How much does the DFL's endorsement matter for St. Paul mayoral candidates this year?

MinnPost

By Peter Callaghan

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.

'Non-partisan' elections?

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.”

 

Take the politics out of City Attorney's Office

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.

Star Tribune: Governing Goes Off the Record

Secrecy Rules, first in an occasional series

March 12, 2017

Excerpt:

<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.>

http://www.startribune.com/growing-web-of-laws-keeps-minnesotans-in-the-dark/415693713/

In governor's race, St. Paul's Coleman takes on mayoral jinx

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.

See article: http://m.startribune.com/in-governor-s-race-st-paul-s-coleman-takes-on-mayoral-jinx/415406404/

Testimony at State Capitol: email deletions bill February 28, 2017

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.”

John Mannillo

Saint Paul STRONG, Spokesperson

February 28, 2017

St. Paul Charter Commission: Lack of public process on Ranked Choice Voting

Saint Paul STRONG

NEWS RELEASE

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)

  • Debbi Montgomery

  • Kathi Donnelly-Cohen

  • Bridget Faricy

  • Amy Filice

  • George Johnson

  • John Kirr

  • Joyce Maddox

  • David Maeda

  • Gladys Morton

  • Virginia Rybin

  • Brian Alton

  • Chuck Repke

  • Rick Varco


Background info:
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

651 292-8306

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.

http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/

https://twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG

Email Deletions & School Board open-meeting practices

Editorial: Opt for more information and more access

By Pioneer Press Editorial Board

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.

To build the public trust, make St. Paul Gov’t more citizen-friendly

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.

John Mannillo: How to address St. Paul's $32 million ROW hole

Pioneer Press Guest Editorial

By John Mannillo

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.

St. Paul Tennis Club expansion: failed public process

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.

Sincerely,

Linda Winsor, Saint Paul STRONG, Communications

indajwinsor@gmail.com

651.224.6004

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.

http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/

https://twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG

St. Paul Boards and Commissions Appointment process still messy and murky

Saint Paul STRONG

Editorial, January 18, 2017

From Saint Paul STRONG Contact: John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG Spokesperson

john@mannillowomack.com 651.292.8306

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:

http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/

https://twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG

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?

Replacing Sheriff Bostrom demands open, public process

By John Mannillo

Villager Editorial

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.

 

 

 

Ramsey County board agrees: Sheriff’s second in command should be next sheriff

Pioneer Press

By Mara H. Gottfried | mgottfried@pioneerpress.com

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.”

NO APPLICATION PROCESS

Another person observing Serier’s interview was someone who’d expressed interest in the sheriff job to county commissioners: Laura Goodman, a public-safety professional.

“This is about a process that was closed,” Goodman said after the meeting. “… It’s disappointing for me as a citizen of Ramsey County, it’s disappointing for a wide variety of diverse, highly talented candidates that could have been considered, that the public could have considered.”

St. Paul STRONG, an open government group, has also been critical of the process, saying whoever gets the sheriff job will have an advantage come election time. Serier said Tuesday that he didn’t know whether he would run for sheriff in 2018.

County Board chair Victoria Reinhardt said she thought the board had carried out a good process.

“I think one of the real gems of what we have been able to do over the past month or so is really define what we expect and the accountability that goes with that,” she said.

Watchdog group skeptical of appointing ‘interim’ Ramsey County sheriff

Pioneer Press

By Tad Vezner | tvezner@pioneerpress.com

December 31, 2016

A government watchdog group has joined a chorus concerned that the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners is interviewing just one candidate for interim sheriff — a position that would give him a decided advantage come election time.

“A fair process should be open to an entire universe of possible candidates — not to just one insider,” the group, Saint Paul STRONG, said Friday in a written statement, noting that the position would be a two-year appointment.

Last week, the Ramsey County Board decided to interview only Chief Deputy Sheriff Jack Serier, outgoing Sheriff Matt Bostrom’s second-in-command, for the opening.

