Rick Cardenas, member of transparency advocacy group St. Paul STRONG, says he's applying to one of 10 panels helping Mayor-Elect Carter choose department leaders. "It's opening up a little transparency. At least he's opening it up."
Saint Paul STRONG
November 28, 2017
We are very excited to hear Mayor-Elect Melvin Carter's plan for having an open and transparent public process to inform his hiring of city department leadership.
“It is ambitious, but it is the way we should go about doing public hiring,” said incoming Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher on Monday. “When we think about the people who will be leading major parts of the administration, it’s important we get a broad cross-section of people who are interested in applying for those jobs. Being able to really hear the feedback about the different qualities that these people bring, that’s all going to be really helpful and important information for Mayor-Elect Carter.”
And this from Emily Weber:
“This open, transparent process marks a significant break from the insider decision-making process that too often formed transition processes in past decades. This approach to hiring will ensure that a diverse, community-centered group of voices lead in the selection of these crucial positions to guide the future of St. Paul.”
Applicants, as well as community leaders who wish to serve on the hiring panels, can email Toni Newborn, the city’s Diversity and Consulting Services Manager, at Toni.Newborn@ci.stpaul.mn.us.
Information about each position will be available online as of 9 a.m. Tuesday at https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/stpaul.
To learn more, see:
Saint Paul STRONG
Gemberling, Erstad: Judge the Ford site process by openness and accountability, not just by number of meetings
September 14, 2017 at 12:46 am
Saint Paul STRONG has observed the Ford Site decision-making process playing out contentiously in our city. A recitation of this process was recently the subject of an opinion piece by Council Member Chris Tolbert in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. What has not been addressed are the reasons why this is increasingly the subject of heated, adversarial debates.
It is easy to conclude, as Tolbert’s piece suggests, that the citizens of St. Paul had adequate opportunities to make their issues known. However, this process should be judged by how transparent, open, and accountable it was — whether or not citizens were given accurate, complete information and a chance to be heard — not by the number of meetings held.
Meaningful input means the opportunity to ask questions and have conversations. When a “question period” is designated as “speak to staff,” robust discussion among participants is denied. Topic boards with subjects limited to selections predetermined by the City effectively quash open debate.
While it is laudable that CM Tolbert met with citizens in their homes, consider what thatmeans. Citizens must be well enough connected to know they can request a meeting with a council member in their home, that they have a home in which they feel comfortable hosting such an event, that they are both privy to those meetings and invited. Where is accountability and transparency when intimate groups meet in homes?
Meaningful input allows for genuine participation outside city staff’s control of the process. Announcing results of a citizen input survey and then admitting that many citizen votes were not counted is not meaningful input. Processes that tend to guarantee a predetermined result, or that suggest that citizen participation is just a pretense, increase citizen frustration and cynicism.
The Zoning Committee, Planning Commission, Ford Site Task Force and all city department heads are appointed by the mayor. The Ford Site Task Force was commissioned to provide neighborhood perspective and help guide the development of the City’s plan. However, the task force was not shown plans until the public was — ensuring a done deal. The decision makers throughout the process until it reaches the City Council are all mayoral appointees.
As recently as February, 2017, the Little League fields on the Ford Site Master Plan were the city’s top priority. Now, they have been dropped from the Ford Site Master Plan completely with no explanation but a vague intimation that there is no money. Suggestions of funding sources have been put forward, yet no reason has been given about why such options have not been pursued.
Transparency and accountability are called into question when page 30 of the master plan identifies zoning districts but in the following pages, the architectural drawings show areas surrounded by parks. There is no zoning code for parks. It is disingenuous and dishonest to show drawings with parks when the planned zoning designations are for building heights of 65 feet and 75 feet for residential and commercial development. Also, the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area overlay districts have not gone through the required community process to update them to the 2016 Department of Natural Resources regulations. Until that process occurs, the current overlay districts apply. Those regulations call for maximum heights of 40 feet on the portion of the Ford Site within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. Through that community process, because the lower building heights are more protective than the DNR minimum protection standards, the City can elect to keep those lower heights.
Transparency requires the City to inform citizens that park pictures are for display only. All materials have advertised 9 percent parkland required by the parkland dedication ordinance yet neglect to note that a fee can be paid in lieu of giving land.
Accountability requires noting that Area C, also polluted property of the Ford Motor Company, has been dropped from clean-up discussions. Area C is proposed for possible recreational uses. The pollution report (May 2017), concluded that the current level of clean-up is not acceptable to recreational standards. “Direct contact with industrial waste and direct contact with surficial soil fill, contamination risk…” Why has Area C been dropped from the conversation? If the Ford Site Master Plan is approved, what leverage does the city have to get that polluted land in the river basin cleaned up?
Increasingly, citizens are frustrated. Too many report to St. Paul STRONG that they have no meaningful and significant way to influence major developments in their neighborhoods that potentially affect their daily lives and financial futures. The Ford Site process is just one example of the distrust that grows from that political reality.
Until the leadership of our City takes steps to provide meaningful processes and transparency about how the City does business, citizens will continue to see the kind of acrimony and hostility that currently characterize the dispute about the Ford Site.
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.”
September 8, 2017
Re: May 16, 2017 Letter
Dear Saint Paul City Council Members:
St. Paul STRONG (SPS) is a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes in local government, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul. This past May, SPS sent the City Council a letter regarding a fair amount of concern we have heard (and continue hearing) from residents who feel disenfranchised based on recent City activities. The concerns have been described as follows:
City staff who…
1. Neglect to provide all pertinent and accurate information related to a specific issue that affects organizations charged with decision making on projects that impact neighborhoods. (i.e. Planning Commission, District Councils, City Council, etc.).
2. Provide insufficient reports to the Saint Paul City Council on issues that impact citizens and neighborhoods.
3. Document public comments inaccurately by neglecting to use clear, concise, and consistent criteria to measure support or opposition to a given project.
