Will the city de-emphasize neighborhood groups?

Some Minneapolis neighborhood-group leaders are worried that the city will change their traditionally central role providing community feedback and initiative on local issues.

The city plans to overhaul its citizen involvement process on a host of issues, from development review to policing.

Spurring the concern is the city’s recent announcement that its "citizen participation grants" — operating money on which many neighborhood organizations rely — would only be guaranteed until December instead of next June, the traditional rollover date.

Barb Lickness, a Whittier resident, former 6th Ward City Council candidate and neighborhood specialist for the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), is among the worried.

"A lot of neighborhoods don’t know what is going on," she said. "They don’t know citizen participation could slip away and die a quiet death."

The changes stem in part from the city’s recent creation of the Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), a merger of the former Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) and other agencies.

The MCDA was required to get neighborhood participation by state law and city ordinance; CPED does not, according to an April 16 agency memo.

To foster such participation, the MCDA provided "citizen participation" grants for neighborhood groups to operate. The sums weren’t much, ranging from a few thousand dollars to $21,839 for the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council.

However, unlike NRP’s far-bigger but less-certain grants, neighborhoods get citizen participation money annually.

Because MCDA has become CPED, it is not clear who will run the program. Could the city choose to shift the citizen participation money somewhere else besides the usual neighborhood groups?

Deputy Mayor David Fey said it was possible but not likely. The mayor would address the issue in his Aug. 12 budget address. "It is most likely those funds will be distributed in the usual way," Fey said.

Julie Filapek, executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization, said she believed the city wants to hold neighborhood groups more accountable and document outcomes. She said Minneapolis groups could follow the St. Paul District Councils’ lead, which have worked to better document their work and set performance standards.

"That would be a great model for Minneapolis as we navigate these new circumstances," she said.

In a related move, the City Council has directed the Communications Department to take the lead on community engagement. Communications Director Gail Plewacki said she would hire a "community engagement specialist" by November to help each department create more uniform expectations for public involvement.

"The devil is in the details," she said, noting community engagement will play out differently from department to department.

Some neighborhood leaders see the city working internally to define community engagement without talking to the community first. The concern was voiced several times during a recent neighborhood meeting sponsored by the nonprofit Center for Neighborhoods.

Plewacki said that community discussion will happen. The city needs to do the staff work first.

"We are early in the process," she said. "I am sure we will demand that departments — as part of the protocol that is put in place — have the constant exchange with the community that they serve."