Riverside Ribbon Cutting

Yesterday afternoon I attended the opening ceremony for the Riverside Powerplant’s conversion from coal to natural gas. It was awesome to hear the President of the Marshall Terrace neighborhood association commend Xcel for their cooperation and partnership. Too often, neighborhood groups face big corporations as enemies. The Riverside Plant is proof that this attitude is not necessary. Businesses and even the heaviest of industry can be partners and neighbors with residents. This is an essential point to keep in mind as we work to improve Central Avenue. Certainly, the difficulties will be smaller in Shoreham Yards.

I don’t live in Marshall Terrace, so I did not understand the costs the plant imposed on the neighborhood. When I first heard about the conversion, it seemed silly. The USA has so much coal, and we keep hearing about dwindling supplies of oil and gas. Minneapolis needs electric power, and it appeared to make more sense to generate that power with a more reliable and cheaper fuel. I felt for the neighbors, but whatever the costs, they had been part of the bargain all property owners assumed when buying next to a coal powerplant.

I have learned. Natural gas is relatively abundant and can be delivered at reasonable cost. The coal soot problem was a genuine health issue, not just an inconvenience. And the conversion included a small up-rating of the plant’s capacity, so we get more electricity. It’s a triple-win situation.

We’re Having a Friendraiser

My campaign—and my life—has been focused on what people can do instead of what people can buy. Keeping with that theme, my supporters are holding a “friendraiser”:

Stop by the Schulte house to show support for Mark. It’s a "friendraiser" because we're hoping you can help pass out flyers on your block. Of course, the usual form of donation will be greatly appreciated, too.

You're welcome to bring friends or skeptics. Meet Mark and tell him what you think City Hall should do differently.

It’s next Wednesday, October 14th, 5:30–7pm, at 2807 Polk Street NE.

Everyone is invited. Even my competitors. I am confident that anyone who takes the time to learn about my ideas and my record will recognize I am the First Choice for the First Ward.

$10,000 Trade-off

As an example of the trade-offs a Councilmember faces, consider this StarTribune story about the lawsuits between City Hall and old firefighter and police pension funds:

The city alleges that the funds are improperly including some fringe benefits that shouldn't be included in the salary base for calculating pensions. …  In pretrial rulings, [a Judge] found merit in substantial aspects of the city's arguments, and the two sides have engaged in extensive settlement discussions.

If the city wins, the decision could cut the property tax levy for pensions next year by $11 million, according to city finance officials.

The financial drain on the city also is increasing sharply next year, because of investment losses caused by market declines and because of a Legislature-approved change in assumptions about the longevity of retired police officers. Those costs are the biggest reasons that Mayor R.T. Rybak has proposed an 11.3 percent property tax increase for next year.

According to the reporter, the funds have made an offer that would reduce the City’s obligation next year by more than $14 million.

First, it appears the funds are offering more than the City hopes to gain through its suit, $14M vs. $11M. But I expect the devil is in the details. Are the funds offering a one-year adjustment, or are they willing to correct the seemingly inflated basis-of-pay calculations?

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The Disengaged Majority

I have been a neighborhood activist or community organizer for quite a while. I came up through what I half-jokingly call the DFL farm system—NRP.

I started by going to neighborhood meetings, was recruited onto my neighborhood board, served as Treasurer, and eventually became President of the Audubon Neighborhood Association. It was a big part of my life. I dealt with complaints, looked for development opportunities, conducted outreach, and did pretty much everything else a neighborhood activist does.

I worked with a lot of City officials, but usually the same handful of my neighbors. Finding volunteers is a perpetual challenge for community groups. Even when NRP was well-funded, meaning neighborhoods had resources and power, not many people got involved. If an association received input from 10% of the people it claimed to represent—like mine did—it was considered an outstanding achievement.

We spent millions of dollars without hearing from the other 90%. I think we did good work. Some of the 90% used the programs we offered. But they were essentially customers, not partners. For all its benefits, it is hard to call NRP a success at civic engagement.

