Getting engaged

New task force charged with coming up with ways to strengthen ties between City Hall and the community

Minneapolis leaders are trying to buck the notion that you can’t fight City Hall — or at least find a way to work with it.

At the end of June, a city-organized group of 22 community representatives began a series of weekly meetings to talk about how the city can improve civic engagement.

Dubbed the Community Engagement Task Force, the group is part of a larger process that aims to improve how elected officials and city staff collect input from the community on a myriad of decisions. Task force members will develop recommendations and seek feedback from the community before presenting a report in October to the City Council, which will consider the suggestions when developing the 2009 budget next year.

Many community members and officials agree the city needs a new model for actively engaging the community, but some are concerned that the complexity of the process and its tight timeline will yield a less-than-visionary plan. Many are also keeping a close eye on how the process addresses the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), which puts money in the hands of neighborhood organizations and is expected to end in a couple years.

The future of public participation in Minneapolis government is on the table.

“This is a community that absolutely has come to believe that they have a right to expect to be part of the conversation,” said task force co-chairman and East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association President Matt Perry. “And that’s great. That makes for a vibrant city.”

A detailed process

The task force is just one piece of a complex, three-track process to develop a set of city procedures for gathering and using input from residents and organizations.

Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward), one of three council members on the task force, said many council candidates campaigned in 2001 on platforms of improved community engagement. Once they reached City Hall, Lilligren said many candidates realized effective community engagement was easier said than done.

“We realized what a complicated, multifaceted, multi-level issue it is,”
Lilligren said. “It got frustrating for a lot of us because we couldn’t just dig in and get to work.”

Former Council Member Dan Niziolek led efforts to get a community engagement coordinator — a position now filled by Jennifer Amundson — but Lilligren said the council failed to provide clear direction on exactly what community engagement entailed. City Coordinator Steven Bosacker started helping the council get a better grasp of organizing community engagement efforts in recent years, Lilligren said.

City leaders decided they needed to thoroughly examine community engagement with a defined process that included community leaders and organizations. With the clock quickly winding down on NRP — a strong force for community engagement in the city — the City Council developed the three-track process. Work on each track is occurring simultaneously.

The first track involves the City Council coming up with recommendations to improve the community engagement system using tools that already exist.

“It’s just basically looking at how we can better communicate what’s going on at City Hall,” Lilligren said.

The second track defines the roles and funding of all the community and cultural organizations that are or should be part of the city decision-making process. This is where the task force comes in, with its members helping to define the roles of those groups and how they should be engaged in city government. City Council members recruited community leaders to apply for the task force, and Council President Barb Johnson (4th Ward) chose applicants to appoint.

The third track examines the structure and future of NRP. City staff members are currently working to prepare a report on the program that will be delivered to the City Council in October.

The community engagement process aims to make it easier for residents to get involved in the city’s decision-making process and provide a clear outline for how officials should gather and use that input. It is also an acknowledgement that the city doesn’t engage the community as well as it could, Lilligren said.

“I think we got kind of lazy about it,” he said.
The future of funding

“NRP to the average resident, they don’t know that it exists,” task force co-chair Perry said. “The NRP Policy Board is something they’ve probably never heard of. But what they have heard of is what a funded neighborhood, when it’s operating well, has done for their community.”

Housing improvements, crime prevention programs and park enhancements are among many neighborhood initiatives NRP has made possible. Neighborhood leaders said the program has brought neighbors together and given them real power to make change.

NRP is specific to neighborhood groups and it’s only part of the community engagement discussion, but it’s a big part. Without some sort of funding, some believe neighborhood groups will dissolve.

Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said NRP dollars have been invested into community engagement through the neighborhood groups. If the funding goes away, community engagement will suffer a blow, he said.

“It’s not just a question of dollars and cents, it’s a question of if something isn’t done, you’re going to start having neighborhood groups going belly up in a few years,” Hinds said. “And once they start going belly up, how’s community engagement going to work?”

David Brauer, president of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA), said neighborhood groups are preparing for an era of scarcity. He said neighborhood groups can continue to function with less cash, but some sort of minimal funding is needed to rally and organize a community.

NRP uses tax-increment financing as the tool to generate funds for neighborhoods, with a goal at the onset of the program that $20 million a year would be channeled to neighborhoods for 20 years. The two-decade time frame specifically outlined in the legislation that created NRP will come to a close at the end of 2009.

Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-61A) proposed a bill in this year’s legislative session that would have extended NRP another two decades, but the City Council asked the Legislature to hold off on taking up that bill. It argued that the bill failed to provide any sort of funding mechanism for the estimated $150 million cost of extending the program. Council members are unsure where future funding might come from.

Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) hopes the community engagement process will provide elected officials with a clear directive and a jump-start on what’s going to happen with NRP.

She said that while she thinks NRP is a fantastic program that enabled her to win a seat on the council, she is also an adamant supporter of a structurally sound city budget.

“We have a good program [in NRP] and no way yet to fund it past 2009,” Hodges said.

Other council members have argued that while NRP is a valuable program, neighborhood organizations shouldn’t be the only way residents are empowered to engage with city officials.

Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said neighborhood organizations are an important part of the community engagement process, but they make up a small portion of the city’s constituents. He’d like to make sure city officials hear from a diverse group of organizations.

“The policymakers are the funnels,” Remington said. “We’re in the unique position where many different organizations from all over the city can channel their viewpoints and make them known.”

Challenges ahead

The task force is structured to represent all of those different organizations and viewpoints. It includes people from business associations, community development corporations, cultural organizations and other groups.

Its size and diversity make for lively discussion, but staying focused can be difficult.

“We’re doing our best to keep the conversation going,” said Community Engagement Coordinator Amundson. “I think it’s a dense process, and there’s a lot to consider and a lot of different views people have.”

But there’s not a lot of time. The task force will have a total of seven two-hour meetings. It has four left.

At a committee meeting earlier this month, the task force debated what community engagement is, whom the city should recognize as participants in the engagement system and what the task force is trying to accomplish. Though Amundson said the group generally does what it wants to do at meetings, its end goal is accomplishing five charges set by the City Council. Among them are identifying formal groups to be part of the engagement system and developing clear expectations for those groups and the city.

Task force member Justin Huenemann, president of the Minneapolis-based Native American Community Development Institute, said he was concerned that the task force’s working parameters are too stiff to utilize the intellect of the group.

“This process is so scripted that there really is little room for organic and healthy discourse,” he said.

Lilligren said though the process is lengthy and detailed, it’s not scripted and the city is relying heavily on the community to come up with recommendations.

“This isn’t a guided tour,” Lilligren said. “We don’t know what we’re going to have at the end.”

Amundson said the task force meetings are structured to fit within the larger process and help the group come up with recommendations in enough time for the city to develop a plan before NRP is depleted.

She said discussions about community engagement would continue after a plan is developed.

While some community members wish the process of examining community engagement would have started sooner, they agree it’s better late than never.

“It’s a shame people weren’t serious about this two years ago,” Hinds said. “But they weren’t.”

Reach Jake Weyer at [email protected] and Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected]