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:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vikings Stadium

I want to make abundantly clear that I do not support any of the current public funding schemes for a Vikings stadium. As you may recall, I did not support publicly funding the new Twins stadium either, and was the only Council Member to call on the County to let Minneapolis residents vote on the new taxes that paid for it.  I do not, in general, support devoting public funds to private stadiums.

Stadiums are not effective ways to create jobs or economic development. They are not good long term investments - just look at the continuing drag the Target Center places on the City. They are not good ways to improve underdeveloped parts of our city - just look at the sea of surface parking lots surrounding the Metrodome.

In addition, there are a lot of specifics to dislike in the most recent proposal from the Mayor and Council President, now being branded as the "People's Stadium."

Sales taxes are regressive, arguably as regressive as property taxes.  The proposed citywide sales tax presents another problem, because many small businesses - including many in the Second Ward - will have to bear the costs and competitive disadvantage, while gaining no conceivable benefit.  Will a stadium downtown help El Norteno restaurant on Lake Street, the Birchwood Cafe in Seward, the Cupcake Cafe in Prospect Park or Muddsuckers in Southeast Como?  No, I don't believe so.  So why should we make them pay for it?

If the stadium is to be considered an asset - which is a stretch, from my perspective - it is a statewide asset, and the costs should be borne by the state.  If it is to be considered a driver of local business development - an even more questionable assertion - then the costs should be borne by those who might conceivably benefit, like the downtown zone.  Either way, a citywide tax makes no sense.  To echo my colleague Betsy Hodges, the City is already contributing more than our fair share to the state's budget, through the broken Local Government Aid program.  Why would we voluntarily worsen this already-bad situation?

I am also concerned about the casino proposal that has been tied to the stadium deal.  It's part of Block E, a massively taxpayer-subsidized development that has never lived up to the expectations and promises of its backers.  Why should we assume that it will magically start over performing?  What happens if the Block E part of this deal does not end up paying in as much as expected?

I want to reiterate the sentiments that I shared with the Star Tribune: if there's an openness to new revenues, there are 50 things I'd rather fund than a new football stadium.  We are laying off essential City staff.  A significant number of the staff who have done the real work to move forward the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative - one of the Mayor's top public policy priorities - face layoffs, potentially limiting the amount of progress we can make in the next few years.  We're laying off firefighters.  We might be pulling back from support for necessary and valuable programs like Restorative Justice and the Domestic Abuse Project (the Mayor's proposed budget zeroes out both programs).  The Police Department's Crime Prevention Specialists - a real commitment the City currently has to community policing - are at risk.  Our efforts to fight homelessness are being completely swamped by the need generated by the Great Recession.

This is the true "People's" work - the essential services being provided by the City every day.  A stadium for a privately-owned football team is not, no matter how loudly its advocates proclaim it to be.  At a time like this, if there's an appetite for taxing our residents more, isn't it painfully obvious that there are higher priorities for our tax dollars?

Then there's the anti-democratic process that seems to be underway.  There's language in our City's charter that prohibits public subsidy of this magnitude without an affirmative vote by residents of Minneapolis.  Stadium supporters justifiably worry that they wouldn't win that vote, because it seems likely that the people of Minneapolis won't support giving public dollars to private stadiums even if we did have an open and healthy campaign debate about it.  It is both unwise and unfair to try to get around this legal mandate for a vote.  And, worse, prominent stadium supporters at the State level are calling the referendum process a "game."

Lastly, I am very disturbed by the indication from the Governor that he is open to using any portion of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy funds for this stadium.  That is not what Minnesota voters supported.  The Legacy amendment is for investments in the environment, arts and history.  It's not for sports teams and stadiums.  An attempt to cynically rebrand the Vikings as a "cultural" asset, rather than an entertainment provider, can only harm the Legacy fund in the long run - in addition to misusing yet more funds that could be better spent on other, higher purposes (as the voters intended).

I hope that no one is counting on my vote for any component of this plan, whether the sales tax or the casino.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy MN Resolution

I strongly supported a resolution authored by Council Member Betsy Hodges this morning, supporting "Peaceable Calls for Reforms to the Income Tax, Financial, and Electoral Systems."  This puts the Council on record standing with the Occupy MN protests, the local outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street protest.

This was not adopted without some controversy.  Council Member Colvin Roy attempted to delete the "whereas" clause calling out the negative impacts of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, and her motion failed on an extremely narrow 6-5 vote.  Joining me in voting against CM Colvin Roy's amendment: CMs Hodges, Glidden, Lilligren, Schiff and Quincy.  Voting to strip the Citizen's United clause: CMs Colvin Roy, Goodman, Hofstede, Reich and Tuthill.

The arguments against this clause, and against the resolution as a whole, were completely uncompelling.  The Council shouldn't weigh in on Supreme Court cases?  Why on earth not, if they are objectionable and have negative impacts on Minneapolis residents?  Citizen's United doesn't have an impact on local elections?  Of course it does - outside groups are now able to spend an unlimited amount of money to influence Mayor and Council races.  The Council shouldn't weigh in on federal issues?  But we do that all the time: we have a federal legislative agenda.  And there is clearly a local-specific issue at hand: the ongoing protest right outside City Hall.

