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:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Senser Charged in Hit-and-Run

Amy Senser has been charged with a felony in the hit-and-run that left True Thai chef "Ped" Phanthavong dead. I am glad to see charges brought. It is absolutely unacceptable to leave the scene of an accident, any accident, much less one involving a pedestrian. It is entirely possible, given the close proximity of Fairview Hospital, that Ms. Senser’s decision to flee contributed to Mr. Phanthavong’s death. My heart goes out to Ped’s family and friends at True Thai.

Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong

There is a heartfelt editorial in the Star Tribune about the recent hit-and-run on the off-ramp from I-94 to Riverside, written by one of the co-owners of True Thai restaurant.  She praises and shares some of her eulogy for the victim, "Ped" Phanthavong.

I realize that this must be a difficult time for the Senser family.  But the Ped and his family have suffered even more.  It is simply unconscionable to flee the scene of an accident, especially one in which someone may have been seriously hurt or killed.  I hope that the Sensers will attempt, in some way, to make amends.

Mahdi Hassan Ali Found Guilty

Mahdi Hassan Ali, the person most responsible for the triple slaying in Seward in January of last year, has been found guilty.  I hope that this gives the families of the victims some peace. I will continue to work on youth violence prevention policies and programs, to try to keep tragedies like this from occurring in the future.

Apparently, this young man wanted to get his car out of the impound lot, and his terrible decisions have ensured that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, in addition to ending three innocent lives. We must find a way, as a society, to intervene in the lives of young people before they come to believe that violence is a legitimate way to solve their problems.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Improvements to 15th Ave SE Bike Lanes

Yesterday, the City unveiled major improvements to the bike lanes on 15th Avenue Southeast.  The "conflict zones," where cars and trucks making turns cross the path of bicyclists going straight, are now colored green approaching the intersections with University Ave, 4th St, and 5th St.  At University and at 4th, the green coloration goes all the way through the intersection.  Most of the twin cities media covered the event: Fox 9, KARE 11, KSTP, WCCO (twice), the Daily, and the Star Tribune.

This installation merited a public event for two main reasons.  The first is that the intersection of 15th and 4th is where University student Audrey Hull was hit and killed by a truck earlier this year.  The additional attention to these intersections is in part a response to that tragedy.

Second, this installation is innovative in a number of ways.  While Minneapolis has experimented with green bike lanes in a few locations, this treatment is still rather uncommon.  This is also the first time we've used colored thermoplastic rather than latex paint.  That's important because the thermoplastic is supposed to last quite a lot longer than paint, reducing maintenance costs.  If the material works as intended in this location, I predict we'll be able to colorize more of these conflict zones around the city.  Lastly, but most importantly, this is the first time we've continued a colorized bike lane all the way through an intersection.  That is done in a few other bike-friendly US cities, and is quite common in European cities with high bike mode shares, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Even without the tragedy earlier this year, 15th would be the ideal place to try out these improvements.  According to the City's bike counts, 15th carries more than 3,500 bicyclists on an average day.  That equates to a greater than 12% mode share, meaning that one in every eight vehicles on 15th is a bicycle.  That's the largest number of people on any street in Minneapolis, and rivals many of our off-street trails.  We don't have data on facilities outside the city, but I believe it's a safe assertion that 15th serves more bicyclists than any other street in Minnesota.

I want to specifically thank the person who did the most to make this happen: Steve Mosing, with the City of Minneapolis Public Works department.  Steve made contact with the manufacturers of the thermoplastic material and received a very good price for this installation - they gave the City a break on the cost so that we can try the material out, in hopes that we will purchase more in the future.  He worked to identify funding within the Traffic and Parking Services department's budget.  Steve saw a problem that he could do something about, and worked to resolve it.  On behalf of the people of Ward 2 and the bicyclists in Minneapolis: thank you, Steve.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Life Time Fitness to Extend Benefits to Same-Sex Partners

Today, I received an email from Fire Department staff indicating that Life Time Fitness, the company that holds a City contract for health club memberships for Police and Fire staff, has reversed itself and will now cover domestic partners, both same-sex and opposite-sex, in their benefits program.

