Did the city try to weaken neighborhood consultation?

Official cites e-mail confusion; activists say memo showed city's true intentions

January was a tough month for the Rybak administration. The newsletter-or-campaign-ad controversy grabbed headlines, but a behind-the-scenes battle involving neighborhood groups made waves among neighborhood leaders.

The row was over proposed changes to city contracts with neighborhood groups. In 2005, the city will give neighborhood groups $445,000 to involve residents on development proposals and related issues. Spread over more than 60 organizations, individual groups get relatively small grants. The Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood gets $2,150; the Northside

Residents Redevelopment Council gets $20,000.

The proposed contract language raised two key issues. First, neighborhood groups appeared to lose their traditional 45-day comment period on proposed developments. A new provision read "whenever possible and practicable, [the city's Community Planning and Economic Development department, or CPED] will provide affected organizations with notice prior to formal city consideration."

Also, the new contract defined neighborhood group responsibilities to the city but deleted previous contract language that spelled out CPED's responsibilities to neighborhood groups. The last contract included six city responsibilities, including giving neighborhood groups "maximum feasible opportunity to participate and advise" staff and the City Council.

Depending on whom one asks, the city's policy didn't change and people were misinformed by an unapproved city memo - or CPED tried to change policy and retreated when people complained.

When Jana Metge saw the Internet posting she said she felt the change undermined neighborhood review of plans that would affect them.

"I don't want to wake up someday with a bulldozer across the street from me and then have to react to something that is already halfway done," said Metge, a Phillips resident and a Citizens for a Loring Park Community staffer.

On Jan. 19, CPED Director Lee Sheehy sent out an e-mail apologizing for the confusion and said it was never the Department's intention to eliminate the neighborhood's 45-day development review period.

Sheehy said a Finance Department staff member sent the earlier e-mail and it was inaccurate. Key CPED staff had not had a chance to review the e-mail before it was sent.

However, CPED's own Jan. 7 staff memo explaining the new contract seemed unambiguous about the department’s intention to change course, said NRP Executive Director Bob Miller.

The CPED memo stated: "The proposed citizen participation guidelines and criteria would redefine CPED's responsibility to one of informing (rather than consulting) neighborhood groups of proposed housing and economic development projects and programs."

On Jan. 19, Mayor R.T. Rybak and Council President Paul Ostrow sent out a strongly worded letter to neighborhood leaders opposing the change. "This statement is absolutely unacceptable and does not reflect the position of the Mayor or City Council. Neither the Mayor nor the City Council were advised of this memo or these proposed changes before they were transmitted."

Miller said he got numerous calls from neighborhood leaders concerned about the proposed changes. CPED leaders "thought they could get away with this, figuring people would be too slow to pick up on it," he said. "They were not."

Said Sheehy, "A mistake was made and it has been corrected. I am not going to spend too much time analyzing the whys. What is important is that it has been corrected."

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the issue became very political. The contract language was posted on the Internet on Jan. 12. Within two days, Mayoral challenger Peter McLaughlin fired off a strongly worded letter to neighborhood leaders, saying the city again was trying to centralize power.

"This new policy comes from an administration that has consistently supported actions that leave neighborhoods and citizens out of the decision-making process," wrote McLaughlin, who is also a Hennepin County commissioner.

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) fired back, saying McLaughlin was using scare tactics and engaging in conduct "unbecoming of an elected official working in the same jurisdiction."

Said Goodman, "I think it is unfortunate and desperate of Peter to not call our management and find out what the exact situation is. If he was a partner in government, he would have tried to get an answer before creating a campaign issue where there is none."

Goodman chairs the Council's Community Development Committee and oversees CPED. She said the Department needed to rewrite the contract after CPED succeeded the independent Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA).

The city created CPED by merging MCDA, the Planning Department and the Empowerment Zone - which meant new responsibilities, Goodman said.

For instance, the Planning Department and city get only 60 days to review land use applications such as zoning changes. If the neighborhoods have a 45-day review-and-comment period, the city would have just 15 days to meet its deadlines, meaning all applications would be approved because of the city's failure to act.

Goodman said, adding the Council gave CPED explicit directions to protect neighborhood's interests "by having as much review period as possible while still maintaining a process that is doable under state law."

McLaughlin defended his letter, saying he did not politicize the issue but engaged affected parties. He criticized the city for not notifying neighborhood groups in advance about the changes and discussing them.

"I am happy that they reversed themselves," he said. "I am happy to have participated."