Learning from the Herron experience

While the bribery of Council Member Brian Herron, the unfortunate choice of investigator, and other matters point to the need for a shakeup at City Hall, it would be a mistake to limit reaction to this incident to “gotcha” politics. We need also to try to institute structural reforms.

It is not often that politicians will be caught flagrantly taking bribes as Herron did. Much more often, elected officials will be guilty of what I call “softcore corruption” - conflicts of interest which, though damaging to the community, are perfectly legal because they can be portrayed as “constituent service”. Often these questionable acts involve city inspectors.

Minneapolis residents look to inspections to enforce standards that will ensure healthy and safe conditions in the city’s housing stock. The problem is that the standards are too subjective. Each inspector has broad discretion to decide which conditions violate code and which do not. This condition is aggravated by a lack of inspector training. In fact, the city claimed that it had no obligation to train its inspectors in documents which the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee obtained in a class-action lawsuit.

Inconsistency of code interpretation undermines the claim that city inspections foster safe housing. What makes the situation unbearable is the combination of loose standards and unrelated agendas directed through inspections. A common agenda has to do with fighting crime by attacking buildings. Quite simply, if the Minneapolis police or City Council believe that crime is regularly taking place in rental property, they will call in inspections to find code violations to justify condemning the building and evicting all the residents, law-abiding residents and law-breakers alike. While this procedure is technically illegal, the illegality is hard to prove.

City code and zoning regulations are constantly changing. Nonconforming structures are generally grandfathered in. If a building gets condemned, however, it loses that protection. In the case of a condemned duplex near my house, city inspectors are requiring that the building be converted to a single-family dwelling because it sits on a 38-foot-wide lot. City code requires that lots for duplexes be at least 40 feet wide. However, it is possible to petition the city for a variance that would allow the duplex to remain as such. Ultimately, the City Council member’s permission would be required.

What I am saying is that inspections regulations constitute choke-points in the flow of city commerce and that elected officials exercise considerable power in their ability to bring about favorable or unfavorable outcomes. City Council members - the more aggressive ones at least - are like the old robber barons with castles on the Rhein demanding tribute from all who would safely pass. They reward their friends and punish their enemies, and all is perfectly legal.

I do not think it is in the city’s best interest for inspections to be used this way. Inspections can work if carried on by well-trained professionals who pursue clearly defined health and safety objectives. It cannot work when micromanaged by City Council members. Because the Council member is above the inspector in the city’s chain of command, the inspector does not have the power to buck the Council member’s suggestion unless supported by his or her superior in the inspections department. However, John Bergquist, who oversees inspections, was recently quoted: “Our job is to respond to the elected officials. If we aren’t doing that, we aren’t responding to constituents.”

What, then, can be done? A tough response would be to impose new rules which would make it illegal for City Council members to interfere with the inspections process. More realistically, I think that full public disclosure of inspections contacts by government officials would be an important first step in ending abuse of the inspections process.

I helped draft such a bill which was introduced in the 1999 session of the Minnesota Legislature. The bill would have, in effect, required inspections to keep a log of complaints received by inspections and to make this information available, including the name of the complainant, to all persons who requested it. It excepted complaints received from tenants of rental property.

Even though this bill was sponsored by a prominent DFL legislator on the housing committee, it was opposed by many others. A state senator asked me indignantly: Did I realize that a majority of complaints to Minneapolis inspections come from City Council members?

I think it is time to revisit proposals like this which would increase openness of government. If a City Council member contacts inspections on behalf of a “constitutent”, the public deserves to know about it. Good government requires no less.



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