As stated in our previous letter to the City Council, these gaps in data flow result in fractured public processes that inhibit meaningful discussions and informed, responsible decision-making. Given these observations and concerns about input and transparency, Saint Paul STRONG made the following recommendations to the City Council for consideration:
City staff reports should include all pertinent and accurate information related to an issue/project. i
Staff should establish clear, concise, and consistent criteria for categorizing public comments so that citizens understand how comments are weighted to indicate support or opposition. Then, planning commissioners, BZA members, & City Council members will get a fair representation of the neighbors' support, concerns, etc. ii
In order to inform planning commissioners, Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), and City Council members on neighborhood issues, District Councils should be encouraged to report committee and board votes and an overview of various positions, in their minutes and reports to city staff.iii
SPS’s previous letter went essentially unanswered by the City Council, except for two city council members who agreed with our third recommendation regarding District Councils but neglected to pursue the recommendation in any meaningful way. One city council member suggested that SPS was asking for too much in one letter.
The purpose of this letter is that Saint Paul STRONG would like a response to all three of its recommendations, with a particular focus on recommendations #1 and #2 for which the City Council has direct control. SPS would also welcome hearing about other opportunities the City has to improve information sharing practices that ensure public input and understanding that also safeguard transparent, open processes.
Saint Paul STRONG steering committee
During a recent Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) meeting, Planning and Economic Development (PED) staff stated to the Planning Commission that the City of Saint Paul must ensure the City is in compliance with the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. PED staff neglected to report that the City can decide to enact more protective zoning.
In its report to the City Council regarding proposed traffic circles on Idaho Avenue, PED staff neglected to report that Idaho is part of the St. Paul Bikeway Plan. Conversely, PED staff included in its report that buses and emergency vehicles may turn left on the two traffic circles, making it sound like a public safety issue on Idaho Ave. Staff neglected to say that left turns for buses and emergency vehicles are allowed on all traffic circles in St. Paul.
City staff at a recent Ford Site Plan meeting misinformed the community that another auto manufacturing plant could be built without city approval, when only light industrial zoning currently exists on the site. Staff also stated that heights of 75 ft. will not exceed six stories, however 75 ft. heights for residential buildings can reach seven or eight stories.
The public comment letters that were sent to the City regarding the Snelling/St. Clair proposed new development were grouped into favorable & unfavorable categories that misrepresented the actual support and opposition to the proposed new TN3 zoning.
This same issue was frequently reported regarding the Ford site planning and rezoning. The City has consistently downplayed the level of public opposition to its plan, regularly accounting for expressions of support in its summaries of the feedback while failing to account for more numerous expressions of opposition. This gives a false picture of the situation both to decision makers and to the public and calls into question the integrity of the process.
Mac-Groveland Housing and Land Use Committee had a fairly close vote in favor of new TN3 zoning for the Snelling/St. Clair development site demonstrating how split the committee members were on the issue. In addition, some of those in favor had not attended recent committee meetings or participated in public committee discussions that might have better informed their decisions.
August 28, 2017
Ramsey County Board of Commissioners
15 West Kellogg Blvd, Suite 220
Saint Paul, Minnesota, 55102
Dear Ramsey County Board of Commissioners:
St. Paul STRONG (SPS) is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving
representative government in St. Paul. All of the City of St. Paul is geographically within the confines of Ramsey County.
Since our goal is to improve accessible and representative government by encouraging and supporting open and transparent processes, SPS monitors and provides guidance to governmental entities that affect the residents of its city.
While this issue occurred many months ago, SPS believes it is its responsibility to express its concerns over actions taken by the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners (RCBC) when it appointed an interim County Sheriff following the resignation of Sheriff Matt Bostrom this past January.
As you know, the RCBC chose to appoint from within, not to seek a wider field of applicants, and not to follow a tradition used in filling vacancies on the Saint Paul City Council and Saint Paul School Board. That wise practice insisted that interim appointees not seek election in the next election cycle because the interim appointment gives an unfair advantage to that individual.
Some commissioners have claimed that a subsequent election will allow the
citizenry to evaluate the appointed individual’s performance and decide whether
they are worthy of their support. Any student of politics would challenge this argument as being disingenuous because unless the officeholder has acted egregiously the incumbent almost always has the advantage.
The last time the RCBC was in a position to appoint an interim sheriff was in 1992, when then Sheriff Zacharias ended his term to assume his presidential appointment as the US Marshall. Then, the RCBC hired Pat Moen as interim sheriff under the condition that she not seek election in the next cycle. While the decision to appoint an interim sheriff from within was the prerogative of the RCBC, it does raise questions about how the RCBC invites and encourages public comment and safeguards the public trust in the actions taken by the RCBC.
The RCBC lets citizens know that the way they have input is through individual meetings or phone calls to the commissioners. This process eliminates the opportunity for robust discussions that can lead to an improved understanding of any given issue, as well as informing the RCBC about potential unintended consequences. A democratic process that allows citizens’ comments
provides more accurate information and more informed, responsible decision making. When
individual members of the SPS Steering Committee have tried to contact members of the RCBC, they have been met with silence by several commissioners.
While the RCBC provided numerous explanations for their decision, the public should realize that when the newly appointed sheriff has appeared at several of the Saint Paul partisan precinct caucuses after his appointment, the action of the RCBC is viewed as putting its collective thumb on the scale and weighing in a year early on the next election cycle for County Sheriff.
If this is an indication of how the publicly elected RCBC conducts the people’s business, SPS has serious concerns about transparency on many issues that impact the citizens of St. Paul/Ramsey County, including investing significant taxpayer dollars on many economic development projects in Ramsey County. We believe that the RCBC should clearly state how the public can have input into the decision-making of the RCBC and also conduct internal evaluations to make its processes more
accountable and transparent.