I can't help but think this is, at least in part, a reaction to the difficulty that the Council had back in April in waiving our Domestic Partnership ordinance to continue to do business with Life Time.  Here's what I wrote back then:
Waiver of Domestic Partnership Ordinance. I voted against granting a waiver of the City’s domestic partner ordinance to Life Time Fitness. This ordinance requires City contractors to provide the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners that they provide to married employees. Life Time Fitness does not provide these benefits. The City’s current contract with our Police and Fire unions obligates the City to provide health club memberships to these employees, and Life Time is the clear favorite of many. However, I believe that in order for our ordinances offering equal rights to all to have any meaning, we must actually use them. I fear that the Council’s decision to grant this waiver will set a precedent that no contractor should worry about losing the City’s business for not providing the domestic partnership benefits we’ve mandated by ordinance. This situation was especially problematic, because it became clear that one of Life Time’s competitors – the YMCA – does provide domestic partnership benefits. Joining me in voting to uphold our domestic partner ordinance were Council Members Schiff, Lilligren and Tuthill.
This goes to show that sometimes even losing votes can make significant, positive changes.  Congratulations to the GLBT Life Time Fitness employees who now share in the standard benefits provided to everyone else.

Commercial Recycling Ordinance Goes into Effect

The commercial recycling ordinance I authored that passed the Council unanimously back in June is going into effect.  Read more here.

My office has been working with staff in several City departments - Regulatory Services, which oversees the commercial building inspection program, Communications, Sustainability and others - to make the ordinance's roll-out as smooth as possible.  There is a page for the City website under construction, and resources for both our inspectors and the affected property owners.

Here's the City's news release on the ordinance going into effect.

Managed Natural Landscape Ordinance Passes

The Managed Natural Landscape or "tall grass" ordinance I authored passed the Council unanimously this morning.

This action represents the City's formal rules catching up with both the current best practices of our staff and the evolving aesthetics around yards in Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Prairie plantings, whether native or not, have a number of real advantages over standard turf grass lawns.  They have deeper roots, which means they more effectively wick storm water into the ground, helping the City's goal of decreasing storm water quantity and improving storm water quality.  They typically require fewer artificial inputs, such as pesticide, fertilizer, and the energy required to mow.  They sequester more atmospheric carbon, and create more biodiversity and habitat for beneficial species like monarch butterflies.

Many purposeful prairie plantings already exist in Minneapolis.  As of today, they have legal standing.  Our inspections staff have been very responsive to natural landscapes, allowing residents to cultivate them even without the official imprimatur of our ordinances.  I believe that today's action will help them communicate with people who have prairie plantings and people who complain about them.  It makes clear to staff that the Council strongly supports allowing residents to cultivate well-managed prairie plantings.  I expect this to drive some process improvements within housing inspections, including additional training for all inspectors on the differences between managed natural landscapes and turf grass lawns that are not being maintained.

I have two main hopes for the impact that this ordinance will have.  The first is that there will be fewer of the incidents that have unfortunately happened about once per year since I took office in 2006, in which the City has mowed the purposeful planting of a Second Ward resident.

The second hope is that more Minneapolis residents will change part or all of their yards to managed natural landscapes, for all of the environmental benefits above - and the additional aesthetic benefit that beautiful prairie grasses, flowers and other plants bring.

Monday, September 12, 2011


As you can read here, there is a move afoot to improve the Pedicab ordinance in Minneapolis. A public hearing on this proposed ordinance will be held on September 12th, at the Regulatory Energy and Environment committee.

The last such tweak was just a few years ago. It's a great example of how a change in the rules can make it possible for a new type of business to flourish - that last ordinance revision sparked an explosion of pedicabs in Minneapolis, especially in downtown.

There are a few changes being requested both by City regulatory staff and by pedicab owners and operators, including making operators (rather than owners) responsible for traffic code violations, improving the safety requirements for the pedicabs themselves, and more.

To my mind, however, the most important ask from the pedicab owners and operators is for the City to lift the prohibition on pedicabs in downtown during rush hour. The Minnneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee has formally supported this idea, for a number of reasons. Some quotes from their letter to Council Members:

"The BAC’s position is that pedicabs should be subject to the same basic rules of the road as ordinary bicycles. The City is currently in the extraordinary position of holding pedicabs to a different and more stringent standard than both bicycles and taxicabs. All of the concerns we heard expressed by Licensing staff – the impact of slow-moving pedicabs on congestion during peak periods and concerns about the safety of pedicab operators and customers – can equally apply to standard bicyclists.

