Last Tuesday’s 4th Ward Minneapolis City Council Member forum, hosted by Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church and moderated by the League of Women Voters, gave the four candidates a chance to address North Side and city-wide issues. Incumbent Barbara Johnson, who is running for her fourth term, faced off against challengers Grant Cermak, Marcus Harcus, and Troy Parker.
Cermak has lived in North Minneapolis nine years. He and his wife Jennifer Cermak own Nani Nalu Beachwear Boutique in Edina. He is a University of Minnesota graduate and a software engineer. Cermak ran unsuccessfully last year for the District 58A House of Representatives seat. An independent candidate, his website quotes past presidential candidate, Republican Ron Paul: “The biggest threat to your privacy is the government.”
Harcus, a Green Party candidate, graduated from Patrick Henry High School and attended Southern University in Louisiana. He served in AmeriCorps and has a background as a community organizer. A writer and a former Northeast Community Development Corporation (NE CDC) staff member, he has organized youth empowerment conferences, focus groups and spoken word events.
DFL-endorsed Johnson is a registered nurse, former Girl Scout leader and a founding member of the Victory Neighborhood Association. She served 18 years on the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission. Elected to the city council in 1997, she has been council president since January, 2006. She formerly served on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Commission, to which she was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.
Parker, a DFL party member, has lived in the 4th Ward for more than 15 years. A pipefitter, he ran unsuccessfully once before for the city council seat, in 1997. Parker is a Shingle Creek Neighborhood Association board member, and a Patrick Henry High School site council member. He has been involved in the Mississippi Corridor Neighborhood coalition and was a coach for the Minneapolis Police Athletic League (PAL).
To the question, “What is your vision for the residents and businesses, and how will you work to carry out this vision on the city council,” Parker said he wants honest and fair leadership, and wants to move forward with business development in the community. He and his wife tried, in the past, to open a restaurant but encountered resistance from the city, he said. “Leaders tell people this is not a great place to spend your money. Our assets in the city have not been shared equally. The North Side has been neglected for a number of years.”
Johnson said she wants to increase opportunities for employment, reduce crime, aid the North Side’s housing stock as it recovers from the foreclosure crisis, and improve the water quality in the Mississippi River and Shingle Creek. The city has helped companies such as Impact Mailing double the size of its business, she said, and the company agreed to hire a certain percentage of Minneapolis residents. City loan programs have aided Steamworks Coffee and Tea; the Warren, an Artists’ Habitat (both on 44th Avenue N.); and Papa’s Pizza and Pasta (on Thomas Avenue N.), Johnson added, helping people open and expand their businesses.
Cermak said he envisions Ward 4 as a place that would facilitate business. As a small business owner, he said he has found that it is almost impossible to achieve a profit due to over-regulation and over-taxation. He called for a radical reduction in property taxes, and said he would “work with other members of the city council to hear from businesses and residents about the compliance problems they’re running into.”
Harcus said he wants the North Side to be a place people want to move to: “a good, peaceful place with a strong infrastructure and a healthy economic environment.”
To a question about the high number of foreclosures, Johnson responded that the city has been very proactive about them. The city partnered with GMHC (Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation), she said; GMHC staff have been inside 500 foreclosed houses, acquired 150 and rehabbed and sold 50 to community residents. “People were buying houses and turning them into rental properties they could not care for. They took money out of the transaction and never made a house payment or paid a water bill.” The city needed to respond to the crisis aggressively, she added, “which is exactly what we’re doing.”
Cermak said, “Not all of the houses that have gone into foreclosure were due to predatory lending. The primary problem was that banks loaned money to people who couldn’t afford their loans, and the houses were overvalued. I look at my property taxes, and I don’t see any house in the neighborhood selling for that amount.”
Harcus said, “We need to focus on keeping people in their homes.” He criticized the city council for failing to enact a predatory lending ordinance. Harcus said he is involved in a foreclosure prevention program that identifies homeowners at risk of foreclosure. “We need to assess property taxes according to actual market value.”
Parker said, “You can’t put a value on all the families we’ve lost, who are friends and relatives of people in this room. Investors have been receiving a lot of support from the city; they’re still in the neighborhood, still doing the same thing, and they’re buying properties with the same city money we’re talking about.”
Cermak said he found the question, “What can be done to hold landlords accountable for their renters and their properties?” to be a strange one. “I see private investors make an honest effort to maintain their property, and I see a bunch of renters come in and trash the place and trash the neighborhood. I would ask instead, â€˜How can I investigate these renters?’ He said the city needs a better way to mediate between the landlord and the renters, and said “over-regulation” and “over-passage of ordinances” make it difficult to be a landlord.