Saint Paul STRONG steering committee
cc: Local Media Outlets
April 18, 2017
At the DFL-sponsored forum of St. Paul mayoral candidates at Concordia University last week, it was the big question, the one everybody was waiting for:
“Will you suspend your campaign if someone other than you is endorsed by the DFL?” MPR reporter Tim Nelson asked the four Democratic candidates.
How the candidates answered that question, after all, could influence how much support a candidate could get among those attending DFL caucuses and ward conventions that begin this Saturday, April 22.
“Undecided,” said former school board member Tom Goldstein.
“Yes,” responded Melvin Carter III, the former council member from Ward 1.
“Yes,” said Dai Thao, the current council members from Ward 1.
“No,” said former Ward 3 council member Pat Harris.
At an event sponsored by the DFL, the “correct” answer is always yes. But the query and the responses spoke to a much larger issue for the party — and the city: How much does it matter anymore?
An unlikely decision
The DFL dominates St. Paul politics. The current mayor and all seven council members are all members of the party, and an endorsement in the open mayor’s race would likely do much to boost a candidate in a crowded field of six candidates, especially since — based on last week’s debate before the party faithful — a voter might need dental floss to find any separation between the candidates on many of the issues.
So there is some risk to a candidate who doesn't agree to abide by the endorsement process. It could cost them the support of DFLers who think the party should pick the nominee — that DFL candidates should abide by the local party's wishes.
But in a city where the DFL dominates, a solo endorsement in a crowded field could also, in effect, turn over the choice of the next mayor to the relatively small number of DFL activists who attend the party's caucuses and city convention. That’s what happened in 2015, when a group of St. Paul Board of Education incumbents — all of whom had agreed not to run in the general election without the party's stamp of approval — were denied the DFL endorsement in favor of other candidates.
That's unlikely to happen this year. Under St. Paul DFL rules, a candidate needs to get the votes of 60 percent of delegates at the city convention to secure the endorsement. But with four of the six announced mayoral candidates in St. Paul seeking the DFL endorsement, and all four of those running rigorous campaigns, it will be difficult for any one of them to reach the 60 percent threshold. And with no endorsement, all four candidates would be free to continue to the November election without repercussions from miffed DFL activists.
Even Carter and Thao, both of whom promised to get out of the race should someone else get the endorsement, would be off the hook. And there will be at least two other candidates on the November ballot regardless of the DFL actions. Elizabeth Dickinson is running as a Green Party member, and Tom Holden is running as an Independent.
St. Paul city elections are non-partisan, at least according to the city charter. And because St. Paul, like Minneapolis, uses ranked-choice voting, there is no primary election, so all candidates who file for mayor will appear on the ballot together — without party label.
Even when St. Paul still had a primary and general election, however, the primary was ostensibly non-partisan, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the general election in November.
That hasn't stopped political parties from becoming an unofficial overlay on city elections. “Under the First Amendment, they are free to associate with whatever party they want to and they are free to seek the endorsement and the support of political parties,” said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager, which manages St. Paul city and school elections.
So the parties are free to support or oppose whichever candidate they want to — and to pressure non-endorsed candidates not to file with Mansky’s office once filing starts, on August 1.
At the candidate forum last week, while encouraging people to attend the party's precinct and ward meetings, St. Paul DFL Chair Libby Kantner compared the DFL endorsement to an organic certification on produce at the grocery store: a label that some shoppers use to choose among products. “Our endorsed candidates will have those certified organic marking,” she said. “And you can choose who gets that certification.”
Kantner said the St. Paul DFL has tried to make the endorsement process easier and more accessible. All precinct and ward meetings will be held on weekends, starting Saturday. And the precinct caucuses are being held on the same day and at the same site as ward conventions.
She said that while St. Paul elections are nonpartisan, the party “believes every election is an opportunity to stand up for our values. “The DFL endorsement process helps voters learn which candidate best represents the value of local Democrats.”
How RCV affects endorsements
Should someone win the DFL endorsement for St. Paul mayor, they would qualify for party support in the form of access to voter lists, help with volunteer recruitment and campaign materials. The last time there was a contested mayoral election, in 2005, the DFL-endorsed Chris Coleman defeated incumbent Randy Kelly by more than 35 points, in an election in which more than 59,000 votes were cast. (The last time there was an open seat in a St. Paul mayor's race was 2001.)
But with both St. Paul and Minneapolis having switched to a ranked-choice voting, some argue the endorsement simply doesn't matter as much anymore. When Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds announced last month that she would not take part in the Minneapolis DFL endorsement process, for example, she cited RCV as one reason for her decision. “In the advent of ranked-choice voting, there is simply no need for a DFL endorsement process anymore,” she said. “[RCV] is much more democratic, it’s open to the voices of the people and you get to choose from the best candidates, not just those who won the DFL beauty contest.”
Under RCV, voters rank the candidates who are their first, second and third choice. If nobody on the ballot gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate who receives the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and his or her second-choice votes are applied to the remaining candidates — a process that's repeated until there's a winner.
The St. Paul DFL has a mixed record on RCV. Kantner said the local party endorsed the concept in 2007 but did not endorse it in 2009, when it appeared on the ballot and was passed by St. Paul voters. (An endorsement of RCV has been part of the state DFL platform since 2012.)
Kantner said her board is split on RCV. “I assume there will be resolutions both for and against introduced at precinct caucuses,” she said.
She said those opposed to RCV feel that it weakens the role of the DFL, but the party is not behind an effort to place RCV on the ballot again for the purpose of repealing it.
Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, agrees, saying the repeal effort appears to be the work of DFL activist and St. Paul Charter Commissioner Chuck Repke. The move, which has been criticized by groups such as St. Paul STRONG for lack of transparency, has caught the attention of the St. Paul City City Council, which will discuss the issue Wednesday.
