Keeping City Hall open, accountable

St. Paul STRONG carries on effort to engage citizens in government

By Kevin Driscoll

The Villager

January 20, 2016

The new citizens watchdog group St. Paul STRONG held a forum on January 7 to remind city officials that, though the election season is over, the organization is keeping an eye on City Hall to ensure that local government remains open and accountable.

The challenge for St.Paul STRONG is to encourage that openness and accountability without advocating for one side or the other on a particular issue, according to the group’s spokesperson, John Mannillo, a Highland Park resident and downtown businessman. “There’s a fine line between process and issues,” Mannillo said.

The founders of St.Paul STRONG began meeting a couple of years ago in coffee shops, said Yusef Mgeni, a member of the group’s steering committee and vice-president of the local NAACP. “We wanted to be an organization that didn’t focus directly on issues but rather on the process used to resolve those issues,” he said. “We concluded that the best public policy is the most well-informed policy and agreed to set about informing citizens about how public policy is often made and how we think it should be made.”

The group announced its inception just before last fall’s election. In addition to Mannillo and Mgeni, it included former City Council member and Ramsey County Commissioner Ruby Hunt, Roy Magnuson of the St. Paul Federations of Teachers’ executive board, disabilities activist Rick Cardenas, Hmong-American activist Pa Chua Vang, former state representative Andy Dawkins, Somali-American activist Kassim Busuri and American Indian activist John Poupart.

Since then, former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, Linda Winsor of Save Our Neighborhoods, former City Council candidate Ed Davis and former City Council candidate and American Indian activist David Glass have come on board. Poupart has left due to other commitments.

Last fall St. Paul STRONG asked all of the candidates for St.Paul City Council and School Board to endorse its six principles: Safe, Trust, Responsible, Open, Neighborhoods, Generations.

"Safe" refers to public safety. "Trust" is built around a promise of informed citizen participation before decisions are made. "Responsible" means holding city officials accountable to all citizens and responding to citizen concerns in a timely and nonpartisan fashion. "Open" means bringing the decision-making into the public arena. "Neighborhoods" refers to fostering stronger neighborhoods with equal access to city resources. "Generations" signifies building a stronger, safer and more beautiful city for generations to come.

All of the candidates endorsed those principles, according to Mannillo. City Council members Dan Bostrom, Dai Thao and Jane Prince all participated in the January 7 forum to discuss ways to create a more open process at City Hall.

“We were going to have four City Council members in the panel discussion,” Mannillo said, “but city officials basically proved our point about openness when, though they knew about our forum in early December, they waited until the day before to inform us of the state Open Meetings Law, which bans more than three council members from participating in nonpublic meetings. So City Council member Rebecca Noecker agreed to bow out.”

The other three council members- Chris Tolbert, Russ Stark and Amy Brendmoen- declined the invitation to attend.

Those who did attend the forum were asked to write questions for the panel. Magnuson asked the City Council members how they felt about the council’s decision last summer to delete all city emails from the public records after six months.

Prince, an attorney, said, “I’m a big believer in open information to the public. Removing emails so quickly removes an important source of information for the public to use when trying to reconstruct how a decision was made.”

“We strongly believe it’s the responsibility of the city that all public communication with emails or any other source of documentation needs to be preserved,” Mannillo said after the forum. “We intend to push for a reversal of the council’s decision on email retention.”

Another question addressed the issue of helping small businesses navigate city departments and regulations. Busuri cited the example of a woman who bought a building for her new business. “City bureaucrats told her she needed to replace the roof, “Busuri said, “so she did. A few weeks later, the building was condemned and she was forced to pay for the demolition. Obviously, if she’d known the building was in line for condemnation, she never would’ve bought it.”

Prince pointed out the failure of Minneapolis officials last fall to establish new guidelines for businesses for “sick and safe leave and minimum wage. Minneapolis moved ahead without any public process and those proposals were doomed,” she said. “We need to work with local independent businesses and neighborhood groups because they know what they need.” That may not mean they get everything they want, but at least they were consulted, Prince added.

Districts councils should play a role in city governance as well, Bostrom said. “I have a long history with district councils, and most of them are extremely responsible,” he said. “They know their neighborhood businesses and can most easily find out what they need and tell the City Council about them.”

St.Paul STRONG intends to “reach out to district councils to help them with processes and publicize their needs for participation,” Mannillo said. St. Paul STRONG is also hoping to work with district councils, the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups to get out the vote, he said.

“Right now, if a district council wants to appeal a St.Paul Board of Zoning Appeals decision to the City Council, it has to raise $400 to do it, “ Winsor said. “I want to know how we can open up the process and make it easier for voices to be heard by the City Council.”

Hunt recalled how the old city charter allowed citizens to speak before the City Council at the end of its meetings. “But now there’s less and less opportunity to do that, “she said. “Being able to make a personal appearance before the council is important.”

“We’re optimistic that, with two newly elected City Council members working with like-minded incumbents, we’ll see more attention paid to transparency and openness at City Hall,” Mannillo said. “All of the City Council members have subscribed to our principles, and while we’ll remain nonpartisan, we’ll remain visible in local elections.”