This article was published in the Pioneer Press.
This article was published in the Pioneer Press.
This article appeared as Viewpoint in the Villager newspaper, April 10-23, 2019 edition
Hearings on St. Paul Land-Use Issues Are So Much Wasted Breath
By Andrew Rorvig
There appear to be numerous opportunities for citizen engagement on land-use issues in St. Paul. The process is usually initiated by the Department of Planning and Economic Development (PED). A vetting by the local district council follows. Next is an intermediary review with public hearings before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) or Planning Commission. Finally, there are public hearings before the City Council.
All three public reviews should allow the parties meaningful opportunities to flesh out issues of fact and law. Yet, with most projects, the deal is done by the time it reaches the public. For average citizens, the chance of obtaining an outcome different than the one recommended by city staff is slim at best.
Take 2018 for example. In that year the City Council heard 11 appeals of BZA or Planning Commission decisions. Developers or other property owners seeking permits, variances, or reviews of unfavorable administrative decisions brought six of those appeals. Neighbors or other stakeholders who opposed the granting of permits, variances or decisions made the other five appeals. In almost every case, the BZA or Planning Commission approved the city staff recommendation and the City Council denied the appeal to overturn that decision.
In fact, since 2015 there has been only one instance of a stakeholder successfully challenging a BZA or Planning Commission decision in favor of an institutional or income-generating development. And even that victory was undone when the luxury condominium project at 1174 Grand Ave. returned in 2016 with a three-square-foot change in requested lot coverage.
The false appearance of citizen engagement should be enough to cause St. Paulites to question the system. Add to that a recent example of incompetence or worse, and there is plenty of reason to blow up that system. In January, the Planning Commission considered the demolition of historic St. Andrew’s Church in the Como neighborhood to allow the German Immersion charter school to proceed with the construction of a new building.
City staff had recommended approval of the variances needed for the demolition. The Planning Commission took testimony from 40 people and received 126 letters. It certainly looked like robust community engagement. The Zoning Committee’s recommendation to deny the variances resulted in a 6-6 tie vote by the Planning Commission. However, one of the votes was by the chair, who likely should not have voted at all except in the instance of a tie.
Had the chair not voted on the motion, the variances would have been denied 6-5. However, the chair went further and voted on the motion a second time, breaking the tie she had created and leading to the variances being approved. Rather than voting again after this illegality was determined, the Planning Commission opted to rely on a statutory provision allowing variance requests that are not considered in a timely fashion to be approved by default.
We must remember that the Planning Commission and BZA are made up of political appointees chosen by way of an extremely opaque selection process. So why would we think these bodies are objective and willing to reach opinions different than those that run City Hall? The St. Andrew’s matter now goes to the City Council following the payment by concerned citizens of the $462 fee required for an appeal. If history is a measure of things to come, those citizens will lose at City Council.
Creating the illusion of citizen engagement and due process is worse than having no process at all. It allows an insular group of hired and appointed personnel to rubber-stamp a City Hall agenda without rigorous debate. It results in ordinary folks wasting time, energy and money on a process that doesn’t really exist. The inequities are against us, the common citizens and voters, and nothing will change unless we are willing to challenge the insular oligarchy and the interests that support it.
A former president of the Summit Hill Association, Andrew J. Rorvig is a trial lawyer and member of the steering committee of Saint Paul STRONG.
This guest editorial was published as Viewpoint in the February 13, 2019 edition of The Villager
Anyone who has been around St. Paul politics for long recognizes that for all intents and purposes it is a one-party town dominated by the DFL. This year all seven City Council seats and four School Board seats will be on the ballot. However, St. Paul's DFL leadership has manipulated the endorsement schedule to limit public input and pick favorites. This is unhealthy for democracy.
The DFL has chosen Sunday, March 10, as the date for all precinct caucuses across the city. The purpose of the precinct caucuses is to conduct party business, consider resolutions to be included in the party platform, and elect delegates to the ward conventions where City Council candidates will be endorsed.
In Wards 2, 3, and 4, DFL leaders have scheduled the ward conventions to immediately follow the precinct caucuses on March 10--and worse yet, at 5:30 on that Sunday evening. When has any important public meeting ever been scheduled on a Sunday night? With no DFL challengers to the City Council incumbents in Wards 2, 3, and 4 at this point, they are virtually guaranteed the party endorsement.