The members had previously expressed interest in an open-application process. However, they subsequently decided against it, noting that the process would take months and that they were happy with the direction the sheriff’s office was heading.

In a written reaction, County Board chair Victoria Reinhardt said she “appreciated” Saint Paul STRONG’s comments and noted that Serier would be interviewed during a Tuesday public forum at the Ramsey County Courthouse.

The bigger issue, critics say, is that incumbent sheriffs are very difficult to defeat come election time. They add that by appointing an “interim” sheriff, the County Board is likely appointing someone who will have the job for years to come, should he want it.

“The fact is, sheriff’s races, people don’t really pay attention to them,” said Laura Goodman, a retired longtime law enforcement official who once headed Minnesota’s crime victim ombudsman’s office and who has stated interest in the Ramsey County sheriff’s position. “An incumbent sheriff rarely — rarely — has any competition. By the board doing this, they’re creating an incumbent sheriff. People go to the election box, see an incumbent and go ‘check.’ ”

In 1992, when Ramsey County Sheriff Charles Zacharias retired in midterm, the County Board asked his internal replacement, Pat Moen, to agree not to run in the next election if she were to take the position.

It was the only time in recent history that a Ramsey County sheriff had exited midterm. Moen became the county’s first female sheriff, for two years.

“I’m hoping the board’s decision would lead to a more open election in 2018. I think given where we are today, and given what the board is likely to do, that would a good middle ground,” said Nancy Haas, a lobbyist, attorney and police officer who chairs the St. Paul Police Foundation. “I’ve talked to a lot people who would like to apply, but say they wouldn’t run against an incumbent. … There’s a strong pool of local residents and law enforcement leaders who would consider this (interim) position if it was open.”

In its statement, Saint Paul STRONG agreed: “By not doing so (giving a stipulation against running), the Board, rather than the voters, will effectively be deciding the 2018 election for sheriff.”

In recent instances, both the St. Paul school board and city council appointed interim members — with the condition that they wouldn’t run in the next election.

But Reinhardt was dismissive of the idea.

“Throughout this process, board members have all emphasized that the top priority in this decision is public safety. Asking any appointee to act strictly as a placeholder for nearly two years is at odds with the continuing advancement of public safety for our residents and other stakeholders,” Reinhardt said, adding she believed that voters would get their say in 2018.

Goodman also took issue with the board using the precedent that 11 of the last 12 openings for an interim county sheriff elsewhere in Minnesota were filled by county boards with a second-in-command.

“That’s fine, that’s a fact, but then you have to ask yourself what does that mean,” Goodman said, saying that process perpetuates a system that isn’t necessarily the best one.

“In Minnesota, there are 87 sheriffs, and three are women. … That perpetuates a process that prohibits new blood from coming in. New ideas, new visions, different thinking than what’s always been done.”

Current Sheriff Matt Bostrom is retiring Tuesday to take a position with the University of Oxford in England; the election for a new sheriff will be in 2018. County charter and state law indicate that a county board is responsible for appointing someone to fill a sheriff’s vacancy but does not specify the process to do so.

Ramsey County staff told commissioners they could take one of several paths: a conventional, national search with a hired firm taking six to seven months; an expedited process where commissioners take applications and interview, which could take two to three months; interview just Serier; or appoint Serier outright. The two last options would take a matter of weeks.

The board chose to interview Serier on Tuesday, rather than appoint him outright. Members have said they have confidence in Serier but could decide to accept other applicants for the job if they are not satisfied with the vision he spells out.

If commissioners proceed with Serier as their choice, they could appoint him sheriff at their Jan. 10 meeting.

Ramsey County Sheriff Appointment

SPS Letter to Ramsey County Commissioners

December 30, 2016

Dear Chair Reinhardt and Commissioners:

St. Paul STRONG is a non-partisan organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in St. Paul. St. Paul is the largest city in Ramsey County, so we are also concerned with the actions of the Ramsey County Board which impact the citizens of St. Paul.

We 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 Board to consider and address.

  1. The Board’s decision to interview only the sheriff’s chief deputy for interim sheriff brings to 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 to just one insider.   

