease fire. All of us on both sides of this divide need to come together and find a more constructive solution. As the likely lawsuit plays out and the November election concludes (with or without a Board of Estimate and Taxation remaining) I hope that both sides will return to the spirit of the agreement from earlier this year, and form a blue ribbon commission next year to study various options for working better together.

I also strongly hope that the results of this commission’s work, if they include any charter amendments, are then put before the Minneapolis voters, not simply the Legislature, before any changes are implemented. I will fight for this to be the process we follow.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Youth Violence Prevention Work Continues

On September 8, a major initiative started by the City's work on youth violence prevention will begin: the City and the public schools will launch a new youth hotline, 1-800-SPEAK-UP, where youth can report (completely confidentially, via voice or text) weapons possession or potential threats.

We're making good progress on youth violence. We've had only one youth homicide so far this year, of an infant who was killed in July and whose father has been charged in the case.

In general, juvenile violent crime arrests are showing a clear downward trend, even more substantial than the overall drop in crime. Comparing this year to 2007, we see a 30% citywide reduction in violent crime arrests while total violent crime reports for juveniles are down 37% during the same period.

See here for more information.

Service Availability Charges

In late July, I had the opportunity to weigh in on an important but complicated issue that faces small businesses in my ward. It has to do with a seldom-discussed but very expensive fee called the Service Availability Charge. This fee is imposed by the Metropolitan Council (but collected by the City) on new businesses that will generate an increase in sewer waste. It amounts to more than $100 for every new chair a restaurant puts in place.

I believe it's a sensible way to ensure that, as we grow as a region, we continue to fund our sewer infrastructure. However, the Met Council has, within the last few years, begun imposing this fee at its full value to new outdoor seating. This does not make sense to small businesses in my ward, and it doesn't make sense to me. A new seat in an indoor space will be used year-round, in all types of weather. On the other hand, a new outdoor seat will be used only in the warm months of the year, and typically only in non-inclement weather. No one wants to sit in a sidewalk cafe in January, or in a rainstorm. This places an undue burden on new outdoor seating, and that's not in keeping with the City's goals. Sidewalk cafes and outdoor seating areas are good for safety and neighborhood livability, and we'd like to see more of them.

The City raised these concerns, and the Met Council has responded to them. They have put forward a proposal to charge only half of the standard SAC fee for new outdoor seating. This is a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it doesn't go far enough. These seats simply won't be used half as often as indoor seats. At their public meeting, I stood with small businesses and spoke for a reduction to a more reasonable 25% fee. I also spoke against a provision in their proposal that would charge the full fee to any outdoor seating that is in any way physically covered.

We'll see what impact my testimony, along with the statements of elected officials, staff and business owners, has on the Met Council's decision on this.

Tornado Hits Minneapolis

A tornado hit the City last week, damaging some buildings in midtown and downtown, including the convention center. One of the more devastating effects has been the loss of over 250 trees in the public right of way.

I'm proud of the City's response to this incident. Public Works and the Park Board cleared the tree debris to reopen streets and alleys, street and sewer crews checked storm drains and catch-basins to ensure they were clear to prevent potential flooding, the police instituted extra patrols in the area as a preventive measure, Regulatory Services staff went out to ensure that tree companies and contractors were properly licensed and building repairs were being done correctly.

The City has also jumped in to try to mitigate the loss of trees. The CityTrees program earlier this year did not sell all 1,000 trees, leaving some excess capacity. The City has decided to make these trees available (for $25) to only those residents in the blow-down area. It will be some time before the new boulevard trees that the Park Board plans to plant and these City-supported trees on private land can match the canopy of the 250 mature trees we lost, but it's a step in the right direction.

Central Corridor Making Tracks

The Central Corridor light rail project is making significant progress. Last week, the Federal Transit Administration handed down a positive "Record of Decision" on the project's Final Draft Environmental Impact Statement. This is the first time that the federal government has made a formal commitment to fund the project. It's a major step forward.

Then, yesterday, the Central Corridor Management Committee received a “Letter of No Prejudice” from the FTA. Together with last week’s Record of Decision, this allows utility construction to begin shortly.

The last piece of positive news is that the CCMC has approved an Agreement in Principle on how to allocate additional funds under a newly increased Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI). This allows an additional station in St. Paul, which is great news. It will also fund some streetscape improvements in Minneapolis.

Negotiations are ongoing between the University and the project (with the City and the County acting as supportive partners) about the project's effects on the U's research labs. From what I hear, I'm hopeful that these negotiations will be successful, meeting the U's need to minimize disruption to their labs and the project's financial and operational constraints.

I'm extremely excited to see the Central Corridor moving forward. It's a major advance towards a more transit-centered metro region, where people can (and choose to) get to their jobs and meet their other daily needs without driving. This will not only be good for people's quality of life, but for the environment.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Our New Sister City: Najaf

On Friday, the Council decided to establish a sister city relationship with Najaf, Iraq, our first sister city in the Middle East. This is something I've been working on for the past few months, and I'm happy to see it come to fruition.

There are many good reasons to take this step. Here are just a few.

We have engaged and enthusiastic partners in a group called the Iraq and American Reconciliation Project (IARP). This nonprofit organization consists of retired teachers, University faculty, and other professionals, and has been independently functioning for two years. It's already doing much of what would be expected from a sister city relationship, including academic, educational, business and cultural exchanges.

Najaf’s City Council has already indicated their interest in formalizing this ongoing relationship. A group of people from Najaf will be visiting Minneapolis this September.

It won't increase any costs to the City. In fact, we anticipate that this relationship could bring more revenue to the City, by partnering with the Sister Cities International (SCI) Muslim World Partnership Initiative. This could help us receive grants from SCI that would not be available to us otherwise.

There's already a relationship between the U of M and Kufa University in Najaf, offering some interesting bioscience opportunities. Given Najaf’s prominence in the Muslim world, this could be a major inroad to the Mideast for large and small bioscience businesses in Minneapolis.

Lastly, I think it's important to take this step because we (as US citizens) have a special responsibility to the people of Iraq. Our tax dollars paid for the war that has resulted in the deaths of at least one hundred thousand Iraqis, and perhaps as many as one million. Urban populations in this country, including Minneapolis, were the reserve of anti-war sentiment during the rush to war, and building a positive, constructive relationship between urban dwellers here and urban dwellers there could do quite lot to put our overall national interactions on a healthier path.

I'm thankful to CM Hodges for all of her work, with me, on making this happen.