In Wards 1, 5, 6 and 7, the St. Paul DFL has scheduled the endorsing conventions from six to eight weeks after the precinct caucuses. In these wards, it is conceivable that new candidates will emerge in the intervening weeks, requiring all candidates to work hard to court delegates and weather debate and discussion. What delegate does not welcome the opportunity to get to know candidates better and make more informed choices?
The DFL has made a decision to protect its incumbent City Council members in Wards 2, 3 and 4, seemingly reluctant to expose them to potential new candidates and the shifting loyalties of demanding delegates. In fact, a prospective City Council candidate in Ward 4 deployed to the Middle East asked the DFL city chair if that ward's convention could be delayed until after he returns from active duty. The answer was "no."
Coincidentally, the residents of Wards 2, 3 and 4--the wards with the highest voter turnout in the city--have confronted vitally important and controversial issues over the past four years, including the selection of a modern streetcar as the preferred alternative in the proposed Riverview transit corridor, the approval of a master plan for the Ford site, the override of a two-year Marshall Avenue rezoning study, a study of the repurposing of the Highland 9-Hole Golf Course, the rezoning of Snelling Avenue and the building of a Major League Soccer stadium and proposed redevelopment of the adjacent Midway Shopping Center. These issues are redefining life in Wards 2, 3 and 4 and reshaping the city's future. And the three incumbents are going to be spared a process that would steel and toughen them and hold them accountable to the public?
The DFL is, in effect, tipping the scales in support of three incumbents and denying citizens any meaningful discussion of these huge and transformative community decisions. In a one-party town, the DFL endorsement almost guarantees election, giving the endorsed candidate party voter lists, money, volunteers, events, publicity, mailings and more. A City Council candidate needs to raise $100,000 to be competitive today, and access to DFL Party resources is a major advantage.
Why is the St. Paul DFL leadership curtailing its own process and picking winners? Over the years, the DFL has fallen into this trap a number of times, trying to limit access to the process for candidates and newcomers so that incumbents are guaranteed re-election.
Paul Wellstone was the force in 1990 who blew the hinges off the doors of the DFL, bringing in party newcomers from all over Minnesota to make the DFL "the party of the people who show up." In 2008 Barack Obama did the same thing, advertising Minnesota DFL caucuses on TV while Clinton supporters in the state party, in hushed tones, counted on the party faithful to endorse their chosen candidate.
Foreclosing the democratic process, or the DFL Party process, is ultimately a prescription for the party's irrelevance. This is the capital of Minnesota. St. Paul should lead the way in reminding folks what democracy looks like. The words "inclusion" and "diversity" should mean something, and the DFL should walk their talk.
This appeared as the Viewpoint in the Villager, 1/16/19
St. Paul STRONG is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving accessible and representative government in St. Paul. We do not take positions on issues, but support inclusive, transparent and accountable public processes. Public trust is the key to a stronger St. Paul. Only when everyone in the city is treated equally and public officials are held accountable for their decisions can trust in our city government be assured.
Recent stories in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Star Tribune expose our city's uneven and unequal rules enforcement. The story about the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts’ legal challenge of Gray Duck Tavern’s liquor license highlights the city's disregard for the longstanding legal process for granting liquor licenses. Current city code specifies that liquor establishments must not be within 300 feet of a school, and the downtown school maintains that the Gray Duck Tavern is in violation of this code.
This issue is only the latest in a series of questionable decisions by city officials that seem to disregard codes, ordinances and rules. The decisions appear to be based on fuzzy or previously unknown criteria for granting variances. For example, weeks ago a new skyway was installed over Main Street between buildings in the Higher Ground project that ignored the longstanding St. Paul Skyway Design Guidelines that were adopted in 1980. The city ignored the legally binding Comprehensive Plan adopted on February 24, 2010, and its own resolution approved on May 27, 2015, which called for a public park on the former Pedro Luggage site, and instead allowed a private developer to purchase and renovate the former Public Safety Annex and in effect thwart the plan for the long-promised Pedro Park.
These are a few examples in downtown, but the problem extends throughout the city. Consider the change in measuring the required distance between liquor stores when Target wanted to expand in the Midway area, or changes in the city's longstanding practice in determining allowable signage or the ongoing dispute over right-of-way assessments.
St. Paul STRONG questions the wisdom of changing the rules depending on who is asking for the favor. While it may seem expedient in the short term, it becomes a major problem in the long term with a growing lack of trust in city processes.
Our city's codes, ordinances and guidelines are established processes that are meant to ensure fair and equitable government decision-making. Untold hours of staff time are devoted to planning documents and policy enforcement, and yet this financial investment by taxpayers seems to be overruled at the whim of our city's administration without transparency or accountability.