 

  1. This is not a short-term vacancy where a replacement serves for 3-6 months. To fill this vacancy, 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 the St. Paul School Board recently filled two vacant positions. However, in both of these cases, the interims were hired with the condition that they not run for the position in the next election.

 

We have not heard the Board discuss a similar condition for this 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.”

 

  1. 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 already have chosen the deputy sheriff based on Chair Reinhardt statements (12/6/2016, 12/7/2016, 12/13/2016, and 12/14/2016) in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

 

Under the guise of presenting an open and transparent process, the Board is not only excluding other candidates, but they are assuring that the deputy sheriff will be selected unless (highly unlikely) 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.

 

  1. 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, England (4000 miles away) for 30 days while he was being paid his salary.

 

We respectfully request that the Ramsey County Board cease their current plan to interview one person and instead offer an open, competitive and public hiring process. If the Board continues down their current path of appointing an insider, St. Paul STRONG hopes that person would be appointed with the condition that he cannot run for election in 2018, so that the voters of Ramsey County can in actuality make their choice.

 

Sincerely,

John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG spokesperson

651 292-8306

 

http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/

https://twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG

 

 

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman will not run for re-election

Decision adds fire to talk of bid for governor in 2017. 

By Jessie Van Berkel Star Tribune

December 2, 2016 — 9:49am

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who has led the city for more than a decade, will not run for re-election next year.

He announced his decision Thursday at a brewery just south of University Avenue, where he touted St. Paul’s growth and accomplishments during his nearly three terms in office. He stopped short of committing to future political plans.

Coleman has said he is considering a run for governor, but did not confirm whether he will enter that race. If he does, he is expected to be one of many people vying for the state’s top political office.

“Obviously it’s something I’ve been thinking about, but today my focus is just about the work that lies ahead for the next year in the city,” Coleman said in an interview, adding that his decision on the governor’s race “will come a little bit later.”

His announcement before family members and supporters at Lake Monster Brewing leaves the door open for others with mayoral aspirations. So far, only Melvin Carter III, a former City Council member who heads the state’s Office of Early Learning, and former school board member Tom Goldstein have filed to form campaign committees.

But former City Council member Pat Harris said he is considering it and will make an announcement soon, and Council Member Amy Brendmoen said a lot of people have been encouraging her to go after the job.

People have been waiting for Coleman to say whether he would run again before announcing their candidacy, Brendmoen said.

Looking back at his time in the mayor’s office, Coleman said he was proud of the renewed vitality in St. Paul, with the Green Line, the restaurants and CHS Field in Lowertown, and the Palace Theatre opening.

“It’s on every corner. People are investing in the community, people are moving into the city of St. Paul,” Coleman said.

Praise and criticism

Coleman did a good job helping St. Paul navigate the recession, said Don Mullin, executive secretary of the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council. He has spurred growth and shepherded projects like CHS Field and the Penfield apartment complex to fruition, Mullin said.

But Coleman is stepping away with a number of major projects still underway in St. Paul. Construction is expected to occur over the next year on the new Major League Soccer stadium in the Snelling-Midway neighborhood, and Ford may begin seeking a master developer for its former plant site in Highland Park in 2017.

In addition to those projects, Coleman said, the next mayor will have to deal with budget constraints and the nationwide challenges of investing in transportation infrastructure and combating climate change. He or she will also have continue work on equity issues in the city, Coleman said.

Tyrone Terrill, who used to head the city’s Human Rights Department and is now president of the African American Leadership Council, said there has been give-and-take between Coleman and civil rights organizations, but he has been good to work with.

“The mayor’s always stayed at the table, even during difficult times,” Terrill said.

Coleman is one of St. Paul’s longest-serving mayors, behind just George Latimer and Robert Smith. A lifelong resident of St. Paul, Coleman previously served on the City Council and was a public defender and prosecutor in Hennepin County before that.

