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.