Massey said RCV “has played into the narrative of the weakening endorsement, but is not propelling it.
“The stakes are too high to endorse with strong competing interests in the city for the top office,” Massey continued. “The divisions are within the DFL party label, not between DFL and GOP or other parties.”
By John Mannillo and Shirley Erstad
The Villager Op-Ed
April 12, 2017
“The City Attorney said so,” is often the response that we, the public, get from City Hall when we are confounded by some process, procedure, or final action that otherwise makes no credible sense. When we seek to understand a council vote or mayoral decision shrouded in mystery, “it’s the opinion of the City Attorney” is a great strategy to stop conversation and controversy. However, eventually one realizes these are not legal imperatives but political decisions providing politicians with political cover.
There's no need to take our word for this when it’s clearly laid out on the city’s website: “The mission of the Saint Paul City Attorney's Office is to deliver outstanding legal services to the city by providing sound legal advice and superior legal representation to city officials to help them achieve their goals.” Saint Paul’s City Attorney is not elected, but appointed by the mayor. He or she serves at the pleasure of the mayor, supervising a large group of other attorneys.
The city’s mishandling of the right-of-way maintenance program is a good example. In 2011, the City Attorney refused to settle an appeal by two Lowertown churches that believed their right-of-way assessments were disproportionately higher than most downtown buildings. The churches sought to settle the appeal for a fraction of the final award. Given the city’s intransigence, the only recourse for the churches was to file a lawsuit.
Rather than weigh the potential cost of a long, drawn out lawsuit that the city was not guaranteed to win, the mayor and City Attorney chose to fight the case over six years in five different court rooms, culminating before the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruling didn’t just impact the churches; it deemed Saint Paul’s right-of-way maintenance program to be illegal.
This process was hard enough on the plaintiffs which were fortunate to be represented by pro bono counsel. The case was devastating for the City of Saint Paul. Using taxpayer resources, the City Attorney took the case against the churches through appeal after appeal. A case that could have been settled in 2011 for $30,000 resulted in a $32 million budget gap and drastic cut in services to taxpayers in 2017.
Such examples are all too common. In 2015, Saint Paul taxpayers were forced to pay an $800,000 settlement to a private restaurant at the city-owned Como Lakeside Pavilion. Here again, the mayor and City Attorney allowed a contract dispute to turn into a six-figure lawsuit, at the taxpayers’ expense.
Recently, when asked for the annual report showing funds collected and expenditures made under the city's Parkland Dedication Ordinance, city officials once again hid behind the City Attorney. Even though a 2015 report had been generated listing collected fees, the City Attorney advised that this report didn’t need to be issued until after expenditures had been made. How can anyone evaluate the ordinance if information will only be released after decisions have been made? This so-called legal opinion is not in keeping with an ordinance calling for an annual report to ensure transparency and accountability.
The collection of Parkland Dedication funds is triggered by development projects, including the Major League Soccer stadium in the Midway area and the redevelopment of the Ford site in Highland Park. State law requires that these funds be collected when permits are issued. Why would the city make the legal determination that this information need not be shared with the public?
The above examples appear to be political strategies proposed by the mayor and carried out by the City Attorney, but there's something deeply wrong with the process. When pushed for an explanation, city officials will admit the City Attorney's Office represents the mayor and City Council, not the public.
Saint Paul STRONG recommends that we look for solutions that address this issue of political manipulation wrapped in legal justifications. Perhaps one solution is to create an elected City Attorney to represent and advise the public. The Ramsey County Attorney is an elected official that voters are able to evaluate and vote into and out of office.
What we have now may be good for elected officials and city staff, but too often has encouraged poor policy decisions. Saint Paul deserves better. Holding our elected officials more accountable is a good way to increase public confidence.
John Mannillo is the spokesperson and Shirley Erstad a Steering Committee Member of Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting citizen participation and open and transparent public processes at City Hall.
Secrecy Rules, first in an occasional series
March 12, 2017
<John Mannillo, with the government watchdog group St. Paul STRONG, said he thinks the drive to delete records is more about limiting scrutiny.
Mannillo said internal e-mails led to embarrassing revelations about the city’s actions before a landslide that killed two children at Lilydale Regional Park in 2013 and its mishandling of a park restaurant concession that ended up costing the city $800,000.
“They don’t want to tell people anything because they’re afraid of looking bad,” Mannillo said.>
Excerpt from story in Star Tribune
Sunday, March 5, 2017
"Financially, we're in tough shape," said John Mannillo, spokesman for the open government advocacy group Saint Paul STRONG. The group formed during Coleman's tenure and frequently criticizes the mayor's administration for a lack of transparency.
John Mannillo's testimony on behalf of Saint Paul STRONG today regarding limiting email deletions in favor of a bill introduced (HF 1185) at the Capitol. Thank you to Don Gemberling, from our Steering Committee, for helping organize the effort and to Tom Erickson, a supporter of Saint Paul STRONG, for their help and testimony. The bill passed and now moves on to another committee in the House. John's comments:
“I am John Mannillo. I speak for Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan group of citizens, who believe the welfare of our communities is based on transparency and accountability of our Government. Our elected officials and the departments they oversee, too often give us reason to distrust their actions and motivations. In Saint Paul, the policy to delete email communications after 180 days, may be its most blatant example for lack of transparency and has resulted in loss of public trust. Without trust, most any action taken by government will be suspect. Unfortunately, this has been proven to be the case.
By allowing any City employee to unilaterally delete any email communication, with only minimal training, we are allowing truth to be buried and history to be erased. There will always be questions as to whether our elected officials are more concerned with their short term political future, rather than that of long term good public policy. How will they be accountable? We should never enable the potential abuse of our trust.”