He has critics, such as the group St. Paul STRONG, which has faulted his administration for a lack transparency and making decisions without enough public input. The mayor’s proposal to install parking meters in Grand Avenue last year was particularly contentious, and the city did not move forward with it after complaints about the lack of public input and potential impact on residents and businesses.

John Mannillo, spokesman for St. Paul STRONG, said he fears Coleman is “running out the clock” and leaving financial issues, including too much reliance on tax increment financing and problems with the right of way assessment process, to the next mayor.

Despite the criticism, Coleman has won past elections with ease, getting nearly 79 percent of the vote in 2013.

A crowded field

If Coleman runs for governor in 2017, he will have to garner support from outstate Minnesota. He would likely be up against candidates who hold statewide positions.

DFLers, including Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and Attorney General Lori Swanson have acknowledged they are considering gubernatorial bids, as have GOP Chairman Keith Downey, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt and many others. Coleman would also be facing another St. Paul resident, DFL state Rep. Erin Murphy, who announced her candidacy in November.

Coleman has been attending events far outside St. Paul. He spoke at the Owatonna Rotary Club in August, and he was all over the state — from Hibbing to Northfield — campaigning for Democrats ahead of the 2016 election.

He declined to talk about how he would potentially balance the demands of running for governor with running St. Paul.

“I’m not going to talk about what I might do in the future,” Coleman said. “But what I will say is one of the things I’m proud of is the team I’ve put in place and the folks I have working on every level of the city.”

Much of that team was at the brewery Thursday, where Coleman went over his “greatest hits list” of triumphs and detailed future challenges. Then he lifted a glass to the packed room.

“To St. Paul, and to its people and to its future,” the mayor said.

 

Why a simple question about body cameras has become deal-breaker for some police reform advocates in St. Paul

By Peter Callaghan

November 14, 2016

 

Many civilians who’ve weighed in on body camera policies have objected to police officers seeing video before writing reports, fearing it could taint an officer’s recollections and experiences.

Amid a national discussion over the introductions of body cameras for police officers, the issue of when and whether cops can look at the video footage from their cameras has emerged as a significant point of disagreement in the City of St. Paul.  

The leader of the St. Paul NAACP has called part of the city's current draft policy on body cams a “trust buster,” while the ACLU of Minnesota said it could undermine the legitimacy of police investigations, and the founder of a police watchdog organization said it could undermine police accountability.

And while the St. Paul City Council has no formal role in creating the policy governing the use of cameras by the city's cops — something the council president dubbed “kind of bizarre” — the elected leaders of the city have pledged to remain part of the conversation. “Obviously there’s still a lot of questions out there in the community about the details of the plan,” Council President Russ Stark said after more than an hour of testimony at a meeting earlier this month.

At that meeting, there were objections about using body cams for surveillance; about when they are turned on and off; about how they are used inside homes; and about how and when the video is made available to the public.

But only one issue was called a “deal-breaker.”

Draft policy allows cops to see footage before writing reports

As written, the draft policy for St. Paul Police calls for officers to have access to body cam footage before it is made public “for legitimate law enforcement purposes, including but not limited to report writing.”

There is an exception, however, for officers who are involved in “critical incidents” — defined in policy as when deadly force is used including the use of a gun or when force is used that causes “great bodily harm or death.”

That language follows the thinking of many, if not all, police brass and rank and file, who think it makes sense that officers have all information in front of them — including body cam footage — before writing up official reports of incidents. Those reports are often used in court and form the basis of judgments as to whether officers had probable cause to even stop someone.

But many civilians who’ve weighed in on body camera policies have objected to police officers seeing video before writing reports, fearing it could taint an officer’s recollections and experiences. At worst, they fear that officers who are intent on deception could use the video to help create the most convincing lie.

And the matter now threatens to disrupt St. Paul's body cam pilot project, which is set to start later this month. In fact, though the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, along with the St. Paul African American Leadership Council and the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance had written letters to the federal government to help the city win a $600,000 grant to purchase cameras, all three have now put the language about prereport review at the center of their objections to the draft policy.

