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:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Urban Ag Text Amendments Pass Planning Commission

Yesterday afternoon, the City came one step closer to allowing and supporting urban agriculture.  On a unanimous vote, the City Planning Commission voted to approve Planning staff's excellent recommended Zoning Code amendments, which I authored, and which do a great job of putting the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan adopted in spring of last year into effect.

The community support was staggering, and almost as important as the outcome.  Staff received seventy comments in writing, all of them basically supportive of the staff recommendations - and most of them strongly so.  It's clear that there is deep and broad support in the community for allowing market gardens (commercial growing operations that basically look and act like community gardens) in low-density residential districts.

Thirteen community members got up and spoke in favor of the plan.  They represented urban farmers, community gardeners, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture, processors and more.  The Minneapolis Food Council (to which I'm the Council's representative) passed a strong statement in support, and was joined by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Some folks noted that they would go further on a few fronts, which shows me that the staff recommendations are reasonable, cautious, even a little conservative.  A few of those points:
  • Hoop houses.  Staff have recommended that hoop houses (structures meant to extend the growing season) not be counted in the total square footage that each lot can have in "accessory structures," because they are seen as temporary.  The building code's definition of temporary structures is that they should be up less than six months, so staff adopted the same standard for this exemption.  Some urban farmers rightly point out that the period during which Minneapolis is at risk for frost is more like eight months, and have asked for this time to be lengthened.
  • Selling from home.  Until now, people haven't been able to farm in their own backyards and sell the produce.  The staff recommendation changes that, but keeps the prohibition that exists for all home occupations on selling goods directly from the site.  Some urban farm advocates would like to see that prohibition lifted.
  • Chickens in Urban Farms and Market Gardens.  The staff recommendation does not allow chickens at commercial uses.  There was actually substantial agreement at the public hearing between urban farmers and those who are concerned for animal welfare: the City needs to improve the welfare standards in our Animal code before we can consider allowing chickens in commercial uses as well as backyards.  I look forward to working on that.
  • Compost.  There are recommendations in the Urban Ag Policy Plan that aren't included in these text amendments, mostly because the City must wait until the Pollution Control Agency revises its rules - a process that is currently underway. 
  • The 75-day limit for Farmers Markets.  One organization, that is not currently licensed as any type of public market, has asked that the number of days a farmers market can be open for business be raised from 75 to 180.  That limit has been on the books for years, and staff do not support raising it.  Other farmers markets - including representatives of the Mill City, Kingfield and Fulton markets - argued that the 75-day limit should be left in place.  They make a strong case that the essential relationship between the producer and consumer could be threatened by lifting the limit.  They also pointed out that no farmers market advocates have asked, in the Urban Ag Policy Plan process or the recent farmers market code update, for this limitation to be lifted.
All in all, I see these as relatively minor disagreements with the staff recommendation, and the first four are things that we can come back and fix after we've had a growing season or two to prove that urban agriculture uses fit well into the urban fabric and complement existing uses.

I want to commend Aly Pennucci, the lead staff on this from the Planning Division, for her fantastic work on these changes.  She did an incredible amount of work in less time than we often give for major Zoning Code revisions like this, and the strong community support and unanimous approval of the Planning Commission shows that she did it well.  These amendments are a win for everyone, but especially Aly.  Well done!

One last note.  Council Member Gary Schiff noted, in abstaining from the unanimous vote in favor of the staff recommendation, that I have pushed this back a cycle.  That is accurate; rather than bringing it forward at the February 16th Zoning and Planning committee meeting, I have asked to bring it to committee on March 1st.  However, he added that the reason for this delay is to give time for "more consideration for amendments."  That's not accurate, and perhaps even misleading.  It sounds like it caused considerable confusion to the urban agriculture supporters who were present.

I asked for this delay as a courtesy to my colleague Meg Tuthill, who won't be able to be there on the 16th and wants to be present for the discussion.  I am not working on any amendments.  I am thrilled at how well Planning staff have translated the Urban Ag Policy Plan into Zoning Code text amendments, and I will happily and strongly support those recommendations as put forward and as passed unanimously by the Planning Commission.  I am also unaware that any of my colleagues are working on amendments; if they are, I hope that they will be shared with the community soon, so that the many people who care deeply about this issue can review them and respond, if necessary.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Climate Change Action Plan

The City's sustainability staff, Gayle Prest and Brendon Slotterback, are launching an update of our Climate Action Plan, a roadmap to help the City reduce greenhouse gas pollution in the city.  This plan will help us translate our aggressive climate change goals ("reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2015, and 30 percent by 2025 using 2006 as a baseline") into tangible policies and actions.

The kickoff has been scheduled for Wednesday, February 1st at 5:30pm, at the Mpls Central Library.  Attendance is free, but space is limited. Please RSVP here.  The meeting will explain climate science, the climate history of Minnesota, the health impacts of climate change and the process Minneapolis will conduct to update the plan.

More from the press release:

Given current trends, the Midwest is likely to face increased heat waves, reduced air quality and more periods of both floods and drought. To respond to the challenges of climate change and energy security and as part of its commitment to being an eco-focused city, the City of Minneapolis has adopted targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The updated Climate Action Plan will measure the impact of current City efforts and develop new initiatives that focus on transportation, buildings and waste.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vikings Stadium - Linden Site

I join my colleague Lisa Goodman in opposing the Linden Avenue site for the proposed Vikings stadium, though I am heartened that the farmers market site seems to be off the table. 

If a new stadium is to be built, it would make most sense to reuse the Metrodome site, which has already been assembled at great cost in Downtown East.  It is also currently served by a light rail station that will soon grant access to two light rail corridors.

Other problems with the Linden site were not mentioned in the Star Tribune article.  It is the current home of the Currie Maintenance Facility, an important service center for the City's Public Works department. Much of the land in question is owned by the city and, according to our charter, any sale of public land requires 9 votes.  It's also likely that a stadium would impact the Cedar Lake Trail, a vital nonmotorized connection between southwest Minneapolis and downtown.  The CLT already operates as a sort of tunnel under the Twins stadium, and extending that enclosed experience is likely to pose problems.

I find striking that the Governor uses as one of his arguments against the Metrodome site that it has not spurred economic development in the surrounding area in the last 30 years.  I agree.  But might this not be a problem with the Metrodome site specifically, but with the whole idea of using stadiums to generate economic development more generally?

And just to underscore, so I'm not misunderstood: no local taxpayer dollars should be put into any of these proposals without a referendum, in keeping with the City's Charter.  Whatever the legislators approve should be required to comply with and follow the City’s Charter. I do not think that it is appropriate for the state legislature to pass laws that undermine the City government’s (and the people of Minneapolis') most fundamental legal compact.

One part of that compact states:

"The City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Community Development Agency, or any city department, agency, commission, or board, shall use no city resources over $10 million dollars for the financing of professional sports facilities without the approval of a simple majority of the votes cast on the question, in a ballot question put to the public at the next regularly scheduled election. City resources are defined for these purposes as: Tax increment financing, bonds, loans, land purchase or procurement, land or site preparation, including necessary infrastructure such as roads, parking development, sewer and water, or other infrastructure development, general fund expenditures, sales tax or other taxes, deferred payments, interest free or below market interest rate loans, the donation or below market value sale of any city resources or holdings or any other free or below cost city services. The ballot question shall not be put before the public in a special election, in order to prevent the costs associated with special elections. "

2011 Bicycle Account

The City's Public Works department has put together a 2011 Bicycling Account, an in-depth report on our bicycling activities and accomplishments in 2011.  It's exciting to read such a clear and compelling account of the progress we made over the last year.  Kudos to Public Works for putting this together - I hope that they will continue to report out this effectively every year.

It is also interesting for me to note how many of the City's 2011 achievements my office was directly involved in: the green bike lanes on 15th Ave SE, the safety median on 28th St E, downtown bike lanes, the Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant, the bike map, the bike plan and implementation plan, the pedicab ordinance, the bike parking and access guidelines for City buildings, the reorganization of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, and safeguarding the new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position.

Another important note: this year also saw the creation of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, a necessary and immensely helpful advocacy organization that, among other things, ran the first Minneapolis Open Streets event.

It's been a big year for bicycling in Minneapolis.

More Pain for Cab Drivers

As you can read in today's Star Tribune, there's more pain being imposed on cab drivers.  Most of the article concentrates on disputes between drivers and a particular company, but buried in the tenth paragraph is a telling statement:

"A recent move by the city of Minneapolis to require taxis to accept credit cards was another blow, they said, as drivers will have to absorb service fees of 5 to 7 percent on full-fare rides."

Another blow indeed.  That's why I voted no.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Remittances Resolution

This morning, the Council's Committee of the Whole unanimously supported a resolution urging "all concerned parties to find an amicable solution that facilitates the normal flow of remittances without compromising the safety and security of the United States."  I urge you to read it in full.

As you can read in the Request for Council Action, "until recently, only one bank in Minnesota offered remittance services allowing the Somali-American community in Minnesota to send money to family and friends in Somalia. Based on concerns that this service could in the future be considered in violation of federal counter terrorism regulations, the bank stopped providing the service on December 30, 2011."  This decision has had a major impact on the lives of Somali residents of Minneapolis, and the relatives in the horn of Africa who depend on the small amounts of money they send in remittances.  The horn of Africa is currently suffering the worst famine on earth since 1984, so this is an incredibly important issue - the halting of funds from hawalas may be costing people their lives.

I strongly supported this resolution and thank Ahmed Muhumud in Neighborhood and Community Relations for working to draft it and continuing to push for a solution.

Hiawatha Transmission Line to be Buried

As you can read here and here, the City of Minneapolis and the Midtown Greenway Coalition have been handed a tremendous win. The Public Utilities Commission has ruled that, in keeping with our strong, formally adopted position, Xcel's new Hiawatha transmission line should be buried under 28th Street East, rather than installed over the Greenway. This is good for the Greenway, and also the economic development potential of the Greenway corridor.

The PUC did not yet vote on how the costs for the line should be borne, but both Xcel and the City agree that they should be spread out to the entire Xcel rate base in Minnesota.

However, I continue to question the need for this transmission facility. Xcel has not demonstrated that a similar dollar investment put towards conservation and peak shaving could not meet the same need as this new transmission capacity. For instance, what if Xcel spent even a portion of this money to help large power users "store" cold by making ice at night, when there's less stress on the grid (and the wind is blowing), and use that ice to offset their air conditioning during the day?

Those questions aside, this is an important win for the community. If the line is to be built, under 28th Street is the appropriate place for it.

Sound Wall in Prospect Park

As you can read here, there are folks in Prospect Park who are unhappy about the new sound wall along the west side of I-94.

I have heard these concerns as well, and shared them with MnDOT.

It's important to know some of the context as well.  The residents on the east side of I-94 have been protected by a sound wall for decades, but until now those along East River Terrace and East River Parkway have not.  I have heard concerns about freeway noise from those folks for years, as early as 2001.  I have also heard that they're happy a sound wall has finally been installed.

I have asked MnDOT whether there are ways to break up the sonic reflection coming off of the wall.  One interesting idea: what if we encouraged vines to grow on the side of it?  Such a "green wall" would deter graffiti as well as damping some of the sound.

Taxis Forced to Take Credit Cards

Score one for Wall Street.

This morning, the Council adopted a new regulation on taxicabs.  This appears to be a win for Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of American Corp, and various other financial institutions and individuals that make up the owners and shareholders of Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover.

But it's a loss for Minneapolis taxi drivers.

This regulation, proposed by Council Member Schiff, will force all taxis in Minneapolis to accept credit cards.  While there are some good reasons to do this - CM Goodman mentioned encouraging drunk folks who may have spent all of their cash on alcohol to take a cab - on balance it's a bad idea.

I believe this because I take very seriously the concerns I heard from taxi drivers during the public hearing.  Many of these folks are recent immigrants (and many live in Ward 2), and they are just scraping by.  Driving a cab is not a lucrative line of work.

They made very clear how this regulation will impact their lives.  Credit card companies, and the banks that are the end of either end of every transaction charge fees for each transaction.  The City cannot require the cab companies to eat these costs, and we cannot require that these costs be passed along to customers.  We have capped the fees that can be charged by cabs, so the total cost of a cab ride cannot rise.

What this almost certainly means is that the credit card transaction (or interchange)  fees will come out of cab drivers' income.  But that's not all.  Many drivers are "independent contractors" who lease their cabs from the companies for a daily fee.  The fee is due on the day they work.  But credit card income does not make its way to drivers for several days or even weeks.  This puts drivers in a terrible spot, in which they will have to pay more to the company for a day's lease than they have actually made that day.  Imagine working all day, only to owe more at the end of the day than you have on hand!

There are other arguments against this regulation.  While some cities have gone in the direction of requiring credit cards, it's clear that most have not.  Council Member Schiff noted that the taxi industry is heavily regulated, as are bars and restaurants.  But we do not require bars and restaurants to accept credit cards, and we shouldn't!  I can't imagine trying to tell the Hard Times Cafe, Seward Cafe, or other Second Ward businesses who do not accept plastic that the City will now force them to.  Council Member Goodman noted that we want more people taking taxis and pedicabs - but we don't force pedicabs to take credit cards either.  Yet.