During my tenure as ANA President, the Northeast Citizen Patrol was formed. Helping build the NECP was an eye-opener. When I actually started talking with people who don't go to meetings, I was amazed at how little awareness folks have of what goes on in local politics. And how much contempt they had for City Hall. Sure, we all joke about government, but I was meeting people who had lost faith, had lost hope, and were leaving the Northeast for a better life somewhere else. This was the other 90%—the disengaged majority.

Almost nobody had any knowledge that I was a “bigshot” in neighborhood activism, that I had been trying to reach them and help them for years. Most didn’t have a clue what the neighborhood association was up to. But they were glad to see that other folks cared enough to walk the sidewalks and fight crime. The NECP wasn’t—and still isn’t—about endless meetings to discuss which official can solve a problem. It was about action. The NECP seemed to awaken a power people had forgotten about, to help themselves and each other. We made a difference. And people joined up.

Business Day at City Hall

Last Friday, September 29th, was Business Day at City Hall. This was a gathering organized by the City of Lakes Chamber of Commerce aimed at developing an open and constructive dialog between the business community and City officials. I was the only candidate from my Ward—and perhaps the only non-incumbent City Council candidate—who thought hearing from business interests was important.

It was a worthwhile event. The day began with a short talk by Mayor Rybak. R.T. listed many benefits the city has offered to businesses in recent years. But he never mentioned the costs. And many of the things Rybak highlighted—like commute rail—benefit suburbanites much more than Minneapolis residents. We make it as easy as possible for outlanders to come work in tall buildings owned by other outlanders. It seemed like R.T. saw Minneapolis as a destination, not a home.

After the Mayor, we heard a report about taxes from the Chamber. Businesses pay 33% of all property taxes collected by the City, while homeowners pay 44%. Minneapolis taxes are the highest in the Metro area. In addition, business fees have risen over 11% in the last four years. The Chamber did credit City Hall for keeping spending down.

My Thoughts on Political Endorsements

Every political candidate has the opportunity to seek endorsements from parties, action committees and interest groups. You don’t have to find them; they find you. There are many advantages to winning organizational endorsements. Recognition, volunteer and technical support, and most of all, money.

I decided I would seek no organizational endorsements. Even from groups who are promoting issues close to my heart. It puts me at a disadvantage as a campaigner. I have to operate on a tiny budget, and learn a lot things that “connected” people already know.

But I believe it will make me a better Council Member. I will not owe any special interest any special consideration. I want everyone to feel they have access to their representative. I will not be “bought out” or “paid off”. I am in nobody’s pocket. Any person or group who has a concern should be heard, with all as equals.

National Poll Reflects First Ward Attitudes

I am campaigning on the idea that City Hall is too big, trying to do too much, and suffocating our city with taxes and regulations. Most of the folks I’ve met agree. A recent Gallup poll shows the whole country wants government to get back to basics:

Land Banks Can Empower Neighborhood Development

One of my campaign principles is Responsibility. A responsible government is humble and leaves more power to the people than it takes for itself.

This principle leads to two policy priorities: Neighborhoods should drive development; and, community organizations that help the city work better should be encouraged and rewarded.

These aren’t just wishes. I have been part of trying to make this happen along Central Avenue. My neighborhood (Audubon Park) realized that if we keep looking at developers as enemies, nothing will improve. So we held a couple of Developer Roundtables—open discussions where we asked developers about the problems they face and how a neighborhood group might help them build something awesome.

Issues:

League of Women Voters 2009 Voter Guide

The League of Women Voters offered all candidates the opportunity to answer a few questions for an online Voter Guide. There’s no direct access to the First Ward races, but it’s pretty easy to find them. Go here and enter your ZIP code to get started.

To save you a few clicks, here’s what I had to say:

1.  Relevant Experience:

Two terms as Audubon Neighborhood President, and two terms as Treasurer. Ten years on our neighborhood Board. Currently Land Use Committee Chair. Participant in many community planning initiatives. Led survey of Latino housing needs. Served on the City’s Community Engagement Task Force. Founding volunteer of Northeast Citizen Patrol.