“We cannot endorse or support this policy in its current form,” Jeffry A. Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP told the City Council. “And we cannot sacrifice the credibility of the oldest civil rights organization in Minnesota and the country by lending our names to its implementation.”

Martin told the council that video shows a partial, and sometimes misleading, perspective. But once seen by an officer, it cannot help but influence his or her recollection and cause the written report to reflect that perception rather than what the officer recalls. “In short, there is no incentive for a police officer to file a transparent and accountable written report that might result in discipline, a civilian complaint or even criminal charges if that officer has been granted prereview of the body camera footage,” Martin said.

In written comments, the state chapter of the ACLU was also critical of the proposal, saying that allowing officers to look at video before they write reports “could undermine the legitimacy of their investigations.” And Michelle Gross, one of the founders of and current president of the Minneapolis-based Citizens United Against Police Brutality, told the council that it “completely destroys the evidentiary value of the police report.”

“You’re allowing the officer to come back after the fact and see things they didn’t see before,” Gross said. “A police report should accurately reflect what the officer knew and the officer saw before they took the action they took. Probable cause and everything rides on that.”

In his presentation to the council, St. Paul Police Senior Commander Axel Henry said the department is relying on lessons learned from the U.S. Department of Justice as well as national police groups such as the Police Executive Research Forum. Both endorse prereport viewing of video. “We are in line with all of the recommendations … which found that the best evidence of what actually occurred was where officers were allowed to view video in which they were involved,” Henry said.

In its recommendations on body camera, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services found that “Police executives who favor review said that officers will be held accountable for their actions regardless of whether they are allowed to watch the video recordings prior to making a statement.”

Dayton’s viewpoint

The issue has its origins in a decision made by Gov. Mark Dayton during the closing days of the 2016 legislative session. After hearing concerns of civil rights and open government advocates, Dayton said he would veto a proposed bill on body camera policies unless certain changes were not made. “My issue was not that I oppose law enforcement being able to review the video before they filed their reports,” Dayton told the UpTake. “It was that they were given the exclusive ability, right, to do that. And meanwhile the (video) could be withheld from everyone else.”

The final bill did, in fact, limit how and when the public could see video captured by body cams. But Dayton did win one change: The final bill removed the state mandate that officers could review video. Instead, the issue was left up to each local government.

Before the governor acted on the bill, however, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — the agency that has been investigating recent deaths at the hands of Minneapolis and Saint Anthony officers — testified that it opposed letting cops review video before writing reports. The BCA has insisted that any video showing the police shooting incidents it is investigating not be released for fear that it would taint eyewitness accounts.

In a study on the topic, Kathy Pezdek, the chair of the Cognitive Science Program at Claremont Graduate University, essentially makes the same argument for police officers themselves. She found that an officer’s recollection and notes are valuable sources of information independent of the video. But once the officer views the video, these sources tend to merge. “The problem is that in so doing, two independent lines of evidence — the officer’s eyewitness memory and the recorded footage — are no longer two independent lines of evidence,” Pezdek wrote. If video is ‘ground truth,’ then the testimony of officers is not needed.”

“But often the officer’s perception of what occurred is as or more important than what actually occurred,” she continued. “It is thus important to preserve the officer’s perception of the event and not taint his memory by letting him view the recorded footage.”

Compromise?

When Minneapolis Police Department was drafting its policy, the city's police oversight commission proposed two ideas to resolve police needs and public concerns. The department could require that reports be written before viewing videos but then allow clearly marked addendums after viewing video “to explain any lack of clarity or consistency between the two.”

Another proposed compromise was to block viewing of any video when an officer “is suspected of wrongdoing or involved in a shooting or other serious use of force.”

The first idea was not adopted by the Minneapolis police — but the second was. Officers can review video in all cases not considered “critical incidents,” defined as those involving use of deadly force by officers or against officers that result in great bodily harm or death. “In these cases, it is logical to limit officer access to [body camera] video, leaving the decision of whether and when to show an officer this video to the investigating agency,” the police department wrote in its overview of the policies. In most cases, that investigating agency will be the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

St. Paul’s draft policy has similar wording to Minneapolis', though it is less clear and more bureaucratic. As stated in the draft, the officer would be able review body cam footage in all noncritical incidents. In critical incidents, the officer would be able to review footage only after meeting with with union legal council and after being interviewed by the entity investigating incidents “where serious injury or death result during police custody or involvement.”