In the Gray Duck Tavern case, if the city now changes the rules to fit the needs of this particular restaurant, what message does that send to businesses that were denied licenses in the past? What message does it send to businesses seeking licenses in the future? What are the criteria that businesses can work toward to ensure a fair process?
The city of St. Paul needs to ensure that rules are reasonable and consistent. Contrary to what some city leaders report, rules do not scare businesses away. It is the absence of standards or inconsistency in the rules that discourages new enterprise.
Only when city officials recognize the problems that are borne through a lack of transparency, fairness and good governance will they be able to address the resulting inequality and unfairness and earn the trust and respect of citizens. One need look no further than the recent petition to put organized trash on the ballot to realize the level of unease the citizens have with their local government.
By Pioneer Press Editorial Board | Pioneer Press
PUBLISHED: March 18, 2018
The recent airing of “data practices” and privacy questions involving east metro city governments is good for democracy.
The pull and tug — concerning issues in Woodbury and St. Paul — is instructive as we consider our values when it comes to government transparency and the public’s right to know how our public officials are performing.
The issue in Woodbury, as Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens summed it up, stems from concerns about public requests for large amounts of data that were consuming a lot of staff time.
In St. Paul, a new city council policy under which speakers at its public hearings introduce themselves with their name and neighborhood, rather than full street address, worried some government watchdogs and reporters.
Both merit a closer look.
In Woodbury, the data concerns made their way in January into the city’s 2018 Legislative Agenda. Officials since then have rightly walked back mention that the city “does not support expanding the current data practice statues,” and encouraged “reforming the open records law to address some of the abuses that are occurring.”
Stephens told us she will make a motion that the city council remove the matter from the agenda. There was confusion about it, she acknowledged, noting that “I want people to know where I stand, and where we stand as a city.”
“I support full transparency. I think people should have access to the information they want,” said Stephens, who also is a Republican candidate for governor.
Woodbury City Administrator Clinton Gridley, replying in response to written questions, said that no bill was introduced on the matter and that it rather was intended for conversation with area legislators.
The agenda raised questions about procedures under which those who request information inspect it, rather than pay for copies, and the scope of questions that could be asked to help clarify a data request.
Don Gemberling, a longtime state leader on freedom-of-information and privacy matters, reminds us that the free-inspection provision in the state’s Data Practices Act is “really the ultimate way to balance the playing field. That’s what the public should care about.”
In addition, the questions about procedures should remind government entities that “part of the way you can deal with this is to do a better job of how you keep your data,” said Gemberling, who also is a leader in the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government advocacy organization.
After 40 years under the law, he said, government entities should at last “become part of a culture that says the public has a right to this stuff and whatever we can do to facilitate the exercise of that right, all the better.”
St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince addressed the Woodbury issues at a recent news conference sponsored by the coalition to highlight its legislative concerns.
In a follow-up conversation, Prince highlighted her approach to such issues: “We need to remember who we work for — that we work for the public, and when we create documents or when we work on projects … it’s the public’s data.”
“I do know that certain requests can take a lot of staff time and be pretty complicated,” she acknowledges. “I also know that there’s this kind of profile of a gadfly who just creates difficult requests to gum up the works.”
At times, requests may seem “too extensive or not reasonable, but you also have the ability under the law to phase your response, provide it in sections and within a reasonable time,” she explains.
Mayor Stephens told us she has asked city staff to meet with Gemberling to discuss “how we can make the process easier.”
In St. Paul, it’s been argued that the change in the way people identify themselves at city council meetings runs counter to transparency and adds complications for reporters working on tight deadlines.
Having those who speak before the council state their full name and neighborhood, rather than street address, remedies a barrier to participation for some residents, including women concerned about personal safety, Council President Amy Brendmoen told us. Meetings — recorded and live-streamed —are available on cable TV and online.
Gemberling, writing on behalf of the government-watchdog group Saint Paul STRONG, asserts that personal safety concerns could be addressed on a case-by-case basis without changing council procedures of long standing.
He also argues that the change should have been subject to public discussion, while Brendmoen told us the council doesn’t typically hold hearings about procedural changes.
Mention that advocates might now more easily “pack” the council chambers with supporters — people from anywhere — also has been part of the discussion.
“People can do that now,” Brendmoen told us. “We don’t check IDs.”