While both of these concerns are legitimate, on reflection neither is particularly compelling. In terms of congestion, we would note that tricycles, bike trailers, and other human-powered vehicles larger than the standard bicycle are allowed in downtown at any time, as are the City-sponsored Nice Ride bicycles that tend to be ridden more slowly than a standard bicycle. The safety concern is similarly unpersuasive, as bicyclists are and should be allowed on even the busiest of downtown streets during rush hour. We would argue that, because the speed differential between pedicabs and other traffic is lower during peak periods, both concerns are if anything less striking during rush hour than during the rest of the day, and much less than during some periods, like bar close, when we currently allow pedicabs.

Our position is not just based on doubts about the above concerns, but the many benefits we believe that allowing pedicabs in downtown during peak hours could bring. Downtown is a tourist destination, and the peak hours (also often known as “happy hours”) are not exempt. We view pedicabs as a tourism amenity, benefitting from and building Minneapolis’ reputation as the premier bicycle city in the US. The number of riders available during peak hours could allow pedicab operators to be more successful, expanding and professionalizing their services. And the data show that the more bicycles on the street for whatever reason – commuters, recreational riders, pedicabs, and others – the more drivers are aware of our presence and the safer each individual rider tends to be."

Friday, September 02, 2011

Minneapolis Food Policy Council

This morning, the Council unanimously voted to create Minneapolis's first Food Policy Council.

This was one of the key recommendations from the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, all the way back to the first phase, in which we went out and heard from the community about their ideas for how the City could help the local food movement.

This Food Policy Council will carry on the City's work on those of the other recommendations from Homegrown Minneapolis that have not been completed as part of Phase II.  In addition, it will be in place to advise the Council and Mayor on other food-related issues - trans fats, calorie labeling, etc.

I am very pleased that the Council has taken this action, especially with such a strong show of support.  I look forward to working with the Mayor and others on finding the right people to serve on the first 'class' of this group.

I want to thank the fantastic staff for the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, June Mathiowetz, for all of her work on this.  I also want to thank Julie Ristau, one of the original inspirations for the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, for her hours and hours of work on this, including research into best practices from other cities' food policy councils and community conversations about how a food policy council should be structured.

This is a great step forward for local food in Minneapolis.

2011 Budget, Firefighters, and the Bicycle Pedestrian Coordinator

This was an exciting, difficult morning and early afternoon in Council chambers.

The top-line actions:
  • The Council failed to override the Mayor's veto, on the same 8-5 vote as the original motion.
  • We voted for a compromise motion put together by the Mayor and Council Members Hodges, Samuels, and Goodman, that saved four firefighters through 2012.
  • We voted not to take away the funding for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator.  I strongly opposed the attempt to take this funding, for the reasons you can read here.  I should note that I also heard loud and clear from the bicycle community that there is strong support for this position.  Within less than twenty-four hours, my office heard from over two dozen bicyclists and pedestrians in support of this position.  This is a testament to the good organizing of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition,  The final vote was extremely lopsided: all of my colleagues ended up joining me in supporting the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator but Council Members Barb Johnson and Sandy Colvin Roy.  This
  • The Council voted to transfer funds from unfilled positions in both Communications and Health and Family Support.  I voted against both of these motions, which passed on very close 7-6 margins.  A third motion to take funding from the Assessor's office for an unfilled position failed 8-5.  These votes ensured that 6 of the 10 laid off firefighters will be hired back.
  • The Council voted not to dip further into our contingency fund to keep the rest of the positions.
There is reason to be optimistic that many of the laid off firefighters will be rehired, due to changes in the pension program that will incentivize several firefighters (some sources have pegged the number at around 7) to retire.

Even if these laid-off firefighters are able to get back on the job, there will still be questions about the standard of coverage.  I look forward to the results from the consultant's work on how we can best manage the Fire Department's resources to maximize the level of coverage, during this time of fiscal duress.  In my opinion, our discussions about fire staffing have been placed in artificial constraints.  I take the firefighters union at their word that their primary interest is public safety, and hope that they are willing to entertain new ideas about work schedules and more.

The most important thing to keep in mind throughout this discussion, however, is that the Local Government Aid system at the state level is completely broken.  If the State cannot be trusted to return the property taxes that they take from us according to their own established formula, they should stop taking our property taxes at all.