Watchdog group opens closed doors in St. Paul government

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, A News Voice of Black Minnesota

May 13, 2016 By James L. Stroud Jr

St. Paul Strong (SPS) is a nonpartisan, community-led group that advocates for open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging transparency in public processes at City Hall. It’s a government watchdog group of concerned citizens engaging and empowering resident participation with the common goal of building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul.

MSR spoke with Yusef Mgeni, a founding member of SPS, about how and why it was formed. Mgeni (YM) sits on the group’s steering committee while also currently serving as the vice president of the St. Paul NAACP.

MSR: When did St. Paul Strong start and why?

YM: St. Paul Strong was started last year around October 2015, just before the last city council election, by a group of people meeting in different coffee shops around town. We were concerned about the apparent lack of process, transparency and accountability on the part of actions by the city council and the administration of the mayor’s of ce in St. Paul.

A few key decisions appeared to have been made behind closed doors without a lot of public input. That includes the soccer stadium [and] parking meters. Another example is [that] the St. Paul NAACP had requested under the Minnesota Data Practices Act a copy of the audit that was done on the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Advisory Review Committee.

The mayor’s office had the information for three weeks. They sat on it and put their spin on it. Then they held a news conference and later released it to the public. According to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, they are supposed to release it as soon as they receive it.

MSR: Who makes up your group and how do you deal with these issues?

YM: There are African Americans, Native Americans, Chicano/Latino, White and Asian Americans who are a part of the group that have been encouraging more public dialogue around important issues in the City of St. Paul. We had a forum in January to which a number of city council members came, and we invited the public. We had a good turnout at the Mai Village restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul. People asked them some important questions about process.

Prior to the last election, St. Paul Strong put together six principles, and we used the letters in the word “strong” as an acronym. It stands for Safe, Trust, Responsible, Open, Neighborhoods and Generations. All of the candidates for city council and most of the school board candidates agree with our principles. So now we are in the process of monitoring how well they implement those principles and [are] encouraging a little more transparency and accountability in the way that the mayor’s office and the city council do business.

We believe the best public policies are the most well-informed. People shouldn’t have to pick up the newspaper, watch television, or listen to the radio and find out about another new decision on behalf of the citizens without adequate citizen input.

MSR: Is St. Paul Strong a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization?
YM: No, we’re just a citizen group, but we operate on nonprofit principles.
MSR: Who was the brainchild for this group?
YM: It was a number of people. The group is multi-racial and represents all different parts of St. Paul. The
members include young people, retired people, business owners, would-be politicians, former politicians, Democrats and Republicans. It’s actually a nonpartisan, cross-generational group that represents the broad geography of St. Paul.

For more information on St. Paul STRONG, go to their website at www.saintpaulstrong.com. James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to jlswriter@gmail.com.