Harcus said it is dangerous to stigmatize all renters. The city needs a system to track the number of properties a landlord has, he added, and whether or not a building has professional management. “If we find out there’s a pattern of mismanagement, we need to revoke their license.”
Parker said that as a council member, he would bring a city inspector with him to a meeting between the landlord and tenant. He would determine if the landlord has a number of properties with the same issue, and whether or not the tenant has a history of moving from location to location. “We have no way of tracking that; any problems are charged to the property.” He accused city leaders of making “deals” in the neighborhood. “Right now, tenants and landlords understand that we have a council that won’t step in and rectify the situation.”
Johnson said a predatory lending ordinance would have had no effect, because cities do not regulate lenders. The city has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into foreclosure prevention, she added.
As to the landlord question, she answered, “We need to make sure landlords have tenants who are respectful of the neighborhood, follow the laws and maintain the property. The city has quintupled the number of rental licenses revoked.”
To a crime and safety question, Harcus said there needs to be better policing strategies and better response to break ins. “We need to hold cops accountable. Our incumbent thinks the police can do no wrong. They don’t think anything will happen. The police need to respect the community. They should get out of their cars and walk the beats.”
Parker said the police department needs to determine which officers are doing their jobs. Some have cost the city millions of dollars [in lawsuits and settlements]. He said the economy plays a factor in crime. “A number of our residents have felonies, and can’t find gainful employment. Once they’ve committed a crime, they’re constantly being punished for the remainder of their lives. That’s why we have people standing on the street corners to make a living. They think that’s the only thing they have left.”
Johnson said, “If you look at the statistics, we’ve had crime reduction in every category over the last four years. But that doesn’t give any comfort to the people who are the victims of crime.” Police need to be courteous and respectful, she said, and leave a victim with information on how to contact them.
The police are currently holding community policing plan meetings in all the neighborhoods, she added, which will help people get to know the lieutenants in charge of their areas. She advised some crime prevention efforts for residents, including forming block clubs if they don’t already exist. Police Chief Tim Dolan, Johnson said, is making an effort to hold officers accountable for their actions, and “has fired more police officers than any chief in Minneapolis history. That is not a statistic that makes him popular with the police federation.”
Cermak said he has been a crime victim. His home was burglarized and his car was broken into. “The police wrote up a little blue card and said if I have property insurance, I could use the number to report it.” The police do not follow up on property crimes, he added. “If we’ve had a drop in property crimes, it’s because fewer people are living here.” Many officers don’t live in Minneapolis and don’t care about the city, Cermak said. “They are out in downtown, doing security at night. We should look at what they’re doing and what resources they’re using.”
To a question about job creation, Parker said that other cities get heavy contributions from labor unions and labor organizations.
Cermak responded that large companies such as 3M and Honeywell are leaving Minnesota because taxes are far too high. “Property taxes have doubled over seven years. We’ve passed smoking bans and introduced business-unfriendly laws. City government is unhelpful, unfriendly and downright hostile. You will be found in non-compliance by some inspector. You can only be a big company to operate in Minneapolis. It’s extraordinarily expensive to do things right.”
Harcus said the city has lost many jobs because of zoning laws. In the future, he added, two of every three jobs will require that employees have a degree. But on the North Side, there is a lot of poverty. The city needs to work with the State Legislature to ensure that people are not permanently disenfranchised. “We need stronger schools. We need to support small businesses; they create most of the jobs in the city.”
Johnson said the city needs an educated workforce. “We need to make sure that when properties are developed, they provide a number of jobs.” She cited Resource, Inc., and Emerge (a spin-off from Pillsbury United Communities) as examples of Northside agencies that offer job training, and added, “The city is charged to try to find employment for people who live there.”
Johnson disagreed with Cermak on a later question about rapid transit, when Cermak stated that on the Hiawatha light rail line [which runs from downtown to the Mall of America and the airport] ridership was low and “it has proven to be almost a colossal failure.” Johnson said, on the contrary, that the line has been a “huge success,” with twice the ridership originally expected. Harcus and Parker both said they support light rail, and wanted to make sure that there are stops at appropriate locations for residents.
To the final question about their “number one priority for Ward 4,” Cermak said, “Lower property taxes. Your dollars are increasingly being taken from you.” Harcus said, “Housing. We need to make sure people can stay in their homes.” Parker said, “Serving youth and seniors.” Johnson said, “Keeping our neighborhoods safe, and continuing to make this good place to invest in, own a home and start a business.”
Cermak’s web site is www.grantcermak.com, and his phone number is 612-860-6896. Parker’s web site is troyparkerforcouncil.wordpress.com, and his phone number is 612-242-0892. Harcus’ web site is www.marcusharcus.org, and his phone number is 612-600-0155. Johnson’s web site is www.barbjohnson.org. Her phone number is 612-529-4341.