Meanwhile, the expectation remains that those who testify provide their name and address on a sign-in sheet maintained by the city clerk.
The new procedure has been in place for about six weeks. “We’re seeing how it works,” Brendmoen said.
While we do, it’s worth keeping track of issues — including those close to home — that could cloud the bright light of government transparency.
It has come to the attention of Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) that the City Council, without public discussion, changed an important procedure regarding public testimony during open hearings. According to published reports, public testifiers before the city council are no longer required to provide their full names and addresses on the record and may instead choose to limit personal information to their first names and neighborhoods.
As you know, SPS focuses its efforts on ensuring government accountability through government processes that are as transparent and democratic as possible. In its view, this recent change of procedure is neither democratic nor transparent.
It appears that Council President Brendmoen initiated, and the rest of the Council allowed, the procedural change (a long standing procedure* that required testifiers to identify themselves at public hearings) without any input from the public.
Among the many reasons for transparency in public processes is to give the public…
The opportunity to give public comment on how governing bodies do the peoples’ work.
The ability to observe how their elected representatives are thinking and deciding matters via public discussion and decision making.
The capacity to hold government officials accountable to the public for their positions via recorded votes.
As such, this change in procedure should have been introduced as a resolution, subjected to public testimony, discussed by council members, and put to a vote by those members.
It is SPS’s understanding that this change came about because two people indicated that they had safety concerns about giving their names and addresses publicly. Concerns raised by two people should not be the basis for changing a long standing procedure for public comment. Like government officials, testifiers on public policies have a responsibility to be accountable for their testimony. The personal safety of individuals who have identified reasonable concerns should be addressed on a case by case basis without changing long standing procedures.
Requiring testifiers to identify themselves and provide complete addresses gives members of the public, including journalists, the opportunity to…
Vet the information provided in the testimony,
Contact testifiers for further or updated information,
Access information for networking and reporting purposes and, where necessary,
Verify the claims and bona fides of the testifiers.
Although testifiers may be required to sign-in, those sign-in sheets are often difficult to read or decipher and those watching the hearings do not have immediate access to them.
For these reasons, we urge the City Council to rescind this procedure.
Thank you for addressing our concerns.
Saint Paul STRONG
c.c. Selected media outlets
Background info: The point is that Saint Paul Schools need more funding. Calculation: $24 million paid in annual debt for TIF deals. School district receives 38% of property tax revenue. 38% of the $24 million (school portion) is diverted before they ever see this tax funding. Worse yet, they don’t have any say as far as approval. Only the City Council does at the local level.
September 14, 2017 at 12:46 am
Don Gemberling and Shirley Erstad are members of the steering committee of the group Saint Paul STRONG, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes at City Hall, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul.”
By John Mannillo and Shirley Erstad
The Villager Op-Ed
April 12, 2017
Response to Pioneer Press Editorial: Concerns about St. Paul’s sick-time process
Saint Paul STRONG
August 8, 2016
Response to Pioneer Press Editorial: Concerns about St. Paul’s sick-time process
Saint Paul STRONG is nonpartisan and will not endorse any elected officials or candidates for office. Our members fall on various sides of most issues and we will not support any specific issue…other than a fair, honest, and transparent city hall process to determine public policy. The lack of trust in government is the very reason Saint Paul STRONG exists.
This problem is once again apparent with the latest example of a questionable process regarding recent evidence and concern of the fairness with the Earned Sick and Safe Time (ESST) ordinance being proposed at the City Council. The Mayor’s office and the City Council president are being accused, this time by the Saint Paul business community, of leaving them out of the decision to enact a new ESST ordinance and, as usual, the City Council majority appears ready to approve the new ordinance.
It has become standard operating procedure for the Mayor’s office and City Council to decide what is best for the City without real public input. The claim is then always made by the city administration that there has been extensive outreach into the community. Too often these decisions seem to benefit our elected city officials' future political goals rather than what is best for Saint Paul’s longterm future.
According to the business community, while the Mayor promised to include them, city hall emails show that they evidently failed again to do so in a timely manner. This also shows more evidence for the need to retain emails older than six months, as it is likely that there were emails dating even further back than the six month window of time allowed for researching the ESST issue. Not knowing the full extent of City Hall emails relating to ESST contributes to the lack of transparency and trust in government.
Saint Paul STRONG believes that an honest effort to bring all interested voices to the table is the best, and often the only way, to achieve a strong, healthy, and sustainable city policy.
We are a nonpartisan community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes at City Hall, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul.
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