City makes someone responsible for citizen participation

City Hall's public relations arm is taking a central role in coordinating and improving citizen participation in government.

The City Council voted 8-3 Feb. 13 to "Identify the Communications Department as the permanent home for the community engagement function."

This is a new role for Communications staff. According to the city's 2004 budget book, the department's four main activities are, "media/public relations," "providing strategic communications guidance," "oversight of citywide communications materials" and "enhancing the image of Minneapolis."

A number of city leaders have talked about improving citizen involvement. Mayor R.T. Rybak said he wants to "throw open" the doors of government. City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) got the most recent initiative rolling, saying the city needed a department to "champion" community engagement.

Gail Plewacki, city communications director, said she planned to hire a new staff person in the next two to three months to work "specifically and solely" on community engagement

"I think it is a natural extension of what we do," she said.

City Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) said he wanted the city to take more time to decide which agency should lead citizen participation efforts and cast the sole "no" vote in the Ways and Means Committee Feb. 11. He asked how the effort would mesh with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

Niziolek strongly supported the motion, saying "We need to land it in one department this year. Someone has to be held accountable."

Niziolek said the city does a good job engaging citizens in several areas, and he considered the Health Department and police crime-prevention unit as potential lead groups -- but they did not work on issues citywide.

NRP could also take the lead, but Lori Olson, assistant city coordinator, said that choice had problems. The city does not have director control of NRP, which has its own governing board, including city, county, state, parks and library representatives.

The City Coordinator's office could take the lead on civic engagement, Niziolek said, but the Coordinator's office recommended against it.

Coordinator John Moir recommended the Communications Department as the lead agency. A multi-agency group worked on the civic engagement issue in 2003 and issued a report in April, Moir wrote the Ways and Means Committee. The issue received no follow-up because of staffing issues and because no department took ownership of the project.

"By assigning a permanent citywide home for this function, community engagement will become institutionalized within the city," it said. "The Communications Department already provides tools, training and strategic consultation to departments involved in substantial residential communication."

Niziolek said he was not concerned that people might perceive the Communications Department as more P.R. than public ombudsman.

"It helps us to enhance what we mean by a Communications Department," he said. "To me, it actually will allow us to take communications where it needs to be."

(The Communications Department's current mission statement reads: "To clearly and accurately communicate information about the city of Minneapolis to key audiences. This includes providing information about core services, the political process, ordinances and regulations, a well as promoting the arts, culture and entertainment Minneapolis has to offer," according to the city's 2004 budget,)

Plewacki said her staff already works with other departments on community engagement. Staff works with Public Works on everything from letters notifying residents of upcoming projects to structuring more effective public meetings.

The new staff person would work more systematically with departments to improve citizen participation, such as setting clear parameters and expectations for public meetings.

"We have a lot of staff people in each of these departments who are already pretty darn good at it. The problem is that we haven't been consistent," Plewacki said.

The city's Web site lists as a city goal: "The voices of individuals and the community are valued and will be heard and involved at appropriate points in the city's decision-making processes. The city will be more effective and efficient in how we communicate with and engage communities, and will work to include those who are typically underrepresented in public dialogue."