Saint Paul STRONG, Spokesperson
February 28, 2017
Saint Paul STRONG
February 25, 2017
It has been brought to our attention that members of the Saint Paul Charter Commission will be discussing a ballot measure proposal that would set in motion the repeal of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) at the Charter Review Committee meeting this Monday, February 27, 4:30pm at City Hall Room 220 . While Saint Paul STRONG doesn't take a position on RCV, we are concerned about the lack of public process on this issue.
Here are some important process questions to consider:
When was the meeting set? How was it noticed? Is there a public hearing?
And this leads us to other questions:
Who appoints the Charter Commission? Are commissioners appointed by the Ramsey County Chief Judge with no city involvement?
How long have commissioners been serving on the commission? Are there no term limits?
Who staffs the commission?
How does a person apply?
Here is the list of commissioners:
Rich Kramer (Chair)
Putting RCV on the ballot was done by a citizen group working for two years and gathering thousands of petitions to get it on the ballot. And now, with virtually no public notice, the Charter Commission seems poised to put the question to undo RCV on the November 2017 ballot.
John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG spokesperson
Saint Paul STRONG, as a group, does not take positions on any issues. 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.
Editorial: Opt for more information and more access
February 19, 2017
Some questionable government-data and open-meeting practices in our hometown are in line for corrective action at the Capitol.
St. Paul residents should welcome the scrutiny.
Their city government has an email retention policy, launched in 2015, under which messages in employees’ inboxes are automatically deleted after six months (unless the emails are placed in other folders, where they will be retained for three years). Government watchdogs raise good questions about what’s retained, what’s lost and how the decisions might weaken government transparency and accountability.
Their school board last year sought and won an advisory opinion allowing it to close some meetings. It should be noted that the board ultimately did not exercise that option under the opinion, but the issue is germane. The opinion from the state’s Department of Administration, which advises public bodies under Minnesota’s open meeting law, said the board could hold closed meetings to improve trust, relationships, communications and collaborative problem-solving among its members. Not the public’s business? That’s a stretch.
“We’re lucky to have people who are paying attention to this stuff,” said Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government organization.
Proposals to address the issues have bipartisan support, and lawmakers should smooth their path to passage.
Included is a bill from Rep. Peggy Scott, an Andover Republican and House Civil Law Committee chair, that “has the right elements,” Ehling told us. With government units implementing varied policies, it calls for standardization with a minimum three-year retention period, and clarifies what’s defined as “correspondence” to include emails, as well as letters, other documents and records.
In recent years, we’ve see such entities as the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office and the city of St. Paul “start squeezing down the amount of time that they’re retaining emails,” said Ehling. Once that happens, “when you make records requests, you’re going to run up against the fact that things have been thrown out.”
The sheriff’s office, for example, is retaining emails for only 30 days “before they do an auto-delete,” he said, “and that’s just not long enough for people to be able to identify an issue and go back and ask for public information about government operations.”
“We’ve seen that trend accelerating,” said Ehling, who chairs his organization’s legislative issues committee.
The concern with policies like St. Paul’s, he said, includes material in the “transitory” category of emails that are bound for deletion. The city’s policy is saying, “Don’t worry about it; let it auto-delete. You don’t have to hold on to that.”
What worries open-records advocates, however, is that there’s “a lot of discretion in there for stuff to fall through the cracks,” Ehling said. “What we’re trying to do is urge that more specificity be brought to that.”
There’s recognition that not everything should be kept forever, Ehling acknowledges, but Scott’s bill seeks to replace vagueness and discretion about what can be disposed of with “better definition.”
The open-meeting measure — from Rep. Jeff Howe, a Rockville Republican — would address an interpretation of the law under which the school-board opinion was rendered. It allows closed meetings for “a public body’s training and planning sessions” and the board was instructed to avoid any issues specific to its official business during the sessions.
Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, ranking Democrat on the Civil Law Committee, told us he was surprised by the closed-meeting opinion. “That’s certainly not how we expect this to work,” he said. “You can have all the team-building exercises you want. This isn’t an H.R. department… This is the school board. That absolutely should be public.”
The bill is an appropriate fix, he told us.
Its language defines “meeting” as a gathering of a quorum or more of members at which they “discuss, decide or receive information as a group.”
School board meetings are clearly the public’s business. So is the trend by government units’ toward automatic deletion of emails.
The Pioneer Press’ Frederick Melo summed up the conundrum between public officials who defend the practice as necessary housekeeping versus the concerns of government watchdogs, journalists and archivists. He asked: “In the electronic age, how much information is too much information for government to sort and share with taxpayers? When does erasing messages — even seemingly casual ones — violate the public’s right to know?”
We opt for more information and more access. Lawmakers should, too.
Letter / Article as printed in the Villager, February 1-14, 2017 edition, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, February 2-8, 2017 edition, and the Park Bugle, February 2017 edition
To build the public trust, make St. Paul Gov’t more citizen-friendly (Villager), St. Paul Boards and Commissions appointment process still messy and murky (Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder), St. Paul appointment process messy and murky (Park Bugle)
Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? These existential questions go back to our very origins as human beings and may well be pondered by our descendants for time eternal. Everyone paying attention to our world today asks these questions as we reflect on trends and their outcomes.
St. Paul STRONG (SPS), while perhaps not framing the issue in those terms, has been working with the city of St. Paul with those questions in mind. Such work is evident and relevant in the citizen appointments, or lack thereof, to the city’s many boards and commissions.
Citizen participation and the perspective each individual brings are the reason these boards and commissions were created. The mayor, City Council and SPS all agree that the process for citizen appointments to, and service on, the city's boards and commissions needs to be improved.
Looking at the city's website, it’s hard to know what commissions have meetings and when, who is on the commissions, whether there are any vacancies, what a member's responsibilities are, whats on the agenda for upcoming meetings and so forth.
Since February 2016, SPS has been meeting with, and bringing suggestions to, City Council members and the mayor's staff. Almost all of SPS's ideas about openness, trust, responsibility, transparency and accountability have been favorably received.
Suggested improvements have included:
• An easy-to-use calendar posting when commissions meet and what's on the agenda;
• Biographies of current commission members, what part of town they are from, how much diversity they represent, and how long they have served;
• Members’ contact information so that fellow citizens can contact them and in that way bring more voices to the debate;
• Meeting minutes showing attendance, quorums and votes taken;
• Enforcement of a city policy to alternate morning and evening meetings for equitable availability and better attendance;
• Clarity on the member recruitment and application process, whether there are term limits, the number of vacancies, a way to acknowledge the receipt of an application, and the next steps in the process.
Appointments to these commissions need to reflect the makeup of the city if we hope to achieve equity. Consider this: Census data is collected every ten years. Some commission appointments are for three years with a three-term limit, but until recently the term limits were not honored. Many folks were sitting on these commissions for a decade or more. If our appointments today do not reflect census data now, and if these seats do not open up until after the next census, we’re going to fall even farther behind in reaching equity goals. That’s a trend we do not want to be setting.
After a year of meetings with city staff and elected officials during which there’s been little progress, it's time to take our campaign to the public. Please join us in our effort to make these needed changes happen. Call or write your City Council member and the mayor's office. Join with us at http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/home or https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/ or twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG.
As President Obama said so poignantly in his farewell address, and as did President Bush before him, “The Constitution is only a piece of paper.” True. It’s citizens who make it come alive and give it meaning.
Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Who makes St. Paul “The Most Livable City in America?” Is that just a slogan on a piece of paper or does it actually mean something?
John Mannillo, a resident of Highland Park, is the Spokesperson for Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in St. Paul.
Pioneer Press Guest Editorial
January 26, 2017
Thanks to a unanimous Supreme Court decision, St. Paul seems finally to have “found religion” concerning its problematic $32 million Street Assessment Program. The City has conceded that it has no defense to the 2011 court challenge by two Lowertown churches and it has now made a similar concession for later years. Faced with a class action on behalf of all St. Paul property owners in 2016, it has set aside $32 million in its 2017 budget, apparently indicating a possible return to traditional property taxes for that purpose in 2017.
While that would comply with the law, it is not the only legal option. The City should honestly admit that:
The Street Assessment Program (SAP) is really a tax, rather than a special assessment against all property owners, and the City should return to the regular ad valorem property tax to collect that money unless it finds a better and legal alternative
Its public works budget is woefully underfunded
Many city streets are in awful condition and far overdue for major repair
The SAP is inconsistent and unfair not only to nonprofits, but also to small commercial corner properties in the neighborhoods, and all commercially assessed properties which are charged more than the City’s actual costs
The SAP unfairly benefits the most valuable high-rise properties.
Instead of studying the issue internally for another year, the City needs to involve all stakeholders in a transparent and fair process to develop a consensus on the solution.
We urge the mayor to appoint a broadly representative task force of stakeholders led by a strong and experienced chair (a former state finance director, state auditor, or someone from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the U of M, for example). Because this is a $32-million-a-year problem, the City should commit enough money to adequately staff the process.
The timetable should be short but reasonable and the default solution should be a return by 2018 to the regular ad valorem property tax that all other Minnesota cities use for this purpose.
The task force should look closely at the inequities of the present SAP system such as:
1. Why a downtown church like First Baptist pays more than $18,000 annually while a 25-story office building like UBS Tower in Town Square pays less than $6,000;
2. Why some small businesses on the East Side pay annual assessments in excess of 3 percent of their assessed value on top of regular property taxes;
3. Why the state Capitol is assessed as a residence;
4. Why little parish churches like St. Mary’s in Lowertown pay more than the Cathedral;
5. Why First Baptist pays more assessments each year than the next 12 Baptist churches combined;
6. Why St. Mary’s and First Baptist would pay 1/5th of the assessments they currently pay if they were located one block east, by the police station.
The task force should hire special public relations or fundraising pros to initiate negotiations with the stakeholders, including the largest nonprofits, to negotiate a Payment in Lieu of Taxes for reasonable public works funding by nonprofits.
We believe that most nonprofit organizations would be willing to pay a fair share of the burden to fund these services that everyone needs. The City has never tried this — they have merely demanded that the nonprofits pay on a broken and inconsistent system that increases at 6 percent to 7 percent each year while exempting high-rise properties.
The task force should endeavor to devise a system that proportionally but legally burdens everyone, not just property owners. There needs to be an agreed limit on all of this and the allocation method should be based on property value rather than front footage to correct the huge exemption that the SAP gives to high-rise buildings. If everyone is asked to pay proportionately, it is easier to get agreement.
What other funding sources might be used? Would a Business Improvement District for certain areas of the city with special needs be better? Would a wheelage tax more closely link the cause of the problem to the solution?
It is not realistic to expect the mayor to approach the nonprofits with a plea that they give up their constitutional tax exemption. Community leadership outside of City Hall and an approach that sees everyone bearing a fair share of these common costs are necessary to achieve general agreement.
This crisis presents a good opportunity for Mayor Coleman and the City Council to seriously address a basic problem that has been ignored for too long. Indeed, a solution agreed upon by the outgoing administration represents a wonderful gift to its successor.
John Mannillo, a commercial real estate broker and developer, has been in business in St. Paul for more than 40 years. He submitted this column on behalf of the Saint Paul STRONG Steering Committee. A longer, more detailed version of this column is available here, on the Saint Paul STRONG website.
