Saint Paul STRONG pushes for more community engagement
Posted on 08 March 2016
Among other issues, group concerned about how Midway soccer stadium being handled
By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Members of Saint Paul STRONG are tired of being invited to city government meetings after the decisions have already been made.
They’re working to do something about it.
“Saint Paul STRONG was formed because too many big decisions—like the one to provide permanent property tax relief to major league soccer or the new Comcast long-term contract—happened with virtually no public input,” said founder John Mannillo.
The community-led organization is dedicated to improving open and representative government in St. Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes at city hall, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive St. Paul.
Launched in October 2015, the steering committee includes diverse community leaders, such as 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, former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, Linda Winsor of Save Our Neighborhoods, former City Council candidate Ed Davis, NAACP vice-president Yusef Mgeni, and former City Council candidate and American Indian activist David Glass, in addition to Mannillo, a downtown businessman.
Dawkins: more engagement
A member of former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly’s cabinet, Dawkins said he worked hard to make sure his department was in regular touch with the community and was transparent.
Dawkins said, “The goal I have for Saint Paul STRONG is simple: More public engagement!”
Dawkins represented a part of the Midway area from 1987 to 2002 as the DFL state representative and is married to former State Senator Ellen Anderson. One of his sons is a freshman at Hamline, and the other is a junior at Central High School.
Dawkin’s always been a proponent of third parties and is the founder of Coalition of Third Party Organizers. He was the Green Party of Minnesota nominee for Minnesota Attorney General in the 2014 election.
Dawkins believes that St. Paul suffers from being a “one-party town.”
“I see the need for more transparency/accountability/citizen involvement in St. Paul city politics,” stated Dawkins. “Under our strong mayoral system too much city council work is just ratifying the mayor’s wishes.”
He pointed to the soccer stadium as an example.
“How many of us, as members of the public, knew the City Council took a vote to ask the Minnesota Legislature to give the billionaire owner of the for-profit soccer team tax exemptions?
How much money are we giving up by treating the land as owned by a non-profit? How many of us members of the public showed up at the mayor’s soccer stadium forums only to learn there was no time for public comment? When will we get a chance to learn if making the surrounding area a TIF (Tax Increment Finance) district will impact the city’s STAR program? How much will it cost us taxpayers to do the infrastructure investments owner McGuire has requested?”
Ruby Hunt, a former St. Paul Council Member from 1972-1982, is also concerned about how the city has handled the Midway site for the soccer stadium.
“It was approved that day without any opportunity for citizen participation,” said Hunt.
The list of grievances on the Saint Paul STRONG website that affect the Midway-Como neighborhood include:
• The decision to offer permanent property tax forgiveness for soccer stadium, then supporting a Met Council proposal to prevent the public from any access to knowledge and negotiations of internal decisions.
• The Black Bear Crossings legal decision to award $800,000 to a private owner put out of business and the subsequent cover-up.
• Tax dollars committed to the construction of new bikeways without comprehensive public input.
• Community’s need to file a lawsuit to have three Saint Paul LRT stations built in minority/transit dependent areas of the Green Line.
Hunt: checks and balances needed
A former Mac-Grove resident, Hunt currently lives at Episcopal Homes in the Como-Midway neighborhood. Her concerns don’t end with the soccer stadium.
“I am concerned about the way the Consent Agenda has been used over the last several years to pass items without any discussion unless a member requests that it be taken from the Consent Agenda for discussion,” remarked Hunt. “Rebecca Noecker made that request recently. It was a request for approval of a contract for outside legal services. However, as I understand it, this was for a contract that already had been awarded but which should have first been approved by the City Council.
“I hope this sends a message to the administration that they should follow the proper procedures,” Hunt said.
Another issue Hunt sees has to do with notifying district councils when city agencies are proposing development in their districts.
This early notification system has been in place since the establishment of the district councils some 40 years ago, Hunt pointed out. In the Grand Ave. parking meter issue, the district council didn’t hear about it until it was found to be an item in the Mayor Chris Coleman’s proposed budget.
“Having played a part in establishing a strong mayor-strong council form of government for St. Paul, I want to see the mayor and council each play their respective check and balance roles in governing the city,” said Hunt.
Mannillo: City Council abusing transparency and accountability
Mannillo believes that Saint Paul STRONG is needed because of the lack of open government on the municipal level. “As a one-party town, it has abused transparency and accountability, to benefit political goals and to the detriment to good public policy,” Mannillo said.
Saint Paul STRONG represents the entire city. It is non-partisan, and will not support specific candidates or specific issues.
“We support public process,” stressed Mannillo.
In October, the five incumbent City Council members and two new Council members were invited to endorse Saint Paul STRONG’s six principles of openness, accountability, and a more vibrant public process. All seven council members did so.
“We are optimistic with two new Council members working with like-minded incumbents, we will see attention paid to transparency and openness,” said Mannillo. “All the Council members have subscribed to our principles and will be held accountable for their decisions.”
Saint Paul STRONG is working to expand its avenues of communication and plans to work with Community Councils, as well as offer input to the mayor and City Council. “This should be embraced by the city administration as a valuable tool to build consensus with the public,” noted Mannillo.
He said that Saint Paul STRONG will encourage the exploration of new election policy to increase voter turnout.
“We will make our city administration more visible. Our focus will continue to address public process,” Mannillo stated. “We will continue to shed light on the public process and related information that has not been available in the past.”