As with other police agencies, body camera policies are written by police departments and are not approved by elected city councils. And while St. Paul has had one public hearing on the issue, the department will began its pilot project this week — before a second hearing on the issue is to take place, on Nov. 16, which is required by city policy because the first hearing came without adequate advance notice.

That sequence caused one group of residents, St. Paul STRONG, to call on the council and mayor to delay the start of the pilot, “until we can reach some type of mutually beneficial consensus on how we move forward — thereby addressing the breach of trust that already exists, rather than broadening it.”

The St. Paul Police Department's Henry told the council the department will test one camera for 30 days, then, following a two week interim, test a second camera for 30 days. It hopes to choose a winning vendor and then roll out cameras incrementally over three or four months. Full implementation is expected by October of 2017.

 

Saint Paul STRONG urges Saint Paul Mayor and Police Chief to "Hold their Horses" on Police Body Worn Camera Program rollout

Saint Paul STRONG

News Release


November 7, 2016

Kudos to Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell for his courageous public apology and release of a dash camera video which showed an innocent Saint Paul citizen, Frank Baker, who was attacked by a police dog and an officer on the City's East Side. In reality, the video, which is public information under MN law, had been requested by a local news outlet and Mr. Baker's attorney just days before its release by the Saint Paul Police Department (SPPD). The incident occurred more than four months ago on June 24th, less than 2 weeks prior to the officer-involved killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN. Mr. Baker also deserves our thanks for being willing to keep the incident out of the public eye at a time when protesters were blocking I-94, camping out in front of the Governor's Mansion, and marching through the streets of the Twin Cities to protest the Castile killing.

This brings us to the Saint Paul City Council public hearing that was held November 2nd on the proposed SPPD's "Pilot" Body Worn Camera Program, which is scheduled to be rolled out on Wednesday, November 9th in the SPPD Western District of Saint Paul. At the hearing, City Council President Russ Stark said he could not remember when so many people showed up--with so much passion--at a public hearing before the City Council. The rub is that the Council was informed, rather bluntly, that they played no role at all and had no authority to accept or modify the "pilot" policy on their agenda. It is entirely up to Mayor Coleman. As Council Member, Dan Bostrom, (a retired Saint Paul police officer) pointed out, the large number of citizens and community-based organizations who testified at the hearing (including the NAACP, African American Leadership Council, and the Saint Paul Black Ministerial Alliance), demonstrated that a consensus or agreement on the "pilot" policy does not exist in the City. Since the "pilot" policy was placed on the Police Dept. website on October 27th--just 6 days before the public hearing on Nov. 2nd--the City Council held the matter over until their next public hearing date of Nov 16th, which is one week AFTER the program will have already been in operation.

Saint Paul STRONG urges the Mayor and SPPD Chief Axtell to allow adequate time for public input BEFORE the program is rolled out on our city streets. This policy should not be rushed into implementation or "vendor-driven" down the throats of the citizens of Saint Paul. Given the events portrayed in the video of Mr. Baker last week and the lack of agreement or consensus between the Police Dept. and many segments of the community, Saint Paul STRONG believes it would be in the best interest of all for the Mayor and the Police Chief to shelve the implementation of the Worn Body Camera Program until we can reach some type of mutually beneficial consensus on how we move forward--thereby addressing the breach of trust that already exists, rather than broadening it.

You can learn more about Saint Paul STRONG, its members and principles at http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

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.

