Neighborhood people meet to select representatives to new city Department

To save money and blunt unwanted neighborhood initiatives, the City of Minneapolis decided to restructure the Neighborhood Revitalization program by folding the operation into a new city department. It established an advisory board to oversee the department consisting of sixteen members. Half would be appointed by Minneapolis elected officials and half by the neighborhood associations.

City officials quickly selected their representatives. It was left to the neighborhood associations themselves to decide on a procedure for selecting their eight representatives. The NRP staff sent letters to the 81 neighborhood associations asking each to send a representative to a meeting to decide such matters. The board of Harrison Neighborhood Association selected me to represent it at the meeting.

This meeting was held on Saturday, February 21, 2009, at the Minnesota National Guard Armory at 1025 Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis between 9 a.m. and noon. About 120 persons attended. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman opened the meeting. After a brief introduction, she turned it over to a paid facilitator from St. Paul. This person entertained comments and questions about procedure for about an hour. Then it was time for the break-out sessions.

I had a yellow voting card that correlated with group #6. Another Harrison Neighborhood Association member, Kari Anderson, and I attended that subgroup meeting led by a preselected facilitator. Kari Anderson volunteered to be the recording secretary. The meeting was structured as a session for brainstorming ideas related to selection of the eight neighborhood representatives.

Some of the delegates had agendas set by previous meetings. They promptly presented their proposals to the group. Kari Anderson summarized each on large pads of paper. Others then added their proposals. Certain themes began to emerge.

One question was whether the eight representatives of the neighborhood groups should represent regional groups or some should be at-large representatives representing the whole city. The initial proposal was that the neighborhood blocs should have six representatives and there should be two at-large positions. The dominant position, which I supported, was that all eight representatives should directly represent the separate groups of neighborhood associations.

The NRP staff divides Minneapolis neighborhoods into several categories - “preservation”, “revitalization”, etc.- which indicate their relative degree of poverty or affluence. Should the eight representatives be associated with one or another of these groups or should they represent geographically contiguous groups of neighborhoods. The consensus, which I supported, was that the neighborhoods should be aggregated into geographically contiguous units like the city wards.

Another question was whether each of the 81 neighborhoods in the city should have one vote in electing its area’s representative or some other method should be followed. Carol Pass, from Phillips neighborhood, argued that equal voting by neighborhood would put the poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage because they each tend to have more people. The obvious solution would be to apportion the eight representatives into groupings that were nearly equal in population. Again, this system would resemble Congressional districts or city wards.

The one person-one vote scheme did not meet with universal favor. Some delegates felt that the poor neighborhoods should have greater representation because their people needed city services more. However, no one proposed how the voting system might be tilted in favor of the poorer or racially more diverse neighborhood groups.

Once the eight representative were linked to particular neighborhood groups, there was a question of how the neighborhood association should pick its representative. One man proposed that the president of the association make that decision. I favored leaving it to the neighborhood board. Whether the neighborhood association would cast its entire vote for a single candidate or allow multiple support based on a vote taken by the board was not discussed.

A man proposed that only qualified candidates who had a certain stature in the community should be allowed to run for the representative position. I favored minimal qualifications. Only paid staff of the neighborhoods should be disqualified. Also the selected representative should live within one of the neighborhood being represented.

Additionally, the break-out session discussed the timetable for implementation. First, we would need a certain time to articulate and present the various options. Then the neighborhoods should have time - 45 days - to respond to the proposals. Then the present group should again meet to select the particular method for choosing the representatives. Finally, the representatives should be chosen. How much time would this take in its entirety? Maybe three or four months.

Toward the end of our break-out discussion, a consensus was reached that the present group should establish a smaller committee to iron out the details. Two persons from each subgroup should be on this committee. We nominated six persons and started to vote to pare the list down to two. However, time was up. The meeting of the whole group was reconvened.

The facilitator had each of the subgroup spokespersons report what was discussed. Then comments and questions were taken from the floor. The only vote taken that day was to choose between three proposals: (1) whether the official delegates - one per neighborhood association - should establish a procedure for selecting the neighborhood representatives, (2) whether a committee should do this (as our subgroup preferred), or (3) whether a group consisting of delegates plus other interested persons should make the decision. In our packets, we had a wax sheet with three colored dots. We were asked to come forward to put our blue dot next to the option we preferred. Proposal #2 won by a narrow margin.

Time was running out. The facilitator continued to take comments and questions from the floor. When Gail Dorfman proposed that we quickly reconvene our subgroups to choose two representatives on the committee, others pointed out that many neighborhood representatives had already left. It was after noon, the promised ending time.

In conclusion, no decisions were made at this meeting. No votes were taken other than that which favored establishing a committee to do the detail work. I am unsure what the next step will be. My understanding was that the key decisions would be made at this meeting on February 21st, but the delegates evidently favored an extended process. Perhaps NRP staff will now pick up the pieces and put something together.

Note: The Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) is a program authorized by the Minnesota Legislature in the 1980s which gave money to neighborhood committees in Minneapolis. The idea was that local groups could spend the money more wisely than city bureaucrats. Harrison Neighborhood, for instance, spent its NRP money to build a new building to house the neighborhood association, partially fund street lights on Glenwood Avenue, and, more lately, pay the salaries of staff people for the neighborhood association. Facing financial pressure in 2009, Minneapolis city officials decided to take some of the money back. They also folded the NRP structure into a new department within Minneapolis city government. Neighborhood groups were outraged. The NRP director, Robert Miller, has announced his candidacy for mayor, opposing R.T. Rybak.

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