HONEST GOVERNMENT - Where does it fit into the city’s housing plan?

Dishonest government came to light last July when City Council member Brian Herron admitted that he had taken a bribe from a real-estate developer. He is now serving a year’s sentence in prison. The reaction to this event has been underwhelming. The city hired an attorney from Chicago to determine whether or not corrupt practices extended beyond Herron. This investigator concluded that it did not. In fact, practically everyone else was an “outstanding” public servant.

City officials are, of course, concerned with whether or not they will be personally tarred with the scandal. We as citizens ought to have a different focus. What can we learn from the Herron scandal? Instead of being focused on personalities, we should ask whether a situation exists in city government or politics which invites corruption. If so, we should attempt to change it. Otherwise, small investors will not invest in rental housing. (Under Rybak, one might say that city government is willing to do anything to help them except, to paraphrase Trotsky, commit to stop taking their properties.)

Some intelligent observers believe that the structure of Minneapolis city government is conducive to the type of behavior which Brian Herron demonstrated. It was an accident waiting to happen. A recent editorial in NorthNews stated: “The Minneapolis City Hall scandal ... is an almost-inevitable result of a system that needs fundamental changes ... The problem arises from the sense that each council member is a ‘mini-mayor’, with substantial governing authority in the area they represent ... When politics enters the city’s day to day operations .. it creates a downward ethical spiral ... City services should be delivered as needed, fairly and impartially, irrespective of current political climates or the influence of a given council member.”

This is the glaring omission in the list of proposals prepared by Mayor Rybak’s task force on affordable housing. Until private-sector investors can satisfy themselves that Minneapolis has honest city government, they will think twice about putting their money at risk by investing in housing.

Rampant cronyism has been the plague of Minneapolis city government. City business has been conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy, favoring City Hall insiders at the expense of others. Often, the City Council member stands at the center of this blatant or incipient corruption. For possible solutions we go back to Good Government 101. They might be listed in three categories:

(1) representative democracy,

(2) divided authority, and

(3) full public disclosure.

Representative democracy: Ironically, city government may suffer from too much democracy, too much citizen participation, in the form of neighborhood groups and NRP. More active citizen participation is not always good - think of how the Red Guards devastated China in the late 1960s. What we need is elected city officials (primarily the Mayor and City Council) who are entrusted with making major decisions on behalf of the citizens and are held accountable for results. Neighborhood associations are useful as a vehicle for advising elected officials and as a way for neighbors to become acquainted with each other. They are not good, however, when City Council members require certain decisions to be run through these self-selected groups or “constituent pressure” is used as a cover for bad decisions.

Divided authority: Here we consider the defect identified by the NorthNews editorial. The Minneapolis City Council is or ought to be a legislative body. When it also assumes Executive Branch or administrative powers, there is a potential for mischief. In Minneapolis, City Council members can and do exercise “hands on” supervision of Inspections. They are the board of directors for the MCDA. They have their own little police force in the form of CCP/SAFE. All this needs to be changed. Combining legislative and administrative functions is a prescription for bad government. Unfortunately, it will take an initiative from the City Council to divest itself of powers acquired over the years and thereby increase the possibility of honest government.

Full public disclosure: Until the City Council divests itself of its administrative functions, all contact between a City Council member and an agency of Minneapolis city government - especially Inspections - should be a matter of public record, except with respect to criminal investigations. Also, elected officials should make maximum financial and personal disclosures with respect to potential conflicts of interest. As much as possible this information should be posted on the Internet with links to the city’s web site.

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