I want to put this regulation in a broader context.  Who is going to benefit from this new regulation? 
  • Taxi customers that have and want to use credit cards, clearly.  This regulation increases their convenience. 
  • Taxi companies, arguably - more rides mean more business, but those who choose to share some or all of the added cost may also suffer.  
  • The big banks that operate credit cards definitely benefit.  More transactions using credit cards, each subject to a steep fee, will substantially swell their already high profits.
Now, who suffers?  Taxi drivers.

Note that the group being forced to take the financial hit is the least wealthy, more likely to be recent immigrants, and the most likely to be young and people of color.  Taxi customers have to be somewhat well-off enough to take one of the most expensive modes of transportation available (much more than walking, biking, or using mass transit, and usually more expensive than driving).  Taxi companies aren't the most profitable businesses in the world, but their owners are nowhere near as poor as their drivers.  And the big banks are making record profits.

Is this surprising?  Unfortunately, no.  This is a clear pattern of government action at all levels: the transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top. And I regret that our City government is complicit in this as well.

One last thing.  I find fascinating that this Council passed a feel-good resolution late last year, by a substantial majority, in favor of the principles of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.  Now, a couple of months later, we pass a law that is a windfall for Wall Street, coming out of the pockets of some of the poorest residents of Minneapolis.

I was one of only two votes against this ordinance, joined by Council Member Tuthill, who knows from owning a small business just how onerous the credit card companies' practices can be.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Fire Cheif Jackson to Retire

I was very sorry to learn that our Fire Cheif, Alex Jackson, will be retiring.  I was looking forward to supporting his renomination and voting to approve his appointment again this year. Chief Jackson has served as Minneapolis Fire Chief since 2008 and has been working for the City and as part of the Fire Department for 27 years. His last day as chief will be February 29.

In the press release he said, “After 30 years of service to the citizens of Minneapolis, including three as fire chief, I have made the decision to retire. Serving as chief of the MFD, as well as being the first African American fire chief in the history of the department, has been one of my greatest achievements and honors.”

Not only am I disapponted because I think he was an effective leader of the department, but also because he is one of our few nonwhite department heads.  After recovering from the disappointment of losing him, and learning that the Mayor will be nominating John Fruetel to be the next Minneapolis Fire Chief, I thought it might be interesting to do a more careful look at the diversity of our top City employees, the department heads. Assuming that John Fruetel's appointment is approved (which I suspect it will be) here is my best snapshot assessment of the gender and racial mix of our department heads:

Charter Department Heads (Appointment approved by the Council)

1. Chief of Fire Department - (will likely be) white male

2. Chief of Police - white male

3. City Assessor - white male

4. City Attorney - white female

5. City Clerk - white male

6. City Coordinator - white male

7. Commissioner of Health - white female

8. Director of Public Works - white male

9. Director of Regulatory Services - white male

10. Director of Civil Rights - black female

11. Director of Community Planning and Economic Development - unknown

Other Department Heads

Besides Charter Department Heads, these positions within the City of Minneapolis are considered Department Heads, although they are apponted by the City Coordinator.

1. Assistant City Coordinator Communications Director - white female

2. Assistant City Coordinator Finance Director - white male

3. Assistant City Coordinator Director of Human Resources (HR) - white female

4. Assistant City Coordinator Chief Information Officer (BIS) - white male

5. Assistant City Coordinator Director of Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) -white male

6. Assistant City Coordinator Convention Center - white male

Out of 17 positions only 5 are women (29.4% female and 70.6% male), and out of 17 on 1 is nonwhite (5.9% nonwhite and 94.1% white).

This does not reflect the makeup of our city, which is approximately 50% female and, according to 2010 census data, roughly 60% white and 40% nonwhite.

Worse, even recently in terms of recruituing and hiring diversity at the department head level we have stuck out.  The last three hires, for example, a new Chief Information Officer (BIS), new head of Regulatory Services, and new Finance director all were white males.

We can and should do better.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Twin Cities Have Nation's 3rd-Lowest Unemployment Rate

As you can read here, the unemployment rate in the Twin Cities is the third-lowest in the US.  Our rate is 5.4%, behind only Omaha and Madison.  This is only 1.9% worse than our best rate for the last decade, 3.5%.  Our unemployment rate is a full percentage point better than the state of Minnesota's as a whole, 6.4%.

