City Council Collaboration "for the community" Not Happening in Minneapolis

Updated: Feb 9, 2019

A recent article in MinnPost asks whether Minneapolis City Council Members have kept their promise to work well together since the 2017 elections.

The article states, "At one of the council’s first meetings last year, for example, [Mayor] Frey said: “I have the utmost faith in this new government to work together, to collaborate for the community.”

But does the City Council collaborate with city residents? Many people believe that the answer is no. Rather than leading City government to "really help this body kind of heal,” current City leadership has instead caused a “lot of division and a lot of anger.”

For years, many citizens' experiences with the Minneapolis City Council have lacked even the pretense of meaningful collaboration and shared decision-making power, mutual respect, learning, or accountability. During that time, while a couple of Council Members (notably Meg Tuthill and more recently Linea Palmisano) actually listened to residents and represented their interests, most of the CMs didn’t and don’t listen or respect citizens unless community input conforms to what the CM thinks and wants to happen.

At public hearings before the Zoning & Planning Committee in particular, Council Members are often engaged in side conversations or online activity, even as people are testifying. As CMs move toward their pre-determined motions and votes/decisions, they typically don’t consider information presented during the hearing. They usually don’t respond to the points made by people who testify, or they offer hollow, dismissive and even patronizing reasons for ignoring citizen concerns. Citizens who attend Planning Commission hearings can expect similar or even worse treatment. One Planning Commissioner openly insulted citizens during and after hearings, but was not held accountable for this misbehavior because the City’s Ethics Office does not monitor or enforce the codes of conduct of City boards and commissions, rendering those standards meaningless. Citizens who complain and seek accountability face a CPED staff wall that discourages communication and resolution  of these issues, because they are solely focused on forcing through their own agenda, and they perceive public input as interference in achieving their own goals.

When the City replaced the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) with the Neighborhood & Community Relations department (NCR) years ago, the NCR was placed under control of the Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) department and rendered ineffective in advocating for citizens. The change in name is very telling—from Neighborhood Revitalization that empowered citizens to identify, plan and implement improvements in their communities with City funding, to Neighborhood Community Relations that mostly consists of public relations for the City to keep up the pretense that neighborhood groups have any meaningful input, while the City threatens to withdraw funding.

Under the pretense of concern about representation on neighborhood association boards, the City (via CM Bender) has been undermining and dismantling our robust network of neighborhood involvement. A recent article in the StarTribune described a meeting where neighborhood leaders expressed concerns about changes whereby the City plans to further diminish the role of neighborhood associations, ostensibly because of lack of diversity in membership. Yet the City follows no such rules, and some people at the meeting "felt the city wasn’t holding itself up to the diversity requirements they want neighborhood associations to follow.” Rightly so.

This abysmal situation has worsened since the 2017 elections, after which the new Mayor and City Council President took office in 2018. Both of them have been working to remake our City to suit their vision, completely disrespecting residents who don’t share that vision. A few years ago, in pushing approval for a high-rise tower in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, then CM Frey dismissed concerns about the need to preserve the history of the area and ignored the City’s own Historic Preservation guidelines. At the time he said he wanted “to make our own history” (read his own history) even though it meant completely setting aside the City’s entire regulatory framework to push the project through, over the objections of many neighborhood residents. Frey’s arrogance and utmost faith in his own ambitions and vision for our City, without regard for what residents want, has only intensified since he became Mayor.

Sadly, City leaders pushed a Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan that continues to divide residents, rather than unite us to achieve the goals that most people share. Declining citizen requests to call for unity during the planning process, the Mayor instead called people NIMBY who opposed some parts of the plan. The City excluded certain groups during the planning process and later refused requests to better inform residents about the Plan, even through existing and cost-effective communication channels such as mailings about snow emergency rules. But rather than use those channels to inform citizens about the Plan, they secretly hired a public relations firm to sell the Plan:​/news​/5​-eyewitness​-news​-investigation​-minneapolis​-hired​-pr​-firm​-to​-sell​-2040​-plan​/5223017​/

Several neighborhood associations expressed numerous concerns about the public comment process, including the Southeast Como Improvement Association which submitted a lengthy memo. But not only did the City Council not address these concerns and not sufficiently notify citizens about what the Plan means for our City, they also ensured via the Plan that current notification requirements will no longer apply for many development projects in the City.

People following the systematic disenfranchisement of Minneapolis neighborhoods and the silencing of citizens by the City might be interested in this video of a Zoning & Planning Committee meeting in March 2016 about the 2040 Comp Plan update, including community engagement:​/watch​?v​=l9Keo0ZqpsA​&​;index​=2​&​;list​=PLcNuebgSUruA4FW08XQu2dNycsiCqecGz

The video shows conversations that reflect City Council attitudes about the irrelevance of citizen input, the waste of staff time to listen to constituents, discrediting citizen petitions, with an undercurrent of disdain for “advocacy organizations" as "typical audiences.” At 18:54, a City Planner states “we will be tracking all the comments we receive; we have a responsibility to do that." Then at 19:37, under questioning by a CM, the Planner says “When we think about consensus, we don’t think about everyone agreeing, we think about everyone being heard.”

CPED shaped the 2040 Plan through City staff "research groups” and pushed CPED's desired policies, using the community engagement process to sell the policies and cherry pick citizen input that would support the City's desired policies. The City's subsequent description that "Minneapolis 2040 is a set of interconnected policy ideas that community has lifted up over the past two years,“ is shown to be false at about about 28:07 in the March 2016 video, when a Planner speaks about setting the proper framework for community input. “We will be taking key directions to the public in a public meeting forum, and not just going out and asking kind of tabula rasa what do you think we should do? Those are specifically so that we can begin to shape a conversation that is appropriate to the Comprehensive Plan scope and purpose, and that we can try to manage and make informed decisions about whether we should engage on a certain topic, or whether that's better handled through another process.” The City did not quantify or analyze the 10,000+ comments received on the draft Minneapolis 2040 Plan. During an off-site "retreat" CPED staff were divided into groups and assigned segments of the comments received. They didn't tabulate or analyze the comments; instead they just came back to the group with summaries that were undoubtedly biased (diminished) in order to accomplish their real assignment--which was to minimize changes to the draft Plan. So we taxpayers/constituents are left with CPED's vague and inaccurate generalizations about the comments, and no quantitative analysis on which to make valid statements about citizen feedback on the Plan. Just as the City intended.