DFL's Early Ward Conventions Deter Challengers, Stifle Debate
This guest editorial was published as Viewpoint in the February 13, 2019 edition of The Villager
Anyone who has been around St. Paul politics for long recognizes that for all intents and purposes it is a one-party town dominated by the DFL. This year all seven City Council seats and four School Board seats will be on the ballot. However, St. Paul's DFL leadership has manipulated the endorsement schedule to limit public input and pick favorites. This is unhealthy for democracy.
The DFL has chosen Sunday, March 10, as the date for all precinct caucuses across the city. The purpose of the precinct caucuses is to conduct party business, consider resolutions to be included in the party platform, and elect delegates to the ward conventions where City Council candidates will be endorsed.
In Wards 2, 3, and 4, DFL leaders have scheduled the ward conventions to immediately follow the precinct caucuses on March 10--and worse yet, at 5:30 on that Sunday evening. When has any important public meeting ever been scheduled on a Sunday night? With no DFL challengers to the City Council incumbents in Wards 2, 3, and 4 at this point, they are virtually guaranteed the party endorsement.
In Wards 1, 5, 6 and 7, the St. Paul DFL has scheduled the endorsing conventions from six to eight weeks after the precinct caucuses. In these wards, it is conceivable that new candidates will emerge in the intervening weeks, requiring all candidates to work hard to court delegates and weather debate and discussion. What delegate does not welcome the opportunity to get to know candidates better and make more informed choices?
The DFL has made a decision to protect its incumbent City Council members in Wards 2, 3 and 4, seemingly reluctant to expose them to potential new candidates and the shifting loyalties of demanding delegates. In fact, a prospective City Council candidate in Ward 4 deployed to the Middle East asked the DFL city chair if that ward's convention could be delayed until after he returns from active duty. The answer was "no."
Coincidentally, the residents of Wards 2, 3 and 4--the wards with the highest voter turnout in the city--have confronted vitally important and controversial issues over the past four years, including the selection of a modern streetcar as the preferred alternative in the proposed Riverview transit corridor, the approval of a master plan for the Ford site, the override of a two-year Marshall Avenue rezoning study, a study of the repurposing of the Highland 9-Hole Golf Course, the rezoning of Snelling Avenue and the building of a Major League Soccer stadium and proposed redevelopment of the adjacent Midway Shopping Center. These issues are redefining life in Wards 2, 3 and 4 and reshaping the city's future. And the three incumbents are going to be spared a process that would steel and toughen them and hold them accountable to the public?
The DFL is, in effect, tipping the scales in support of three incumbents and denying citizens any meaningful discussion of these huge and transformative community decisions. In a one-party town, the DFL endorsement almost guarantees election, giving the endorsed candidate party voter lists, money, volunteers, events, publicity, mailings and more. A City Council candidate needs to raise $100,000 to be competitive today, and access to DFL Party resources is a major advantage.
Why is the St. Paul DFL leadership curtailing its own process and picking winners? Over the years, the DFL has fallen into this trap a number of times, trying to limit access to the process for candidates and newcomers so that incumbents are guaranteed re-election.
Paul Wellstone was the force in 1990 who blew the hinges off the doors of the DFL, bringing in party newcomers from all over Minnesota to make the DFL "the party of the people who show up." In 2008 Barack Obama did the same thing, advertising Minnesota DFL caucuses on TV while Clinton supporters in the state party, in hushed tones, counted on the party faithful to endorse their chosen candidate.
Foreclosing the democratic process, or the DFL Party process, is ultimately a prescription for the party's irrelevance. This is the capital of Minnesota. St. Paul should lead the way in reminding folks what democracy looks like. The words "inclusion" and "diversity" should mean something, and the DFL should walk their talk.
Saint Paul Officials Bend the Rules at the Risk of Losing the Public Trust
This guest editorial was published as Viewpoint in the January 16, 2019 edition of The Villager
St. Paul STRONG is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving accessible and representative government in St. Paul. We do not take positions on issues, but support inclusive, transparent and accountable public processes. Public trust is the key to a stronger St. Paul. Only when everyone in the city is treated equally and public officials are held accountable for their decisions can trust in our city government be assured.
Recent stories in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Star Tribune expose our city's uneven and unequal rules enforcement. The story about the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts’ legal challenge of Gray Duck Tavern’s liquor license highlights the city's disregard for the longstanding legal process for granting liquor licenses. Current city code specifies that liquor establishments must not be within 300 feet of a school, and the downtown school maintains that the Gray Duck Tavern is in violation of this code.
This issue is only the latest in a series of questionable decisions by city officials that seem to disregard codes, ordinances and rules. The decisions appear to be based on fuzzy or previously unknown criteria for granting variances. For example, weeks ago a new skyway was installed over Main Street between buildings in the Higher Ground project that ignored the longstanding St. Paul Skyway Design Guidelines that were adopted in 1980. The city ignored the legally binding Comprehensive Plan adopted on February 24, 2010, and its own resolution approved on May 27, 2015, which called for a public park on the former Pedro Luggage site, and instead allowed a private developer to purchase and renovate the former Public Safety Annex and in effect thwart the plan for the long-promised Pedro Park.
These are a few examples in downtown, but the problem extends throughout the city. Consider the change in measuring the required distance between liquor stores when Target wanted to expand in the Midway area, or changes in the city's longstanding practice in determining allowable signage or the ongoing dispute over right-of-way assessments.
St. Paul STRONG questions the wisdom of changing the rules depending on who is asking for the favor. While it may seem expedient in the short term, it becomes a major problem in the long term with a growing lack of trust in city processes.
Our city's codes, ordinances and guidelines are established processes that are meant to ensure fair and equitable government decision-making. Untold hours of staff time are devoted to planning documents and policy enforcement, and yet this financial investment by taxpayers seems to be overruled at the whim of our city's administration without transparency or accountability.
In the Gray Duck Tavern case, if the city now changes the rules to fit the needs of this particular restaurant, what message does that send to businesses that were denied licenses in the past? What message does it send to businesses seeking licenses in the future? What are the criteria that businesses can work toward to ensure a fair process?
The city of St. Paul needs to ensure that rules are reasonable and consistent. Contrary to what some city leaders report, rules do not scare businesses away. It is the absence of standards or inconsistency in the rules that discourages new enterprise.
Only when city officials recognize the problems that are borne through a lack of transparency, fairness and good governance will they be able to address the resulting inequality and unfairness and earn the trust and respect of citizens. One need look no further than the recent petition to put organized trash on the ballot to realize the level of unease the citizens have with their local government.
Right of Way (ROW) Assessment (Click on bullet points)
Improving the Process for Citizen Appointment to Boards & Commissions (Click on bullet point)
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) (Click on bullet point)
- TIF Panel Discussion with Q & A Sept. 8, 7pm - 8pm
Data Requests in Response to Email Deletions Policy (Click on bullet points)
- Transparency & Accountability in documentation of communications on issues
- Data Request Form
- List of Issues with Preserved Documentation by City Clerk
- Pioneer Press Editorial Email Deletions August 31, 2016
- Pioneer Press Editorial Email Deletions February 19, 2017
- Testimony at State Capitol: email deletions bill February 28, 2017
- Star Tribune Article: Secrecy Rules, 1st in a series March 12, 2017