Sweating the small stuff

The government-reinvention folks at McKinsey & Co. couldn't have ordered up a more timely story than the recent Block E saga, where previously agreed-to public restrooms, first-floor passthroughs and bus shelters were undone or redone without a city official providing consistent oversight.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhood, the city made sure Ted Lowell, Juliana Lowell and Jeff Radnich dismantled their sidewalk caf during the few brief weeks of summer -- and spending $1,800 in the process -- thanks to the difference between three words:

"Endeavor to" and "will."

The trio owns Caff Tempo, a Kingfield coffeeshop known for its Jeffeys (think Frappucchino with soul) and a sidewalk caf by a nifty garden.

The Lowells and Radnich allow that the mothballing of their outdoor caf began as their fault. During a routine inspection, they learned they had never applied for a sidewalk caf license after buying Tempo in 1999.

Belatedly but dutifully, they filled out the paperwork, only to get it bounced back by city staff.

Why? Their policy, from the Hartford, said the insurer would "endeavor to" notify the city if Tempo's insurance ever lapsed. The city insists that insurers "will" tell City Hall if a client's policy lapses.

"The Hartford said, 'this is stock language, we're not going to change it for you,'" said Juliana Lowell. "But we had to do [get the change] to keep our license."

Despite the owners' good-faith effort to change the Hartford's mind -- or find a new insurer -- the city didn't give them much breathing room. The area's councilmember, Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), got a routine 30-day permit so Tempo could handle the hassle and patrons could keep soaking up sun.

The Lowells and Radnich thought they had a few days left in their temporary permit when an inspector knocked on their door. According to Juliana Lowell, the inspector said that the permit had expired and the patio furniture had to come down.

"We have good people in inspections, and I should have done a better job of communication," Niziolek allows, "but we thought the 30 days started from when Mayor Rybak signed the permit. The people in inspections felt differently."

Look, I'm a big-government kind of guy. We live in such close quarters in the city that rugged individualism has to coexist with public rules that protect the community's interest. There's logic in assuring businesses have insurance: otherwise, city taxpayers may have to pay for slip-and-falls. Even if that risk is remote at a single establishment, multiply the odds citywide and taxpayers could be shelling out significant dough we can avoid.

Likewise, it makes some sense to require the businesses, or their insurers, to give the city a heads-up when insurance goes bye-bye, so we don't have to hire dozens more inspectors to be regulatory nannies.

And yes, giving any business leeway is the slippery slope to Herronism, where inspectors are subverted by unscrupulous politicians and businesspeople.

And yet, shouldn't there be more credit for making good in good faith? Shouldn't a business owner who owns up to their mistake, who is clearly trying to comply with the law -- and who has a reasonable case that, yeah, maybe there are a few days left in a 30-day permit -- be able to operate for a few more sunny days?

After all, we're letting Block E -- whose agents signed a city contract promising a hallway between Hennepin and 1st avenues, then dropped it because tenants didn't like it -- renegotiate after the fact. Perhaps that revision is a good idea -- but do we let Block E do it because they are too big to fail, but not Caff Tempo because we don't care if it does?

Juliana Lowell, a former community organizer who appreciates public responsibility more than most businesspeople, said she's especially miffed at the end game. To obtain the magic word "will," Caff Tempo had to switch insurers -- and their new policy costs $1,800 more.

How significant is an $1,800 hit? Tempo, Lowell says, is a living but no goldmine. "Put it this way: our family qualifies for MnCare" -- the state's low-income insurance program.

Lowell knows that small business means sacrifice. She's grateful her family can build a business in Minneapolis a stone's throw from their house.

But they wonder why, even after they obtained their new insurance binder -- a guarantee of insurance that they thought would release their permit -- an inspector demanded a policy number that was still a few days from being issued. Thus, their outdoor caf stayed down a few more days.

Says Juliana Lowell, "The whole 'endeavor' thing is annoying, but what really bothers us is the persistence of the inspector as bigger things go sliding by."

If you're going to insist the rules be followed, you need to treat everyone the same, no matter how small. And preferably, by a sane standard that recognizes good faith and what is truly important for the community.