As importantly, this helps push back against attempts to criticize the Occupy protests, including the recent questionable decision by the MPD to issue a press release stating the "costs" of the protests.  The MPD response so far has been far better than, for example, our handling of protests connected to the Republican National Convention, but it's not clear to me that we need as many officers tasked to the protest as I see in Government Plaza on a regular basis.  And rather than providing this information to the Council through the regular budget process, MPD issued a general press release while the protests are still underway.  It's hard to see this as anything but a backhanded attempt to disparage the Occupy protestors.

There may be a similar attempt brewing at the County level, so it's important that the Council come down firmly on the side of the protestors.

I want to thank Council Member Hodges for putting this resolution together, and for speaking so compellingly for it this morning.

Here's the full text:

Whereas, Minneapolis citizens and the City of Minneapolis are suffering from the effects of an ongoing economic and political crisis that threatens our individual and collective fiscal stability and quality of life; and

Whereas, the causes and consequences of the economic crisis are eroding the fundamental social contract upon which the Constitution of the United States was founded; namely, the ability of Americans to come together and form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense of, promote the general welfare of, and secure the blessings of liberty for all, allowing every American to strive for and share in the prosperity of our nation through cooperation and hard work; and

Whereas, far from suffering the effects of the economic crisis Wall Street profits increased 720% between 2007 and 2009 (New York State Comptroller, 2011); and

Whereas, today corporations exert undue influence and power in our country, and the key to this power is the concept of corporate personhood; and

Whereas, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission rolled back legal restrictions on corporate campaign spending, thus undermining the voices of individual Americans; and

Whereas, income inequality in America is greater than at any time since the Great Depression, with top 1% income bracket controlling 42% of all wealth (Levy Institute, 2010); and

Whereas, the International Monetary Fund found that greater income inequality suppresses economic growth (IMF, 2011); and

Whereas, an October 5th ABC/Washington Post poll showed 75% of Americans support raising taxes on millionaires to reduce the federal deficit; and

Whereas, the lower- and middle-class workers have sacrificed their present and future security in response to the economic collapse while those responsible for it are offered record profits and tax breaks; and

Whereas, over 14 million Americans are unemployed including nearly 16,000 in Minneapolis alone (Bureau of Labor Statistics and MNDEED, 2011), over 50 million are forced to live without health insurance including an estimated 460,000 Minnesotans (U.S. Census, 2007), and 1 out of every 3 children in Minneapolis lives in poverty (Minneapolis Foundation, 2011); and

Whereas, the racial disparity in unemployment rates is higher in Minneapolis than in any other of the 50 largest metropolitan areas (Minnesota Public Radio, 2011); and

Whereas, in addition to lost property value and regulatory expenditures, the City of Minneapolis has spent in excess of $20 million dollars through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to address the impacts of the foreclosure crisis caused in large part by the financial industry’s overleveraging of high-risk mortgage-backed securities;

Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved by the City of Minneapolis in order to create a shared dialogue through which to address the problems and generate solutions for 99% of Americans the City stands in support of peaceful calls for serious reforms to the income tax, financial, and electoral systems, and of education efforts in furtherance of those goals.

Healthy Food Policy

This morning, the Council passed a Healthy Food Policy.  That's the good news.

The bad news is that it passed on a razor-thin 6-5 vote.  Those who joined me in voting yes: CMs Hodges, Glidden, Hofstede, Lilligren, and Quincy.  Those who voted against it (in favor of unhealthy food?): CMs Reich, Goodman, Schiff, Tuthill, and Colvin Roy.  CMs Johnson and Samuels were absent this morning.

There was no discussion at this morning's meeting to explain the motivations of those who voted "no," but the positions of those who voted against it were made clear at yesterday's Committee of the Whole meeting.  However, many of the concerns were based on misreadings or distortions of the policy. Here's an attempt to set the record straight:

1) There’s a problem.  According to a recent employee health assessment, 65% of City employees are overweight or obese and 60% aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables. This has an impact on costs to the City in health claims, and costs to City employees through health insurance premiums.  In 2009, approximately $110 million was spent on claims related to chronic conditions – the amount spent on claims dictates premium costs. These costs can directly be reduced through healthy lifestyle choices.

2) City employees asked us to solve it.  Over 70% of City employees indicated in the employee survey that they want more healthy options.  Would it be responsible for the City's leaders to ignore this request from our employees?

3) Staff worked on this because the Council told them to.  At least one Council Member questioned why we have staff working on this issue.  The answer is simple: they were directed to do so by the Council itself.  The City Wellness Committee was established by a Council action in 2007, and directed to do exactly this sort of work by the following Council resolution:

Whereas, research shows that comprehensive health and wellness programs increase employees’ overall health and productivity and reduce health care costs, absenteeism and workers’ compensation costs; and

Whereas, the City will continue to partner with union representatives, benefit plan vendors, city council departments, independent boards and agencies and employees to identify and implement strategies and programs to assist employees lead healthier lifestyles and decrease rising health care costs.

Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved by the City Council of the City of Minneapolis: That the City Council does hereby declare that it will assist employees in leading healthier lives by supporting activities associated with a comprehensive Health and Wellness Program to be extended to employees and retirees of the City and its independent boards and agencies with the goal of reduced health care costs and an improved quality of life at work and at home.

Be It Further Resolved that the City Council will support the formation of a Wellness Committee that will develop and promote a comprehensive Health and Wellness Program to address our most costly and prevalent areas of risk. Such committee will be composed of all levels of employees, both represented and non represented, from various departments across the City. The departments of Human Resources and Health and Family Support will establish and co-chair the committee.

Be It Further Resolved that all departments will allow and encourage employees to participate in health and wellness activities.

Be It Further Resolved that the Wellness Committee will report annually on the program participation and other findings to the Executive Sponsor, to include one Council Member, one union representative, the Director of Human Resources and the Commissioner of Health.
Adopted 8/3/2007.

4) Our vendors are already serving healthy food.  One Council Member attempted to make the new vendor in the City Hall cafe space an issue, as in: should we really be telling them what they can serve?  But she didn't bother to learn that this has already happened to a substantial degree.  The City Hall food vendor responded to a Request for Proposals issued by the Metropolitan Building Commission, the entity that controls City Hall.  Before that RFP was released, the Wellness Committee worked with the MBC to ensure that it included language incentivizing healthy food.  And lo and behold, the vendor offers numerous healthy options, including half-portions, whole grains and legumes, fresh fruit and more.  Additionally, the intent of this policy is to highlight their healthy food options, not dictate them.

5) The policy doesn’t apply to ‘treats’ brought in by individual employees.  Multiple Council Members either insinuated or openly claimed that this policy would prohibit employees from bringing in treats like birthday cakes, purchased with their own funds.  Either they didn't read the policy before objecting to it, or they were deliberately trying to mislead.  The policy applies only to food purchased with City funds and people contracting to be food vendors in City facilities (including vending machines).  Individuals bringing treats to share with their coworkers - including Council Members bringing baked goods in before Council meetings - are simply not covered by the policy.

This debate has been amplified - but unfortunately not clarified - by the Star Tribune.  The post quotes certain Council Members doling out some of the above-referenced misinformation, for instance implying that birthday cakes will be prohibited by the policy.  A glance at the policy makes clear that this is not true.

I'm disappointed that this good idea - which is responsible given the impacts of rising health costs on the City's budget, responsive to the requests of our employees, and completely in line with wellness policies being adopted by large institutions around the country - became so controversial.  I'm even more disappointed that so many of the arguments against it were so uninformed or misleading.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Pedicabs - Outcome

This morning, the Council voted on a comprehensive change to the licensing requirements for pedicabs.  I support many of these changes, especially the lifting of the rush hour ban in downtown.

But in the end I could not vote for it.  I was joined in voting "no" by Council Member Lilligren.  I was able to make several important changes that will decrease the ordinance's negative impacts - allowing cabs up to 66 inches in width (up from the original proposal of 55 inches), allowing people to give free rides as long as they don't take tips or display advertising, and referring to state law to determine which past felonies should disqualify folks from operating pedicabs (rather than including all felonies).

My chief objection to the ordinance is that, at the urging of our staff, it includes a requirement for a specific set of braking systems for pedicabs.  I continue to believe that this is a completely unnecessary, unwarranted interference in the decisions of small pedicab businesses in Minneapolis.  My approach was to adopt a stringent stopping standard for all pedicabs, no matter their braking system: prove the vehicle can come to a stop within 15 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour.  If an operator can meet this standard and prove that their vehicle can come to a stop, why should the City care what braking system they use?

I was joined in taking this position by the Bicycle Advisory Committee's Enforcement, Encouragement and Education subcommittee.  They took the time to meet with pedicab operators and City staff to discuss the proposed ordinance, and came to an unambiguous position against adopting a requirement for certain braking systems.  These are the folks the City has asked to be our subject-matter experts on issues relating to bicycling - and are some of the only folks we've talked to with personal experience in different bicycle braking systems - and the Council ignored them.

In committee, when questioned on this, staff asserted that most cities have adopted specific braking system requirements.  But when staff conducted an in-depth review of the pedicab ordinances in the 50 largest US cities, he found three times as many cities do not have this requirement (23) than do (7).  Examples of cities that don’t: Portland, Milwaukee, Denver, San Diego, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.

In my view, the City - both staff and Council - has basically singled out one individual business with this change.  This was made abundantly clear by the Council's decision to allow staff to share images of that business' vehicles.  I find this troubling.  It's not the City's appropriate role to choose winners and losers in an industry.  It's even worse to make decisions, as we seem to have done, on the basis of aesthetics or animus against a certain business.

Our actions also conflict directly with some of the rhetoric used to support this ordinance.  At committee, much was made of the fact that this ordinance will help "create jobs."  I find that extraordinarily difficult to square with the decision to include an unnecessary requirement that will, at best, impose significant costs on at least one operator and, at worst, put that operator out of business - and all for no tangible safety benefit.  That doesn't sound like "creating jobs" to me.