2.  Education:

B.S. in Economics from the U of M. Graduate of De La Salle High School. Attended Kenny for elementary and Anthony for junior high. Neighborhood organizer and financial training through NRP. Completed coursework to become a life coach. As an entrepreneur, I have learned many things they don’t teach in schools.

5.  What issues do you think the city will be facing in the next 4 years?

Our city is facing a huge loss of revenue. City Hall is on an unsustainable fiscal path. The City Council cannot keep spending as it has without imposing more tax hikes that will drive more people out their homes and businesses. Another wave of home foreclosures looms.

Zoning Business Out

Today I attended a networking event held by the Northeast Chamber of Commerce. I was the only candidate there. My goals were to hear the concerns of our business community and to build awareness of my campaign.

Their top concern was taxes. Our businesses have trouble growing and surviving when City Hall takes so much from both them and their customers.

This problem was documented in a recent StarTribune story:

When Minneapolis hardware store owner Jim Welna got the chance to buy a building in the next block on Franklin Avenue and quadruple his floor space, he sat down to run the numbers.

They didn't add up -- in large part because of the property tax he'd have to pay. He figured that he would have to budget nearly $140 from each day's proceeds just to pay that $50,000 annual bill.

"I couldn't see a business model that would allow me to factor those taxes in and keep prices affordable," said Welna, who is chairman of the Seward Civic and Commerce Association.

Another concern, perhaps not appreciated by a candidate without my community development experience, was zoning. City Hall’s current zoning policy makes it expensive for a successful business to grow in place. Many times zoning allows no growth at all.

What About the Environment?

I spend a lot of time talking about financial sustainability. I am also concered about ecological sustainability.

Here’s part of something I wrote for my neighborhood association:

As residents of an authentic urban neighborhood, the people of Audubon Park are constantly reminded of the history that made this place. We are the seventh generation. Our stewardship today will be received as a gift tomorrow. We do not take that lightly.

We recognize our lives have an impact. That impact need not be negative. We find natural beauty in the urban environment and we nourish it. Our yards are home to birds and flowers. These natural elements sustain us while we work to reduce our footprint on the planet.

Yet, our neighborhood does not punish those who drive. Our central location within the Twin Cities puts nearly everywhere within easy reach. Should your work location change, you can comfortably keep your home.

A Business Perspective

Yesterday I was out introducing myself and letting people know my name is on the ballot. I asked a busy business owner a short question, “I’m running for City Council. What do you want City Hall to do differently?”

After a brief pause, the answer was, “Get rid of the City Council.”

I smiled and said, “Excellent!”

That’s the sentiment that inspired me to join the race. Here was a business owner, employer and resident who pays taxes and pays the cost of complying with City regulations. He doesn’t think what he gets is worth what he’s paying. Government doesn’t seem to represent him. The City Council is a punchline, not a respected servant.

Star Tribune Candidate Questions

Last month, the Star Tribune mailed a page of questions to all City Council candidates. The Strib may print or publish partial or full responses at their whim. Here are my answers, early and in full.

Organizational Endorsements:

None sought, none accepted.

What’s one burning issue that’s prompted you to run for this position:

Northeasters are being taxed out of our homes because the Council can’t stop spending. We need a fierce advocate for fair and responsible government.

Can I Win?

One of the first questions an outsider candidate hears is, “Can you win?” As most people seem to see things, the DFL precinct convention is really where our local races are decided. Once a candidate gets the DFL endorsement, voting in November is just a formality.

I used to think that way.

How Politicians Do Good

I’m not a politician. I don’t like politicians. That’s my biggest obstacle in campaigning for City Council.

Much of the usual campaign stuff, like showing up at community events and offering platitudes is not natural for me. I’ve been lied to too many times. I don’t want to be seen as just another phony.

So I am trying to set myself apart. Instead of the usual pile of campaign promises, I offer an alternative. I say government should do less. Competent Core Services. That’s it. And “competent” means the First Ward gets a fair share.

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