January 18, 2017
Dear St. Paul Planning Commission and City Council members,
Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) recently learned about the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) granted to the St. Paul Tennis Club (SPTC) by the Planning Commission for the SPTC building expansion plans. The process used by the City to grant a CUP to SPTC led to a neighbors' appeal to the City Council on December 7, 2016. Neighbors asked the City Council to deny the CUP and instead require SPTC to process a Nonconforming Use Permit for Expansion and Relocation (NUPER), which requires neighbor input on and approval of the building plan. While this story is detailed and complicated, SPS is primarily concerned about the following issues related to public process:
1. City staff disseminated inaccurate, incomplete and inconsistent information regarding the type of permit required for the SPTC expansion plans such as:
Determining that SPTC should apply for a CUP when a NUPER was clearly the appropriate permit for what was repeatedly identified by City staff as a “legal nonconforming use” property.
Erroneously Identifying SPTC as a noncommercial recreation facility to order to fit into a CUP application, while the City Staff report correctly identifies the SPTC land use under the commercial code “C-Health/Sports Club”. When neighbors pointed out this error as part of their appeal, rather than admit a mistake, City staff removed that code for land use from the next report.
City staff misrepresented the size of the SPTC expansion failing to acknowledge to the public that there would be a 66.6% increase in space and that the roof-top deck is a completely new addition, not a replacement. Those facts necessitate a NUPER to be processed.
2. City staff failed to collect pertinent, accurate environmental information related to the effects of the SPTC building plan on the neighborhood which is required to process either a CUP or a NUPER.
3. City staff failed to provide many property owners with the required timely notice about the Planning Commission Zoning Committee public hearing for the SPTC permit.
4. The Planning Commission Zoning Committee meeting was attended by three out of eight Zoning Committee members (not a quorum) who voted in favor of the SPTC expansion.
5. Zoning Committee members accepted as fact clearly inaccurate and misleading information regarding estimated levels of noise generated from the proposed roof-top deck. A true sound study should have been completed to inform the public process.
6. The City Attorney provided inaccurate information to Zoning Committee members and the public regarding the possibility of laying over the permit vote for two weeks.
7. The Planning Commission meeting was held and the Zoning Committee’s recommendation was adopted without any opportunity for public testimony or discussion with only ten commissioners present and eight absent.
8. The City Council kept the neighbors waiting for three hours while listening to all citizens who wanted to speak on the issue of the Police Civilian Review Board. The City Council President then strictly applied a 15 minute speaking time limit for neighbors of the SPTC, only granting them an additional 6 minutes after they objected to not being heard. Most neighbors who came to speak to the City Council were denied that opportunity.
9. The City Council could have voted for a layover to allow the SPTC and neighbors to try to work things out. The Council decided not to ask the SPTC whether they would agree to that extension and went ahead with the vote.
10. The City Council voted 6-1 against the neighbors' appeal without addressing specific appeal content and despite the issues of City staff's poor and inconsistent communication about permits and the lack of proper notification of property owners.
In summary, City staff, who are expected to facilitate accurate communication and serve the public, instead placed obstacles in the way for neighbors to participate in a meaningful public process. Instead of listening to neighbor concerns, they silenced them. Instead of promoting accountability, the City Council condoned impunity.
The experience of concerned neighbors attempting to wade through the murky rules and inconsistent practices of the St. Paul City Zoning Committee, Planning Commission, and City Council shows how a failed public process instills frustration and mistrust of our City government. Saint Paul STRONG looks forward to hearing what remedy you will afford these neighbors of SPTC so that their voices will be heard and their concerns addressed regarding the building expansion project, and how you will work to prevent this from happening again.
Linda Winsor, Saint Paul STRONG, Communications
Saint Paul STRONG, as a group, does not take positions on any issues. 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.
Saint Paul STRONG
Editorial, January 18, 2017
From Saint Paul STRONG Contact: John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG Spokesperson
Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Existential questions that do not begin with us, but likely go back to our very origins as human beings and may very well be pondered by our descendants through time eternal. Anyone paying attention to our world today feels these acutely as we reflect on trends, elections, and their outcomes.
Saint Paul STRONG (SPS), while perhaps not framing the issue in those terms, has been working with the City of St. Paul with those questions in mind. Such work is evident and relevant in the citizen appointments, or lack-thereof, to the city’s many boards and commissions.
Citizen participation and the perspective each individual brings is the very reason these formats were created. The Mayor, the City Council, and SPS all agree the process for citizen appointment to, and service on, the City's boards and commissions needs to be improved. Looking at the City's website it's hard to know what commissions have meetings and when, who's on the commissions, whether there are vacancies, what a member's responsibilities are, what's on the agenda, and so forth.
Since February, 2016, SPS has been meeting with, and bringing suggestions to, Council Members and the Mayor's staff. Almost all of SPS's ideas about openness, trust, responsibility, transparency, and accountability have been favorably received. Suggested improvements include:
(1) An easy-to-use calendar posting when commissions meet and what's on the agenda;
(2) Biographies of current commission members, what part of town they're from, how much diversity they represent, and how long they've served;
(3) Contact information so their fellow citizens can contact them, and in that way, more voices are heard at the table;
(4) Minutes showing attendance, quorums, and votes taken;
(5) Enforcement of city policy to alternate morning and evening meetings for better attendance and equitable availability;
(6) Clarity on recruitment and application process to become a member, whether there are term limits, number of vacancies, and a way to acknowledge receipt of an application to serve, together with the next steps in the process.
Appointments to these commissions need to reflect the makeup of our community if we hope to achieve equity in our fair city. Consider this: census data is collected every ten years. Some commission appointments are for three years, with a three-term limit, but up until recently, the term limits were not honored. Many folks were sitting in these seats for a decade or more. If our appointments today don’t reflect census data now, we are going to be even farther behind in reaching equity goals if these seats don’t open up until after the next census is taken ten years from now. That is a trend we do not want to be setting.
After a year of meetings with city staff and elected officials (and making suggestions), there has been so little progress, it's time to take our campaign to the public. Please join us in our effort to make these needed changes happen. Call or write your Council Member and the Mayor's Office. Find us, or join with us:
As President Obama said so poignantly in his farewell address, and President Bush before him, “The Constitution is only a piece of paper.” True. It is the citizens that make it come alive and give it meaning.
Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Who makes St. Paul “The Most Livable City in America?” Is that just a slogan we put on a piece of paper or does it mean something?
By John Mannillo
January 4, 2017
We at Saint Paul STRONG have been following the Ramsey County Board’s process for replacing Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who is leaving his position mid-term to work at the University of Oxford in England. We have several concerns that we would like the County Board to consider and address:
1. The Board’s decision to interview only the sheriff’s chief deputy for interim sheriff brings into question the principles of transparency, fairness and inclusiveness. The decision to not open up the process to other applicants is problematic for several reasons. The board’s decision seems to eliminate other capable law enforcement professionals--- including women and people of color---from applying and competing for the position. We have no issues with the chief deputy, and in an open and competitive process he might very well be the right person for the position. But a fair process should be open to an entire universe of possible candidates—not just one insider.
2. This is not a short-term vacancy where a replacement serves three to six months. The Board will be making a two-year appointment. Under the circumstances, there is no reason that an open, public hiring process cannot occur. Hiring an interim position is not a new undertaking for local units of government. The St. Paul City Council and School Board recently filled two vacant positions. However, in both of these cases, the interims were hired with the condition they not run for the position in the next election.
We have not heard the Board discuss a similar condition for filling the sheriff vacancy. By not doing so, the Board, rather than the voters, will effectively be deciding the 2018 election for sheriff. One commissioner stated that “candidates will be able to go to voters [in 2018] and convince them they’re the right person to lead the sheriff’s office.” Conversely, another commissioner noted, “the appointee would have the upper hand if he or she runs for election in 2018.”
3. The plan to interview one insider candidate and then appoint him unless the board finds they “are not satisfied in the vision he spells out” is a deception to the citizens of Ramsey County. The Board appears to have already chosen the deputy sheriff based on Chair Victoria Reinhardt's statements in several stories in December in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Under the guise of presenting an open and transparent process, the county board is not only excluding other candidates, they are assuring that the deputy sheriff will be selected unless an issue were to surface during the interview process. This gives the public the impression that the deputy sheriff was the superior candidate, even though he had no competition. The argument made to the Board by county staff that there isn’t sufficient time to have an open competitive process is specious at best. The board could have an expedited process.
4. The Board seems to have ignored other issues that have surfaced at the Sheriff’s Department during the sheriff’s absence while they now are rushing to fill the vacancy. At the board’s workshop, apparently no commissioner questioned Sheriff Bostrom’s statement that he ran the department from London (4000 miles away) for 30 days while he was being paid his salary.
We respectfully request that the Ramsey County Board cease its current plan to interview one person and instead offer an open, competitive and public hiring process. If the board continues down its current path of appointing an insider, Saint Paul STRONG hopes that person would be appointed with the condition that he not run for election in 2018, so that the voters of Ramsey County can in actuality make their choice.
John Mannillo, a resident of Highland Park, serves as the spokesperson for Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization that is dedicated to improving open and representative government in St. Paul.
January 4, 2017
The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to appoint the sheriff’s second-in-command for the sheriff job, despite criticism from some about not opening up the job for applications. Commissioners will vote on the matter at their board meeting next Tuesday.
Sheriff Matt Bostrom retired Tuesday. He was halfway through his second four-year term as sheriff and the County Board is responsible for appointing a new sheriff until the next election in 2018.
Commissioners considered opening up the appointment to applications, but decided to interview only Ramsey County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Jack Serier. Commissioners have said they want the sheriff’s office work to continue with as little disruption as possible.
Among the people who came to listen to Serier’s public interview Tuesday were 10 Ramsey County jail correctional officers and sergeants. The union representing correctional officers has raised safety concerns about understaffing, saying in a letter to county commissioners last month that the jail is in a “state of emergency” and a steward said he felt Serier had only skimmed the surface of the issue during his interview.
Serier initially brought up the issue, telling commissioners: “My concern and the work of our administration staff on detention staffing are something we have been working on for quite some time. … I also recognize that this is one of many staffing concerns that are placed before you on a regular basis and I will not act in any way publicly to sensationalize the issue.”
A consulting firm conducted a staffing study of the entire sheriff’s office, which is due to be presented to the board this year.
Commissioner Blake Huffman pressed Serier about his approach to jail staffing going forward, saying the safety implications are important.
“There’s a number of different things,” Serier said. “… One of them is certainly going to be a request for staff.” He also said they’d be looking at how they’re scheduling staff and whether the overtime they’re spending to fill staff shortages could be converted to full-time equivalent positions “to try to make more positions without creating more budgetary burden.”
The sheriff’s office 2017 operating budget is $54.9 million and provides for 395 full-time employees.
Chad Lydon, a union steward and correctional officer, said he was glad the topic of jail staffing was discussed Tuesday, but he’d hoped to hear a more concrete action plan because the issue has been ongoing for years.
“We were really looking forward to an answer today and we didn’t get it,” he said.
CONTINUING BOSTROM’S WORK
Commissioners say they approve of the direction that Bostrom took the sheriff’s office, and Serier told them Tueday that he shared Bostrom’s vision. He offered his thoughts about the already-established goals of the sheriff’s office, including:
Diversifying the department to reflect the community. “In order to continue to address the questions about disparity of outcomes in law enforcement, it is important to engage communities in ongoing discussions, but also to make sure that we have representatives of communities as members of our staff and our administration,” Serier said.
Providing safety through community policing. “My personal beliefs about community policing go back to my earliest practices as a patrol officer,” said Serier, who was previously an officer in Stillwater, Eagan and St. Paul and has 26 years of law enforcement experience overall. “Without engaging community … we are just simply not effective.”
Collaborating with public safety, community and justice partners. Serier said he’s passionate about “correcting the unintentional detention of many people who get stuck in the criminal justice system who have mental health issues.”