This is good news, but unfortunately employment is not equitable across racial and ethnic lines in Minneapolis.  Unemployment for whites is very low, for African Americans and other minority communities, it is in the double digits.  We can and must do better.

Suppressing College Student Votes

There's a compelling editorial in the New York Times about a trend that everyone in Ward 2, especially students, should care about.  Republicans in state legislatures are attempting to pass new requirements for state-issued identification in order to vote, and doing away with same-day registration.  Such a scheme was recently defeated at the polls in Maine, but this movement had successes in Kansas and Wisconsin.  A voter ID law in South Carolina has recently been blocked by the Justice Department.

It's clear that the stated goal of these bills - protecting against voter fraud - are not the real story.  Voter fraud is simply not a significant problem.  There are precious few real-life examples, and two high-profile (and strenuously litigated) statewide recounts have failed to turn up any major irregularities.

No, the real aim of these bills is, clearly, to suppress the sort of voters who tend to vote for Democrats and Greens, especially college students.

In Minnesota, all that stood between thousands of Ward 2 residents and disenfranchisement was Governor Dayton's veto.  If you're a student, or care about students being able to vote, please follow this issue and make sure your legislators know where you stand.

2012 Budget Recap

On December 14, the City Council unanimously passed the 2012 budget. This was an especially difficult budget for me to support because it included many layoffs and significant cuts to some very valuable programs and services. The Mayor and Council were forced to make a number of difficult choices because of cuts at the state and federal levels, as well as the decision not increase the property tax levy. Positive highlights of the budget include:

- The property tax levy was not increased.

- The capital budget includes $150 million for street repairs over the next five years, 60% more than expected.

- The Mayor’s proposed cut of $240,000 to the Minneapolis Telecommunication Network was trimmed back to a $90,000 cut.

- The budget invests in the coordinated One Minneapolis initiative to reduce racial inequity in unemployment and a proposed position cut to Civil Rights, that could be central to this effort, was recovered.

- Although proposed, there will be no layoffs of Community Crime Prevention Specialists.

- There are also no layoffs to firefighters or police officers.

- The City will continue to support Restorative Justice, like the Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice Programs, to the tune of $20,000.

- The Council approved $50,000 (from the $125,000 cut in the Mayor’s proposed budget) to support the It's All About the Kids Collaborative (Kids Collaborative) that helps provide stable housing for families identified as homeless who have children that attend a participating Minneapolis Public School.

The lowlights included:

- Layoffs of roughly 25 city employees with another 50 (or more) from the Convention Center being changed from permanent, full time staff to temporary/as needed employees.

- A last minute amendment that narrowly passed despite my strong opposition that transferred $125,000 from 311 to the City Council. This will likely mean the loss of two 311 operators.

- The closing of our Housing Services office and departure of Housing Services staff, Diana Buckanaga and Tanya Cruz who have provided valuable services to thousands of Minneapolis residents for many years. In 2010, the two staff served 12,548 callers; including over 10,000 tenants and nearly 1,000 landlords.

- A cut, after 15 years of stable support, of $200,000 to the Neighborhood Health Care Network that helps community clinics, like the People’s Center, the Community University Health Center, Neighborhood Health Source, Indian Health Board and Southside Community Services provide affordable health care services to uninsured Minneapolis residents.

- For the first time in at least 6 years there will be no federal community block grant funds for Senior programs like South East Seniors and the Seward/Longfellow Healthy Seniors.

- A cut of $68,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars from community organizing in public housing.

- Differences of opinion about the final arrangements for the transfer of remaining Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) administrative funds were not fully resolved and a smooth and complete consolidation of the NRP program into the new Neighborhood Relations Department was not fully accomplished as part of the budget approval.

- The Homegrown Minneapolis coordinator position was not funded and current funding will run out in March.

Additionally this year there will be a new utility bill charge. In previous years the City Council has increased rates charged for sewer and water services based on the amount, or volume, of water used during a month. This year the Council added a new fixed fee or rate and did not increase the rate based on volume. Most homes will see a change that adds about $5 in fixed rates per month starting in January. This new fee will help cover the costs of maintaining the water distribution system and sewer lines that service all homes and businesses at all times. Recently during times when citywide water use is low, there has been less money available to maintain and operate these critical systems. These services require fixed maintenance, and adding fixed rate fees will allow the City to manage them more effectively.