For further information contact:

John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG Spokesperson

John@mannillowomack.com

651.292.8306 

or

Linda Winsor, Saint Paul STRONG, Communications

lindajwinsor@gmail.com

651.224.6004

http://www.saintpaulstrong.com/

https://www.facebook.com/saintpaulstrong/

https://twitter.com/SaintPaulSTRONG

St. Paul City Council gets an earful on police body camera pilot project

PUBLISHED: November 3, 2016

Police body cameras will increase public trust, especially in minority neighborhoods where trust is lowest — or they will be misused to disproportionately increase surveillance and enforcement in those neighborhoods while documenting a road map through people’s homes.

The St. Paul City Council heard both arguments Wednesday during a heavily-attended public hearing on a police body cam pilot project that will roll out Nov. 9. The council members also learned the hearing was virtually irrelevant — at least when it comes to the date of implementation.

“That date is firm? There isn’t any opportunity to push that back, based on any additional public testimony?” asked Jane Prince.

“This council does not have a role in approving departmental policy,” said Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney, explaining the council’s limited purview in organizing public comment.

Don Gemberling, of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, called the council’s apparent lack of authority over body cams troubling.

“It’s an internal police management issue? So I’m kind of going, What are we all here for?” asked Gemberling, who said he’s seen no clarification as to how and where the camera data will be stored. “As a resident of St. Paul … I can’t figure out how to vote for you on this kind of issue if you have no role in deciding this issue.”

Council president Russ Stark said the council will continue to accept public comments on Nov. 16, which is seven days after the pilot project begins in the police department’s Western District.

“It’s kind of bizarre that we’re having a hearing and not having any active role in the policy creation at this point in time,” Stark acknowledged.

Critics such as the open-government coalition St. Paul Strong have said public notice of the council hearing, which was posted last week, did not allow enough time for the public to weigh in before police begin the pilot project.

Others are bracing for legal challenges.

“This could be one of the most expensive adventures we’ve ever tried,” said council member Dan Bostrom, a former St. Paul police sergeant.

St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry said the Western District plans to test two camera systems back-to-back over 60 days. About 60 cameras will be used.

Public feedback will be accepted for at least three months. When a camera system is selected for the entire force, body cams will be distributed gradually to about 400 officers, with full implementation possible by October 2017.

Henry said 15 public forums on body cameras have unfolded over the past 14 months. In addition to legislative hearings, “1,383 people took our survey,” Henry said. “Eighty-one percent said that police wearing body-worn cameras increases trust in the police.”

Officers would be expected to turn on their cams at key times, such as during a traffic stop, frisking a suspect or making an arrest, and the footage would be private unless an officer causes great bodily harm or death. Individuals who appear in the footage can ask for a copy once an investigation is complete.

At Wednesday’s hearing, several speakers said police body cameras present both a chance to increase public safety and an opportunity for misuse and unintended consequences.

The St. Paul NAACP, the St. Paul African American Leadership Council, the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Communities United Against Police Brutality have all objected to the pilot project.

Among their concerns, police plan to allow officers to review footage from their cameras before filing a report. Advocacy groups believe that will allow officers to play up the actions visible in the video, rather than offering a sincere explanation about whether they thought they had probable cause to make a stop or an arrest or resort to use of force.

“Police-worn cameras are no substitute for broader reforms,” said Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “In fact, (they could) be used to intensify disproportionate surveillance and disproportionate enforcement in communities of color. … There is a real risk that these new devices could be instruments of injustice.”

Rich Neumeister, an advocate of open government advocate and personal privacy rights, cautioned that the technology is changing fast.

“Facial recognition is talked about,” said Neumeister, referencing potential future add-ons. “Law enforcement will use those capabilities, and not just (for the stated) intent. … Discretion is very much left up to the law enforcement officer, or the government. … Many times the discretion does not go to the favor of the individual.”

He worried about how law enforcement may use or abuse the technology when off duty, and whether officers will be disciplined if they turn them off or on at inappropriate times.

Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said body cameras are angled so they do not necessarily capture police behavior, but they do capture a person’s response to that behavior — a dangerous double standard.

The most impassioned words came from John Thompson, a co-worker of St. Paul Public Schools cafeteria worker Philando Castile, who was fatally shot in Falcon Heights last summer during a police traffic stop. He said four months later, he’s still waiting to see dash-cam footage from Castile’s shooting.

“They can edit their mishaps,” said Thompson, who wore a hat with the name “Philando” printed on it in large letters. “You’re asking the taxpayers to pay for this, to pay to watch us get murdered?”

Thompson referenced the March 3, 1991, beating of a black man during a police traffic stop in California that sparked the deadly Los Angeles riots, which claimed the lives of 53 people.

“Rodney King was on camera,” Thompson said. “There’s numerous murders on camera. … We do not trust the police. It’s at an all-time low. Not to say any of you officers in particular. But the trust from the black community is at an all-time low. Rodney King was kicked repeatedly. It was on camera.”

 

Editorial: Testing body cams in St. Paul

Minnesota’s complex debate about police body-cameras takes a new turn in St. Paul Wednesday.

By Pioneer Press Editorial Board

November 2, 2016

The City Council will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. to consider the draft policy released last week by the St. Paul Police Department governing use of the cameras that are typically clipped to an officer’s uniform.

In a discussion that involves competing interests and tradeoffs, there’s lots to digest as the department prepares, beginning next week, to test two camera systems over 60 days in its Western District.

From the department’s perspective, “It’s about accountability and transparency,” St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders told us. “We want our officers to be safe. We want the community to be safe. We feel like this will be a powerful tool to help us accomplish that.”

Work on the policy, involving research, public meetings and analysis of survey results, has been under way for about 18 months. Linders emphasizes that the department “partnered with the community” in the effort and will continue to do so “to refine it and make sure it works for everyone.”

He told us there isn’t a firm date for implementation of body cams department-wide and that the policy — posted online with information about continuing opportunities to provide feedback at www.stpaul.gov/news/saint-paul-police-department-releases-draft-body-camera-policy — “could change based on what we learn in the pilot program.”

From the perspective of data-practices watchdogs, we’ve heard concern both about the policy’s timetable and content. They raise some issues St. Paul should consider as it proceeds.

Given what he views as the tight time frame from the draft’s release to the hearing and then the pilot program, “the public is not able to have due diligence,” Rich Neumeister, a St. Paul resident and fixture at the state Capitol on data-practices issues, told us.

“There’s not a lot of time,” Neumeister said, and it’s important that local policymakers “be able to hear what some of the issues are.”

It’s been his experience that once policy is set, it usually “doesn’t change that much,” Neumeister said. He considers it “law enforcement-sided” because the department is “treating the body cam as an investigative or evidence tool or surveillance tool.”

A report by the Pioneer Press’ Mara Gottfried notes that St. Paul’s policy includes a controversial aspect of the body-cam debate: Officers would be allowed to watch the video of an incident before writing a report.

New state law allows departments to decide whether such a “prior review” provision will be part of their policy.

“This is about documenting facts, finding the truth and making decisions based on reality,” police spokesman Linders told us. “Body cams are a powerful tool in that regard.”

Gottfried wrote that the approach aligns with current policy that lets officers watch squad-car video after an incident and before they write a report.

Like Neumeister, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government advocate, is concerned about use of body cams in the frequent non-emergency calls that bring officers to private homes.

In those situations — welfare checks, for example — it’s MNCOGI’s position that citizens should have control over whether cameras are turned on, board member Matt Ehling told us in an email.

The policy’s section on areas where recording is prohibited specifies “any location where a reasonable expectation of privacy exits,” including a bathroom or locker room, “unless responding to or encountering resistance or aggression” or necessary for investigation.

Ehling writes that MNCOGI wants the department to confirm that it “intends for this prohibition to apply to recording during consensual encounters in private residences.” If not, “we would like to see the language changed.”

The policy further notes that under state law, officers are not required to notify citizens when recording. It adds that — if asked — and “if reasonable and consistent with the officer’s safe and efficient performance of duties,” the officer should confirm whether the incident is being recorded.

The policy is not subject to council approval, but members should use their influence to assess the competing interests and help assure that residents and officers are ready for an important technology transition in St. Paul.