City Council fiefdoms? Starved to death or stabbed in the back? What’s going on in Minneapolis?


City council members Paul Ostrow, Don Samuels and Ralph Remington have stirred up a hornet’s nest with proposals to fundamentally transform city government. Their three proposals:

1) replace the elected Park Board, which has actual decision-making authority, with an advisory board.
2) Eliminate the elected Board of Estimate and Taxation
3) Create a city manager and change the supervision and reporting structure of city government so that departments all report to the new city manager rather than to city council committees.

We reprint some of the initial reactions from Minneapolis E-Democracy below, and invite you to join in the debate.

MinnPost comes out pretty clearly in favor of the proposal, headlining it as an initiative to streamline Minneapolis operations and asking in the lead paragraph, “Can Minneapolis afford the antiquated bureaucracy that seems often to hang as an anvil around its neck?” (Steve Berg, who wrote the article, notes that he has long been an advocate of these changes.)

Ostrow argues that the mayor and council should set policy and then leave oversight and implementation to professionals. Samuels cited last year’s city/county library merger as a success story showing the need to centralize responsibility.

In the Minneapolis E-Democracy Forum, debate is already heated. Excerpts from comments there:

Carol Becker (member of Board of Estimate and Taxation): “As to the question of the City Manager form of government, most cities in the country do have this form of government. It would substantially weaken the power of Council Members, specifically committee chairs who end up having little fiefdoms in their committee areas. It is interesting to think if this happens, how much power will be concentrated into many smaller hands, given the elimination of the Library Board, the NRP, then possibly the Park Board and the Board of Estimate. It has always been up for debate whether our diffuse power structure resulted in a better or more poorly run city. I’ve always advocated like Madison in the Federalist Papers that power should be split up among many hands and this was a strength for the City. ”

Jim Graham: Here is a bit of humor for us in Minneapolis, that is if we were not again getting the shaft. In that huge bailout package passed by the House today are several BILLION dollars for “Neighborhood Revitalization”. Thank you Mr. Obama!!! Minneapolis had the best program in the nation, one that was admired internationally, and the present Mayor and Council just killed it. Minneapolis would have been first in line to reap the benefits brought in by that great “Community Organizer” President Obama, and this bunch of dodos just killed what was the envy of the nation.

So folks you can see my Dilemma. Could there be worse management than the present system? Well yes, I guess there could be. Does anyone doubt that the Council controlling our parks would lead to unbelievably more opportunities for “Conflicts of interest” because of “Developer friends”? …

So I guess after the destruction of NRP it would be just plain foolish to trust another Minneapolis feature that is the envy of the country to that Minneapolis Council. Sorry folks, I was born one morning but it wasn’t;t yesterday morning, and I know what that liquid is hitting my back as they tell me how much better off we will be, so in my opinion they need to keep their greasy little sweat covered hands off OUR parks.

Sheldon Mains: One of the important (but little known) functions of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (I was a member for two years) is that it manages the internal audit activities of Minneapolis. In other cities that function reports to the city council or mayor. Having a different board manage it removes it from political influence–something important for audits.

Tony Scallon: I would support strengthing the appointment and responsibility power of the mayor subject to approval of the City Council similar to St. Paul. Most city manager forms of government are for smaller cities where the council is very part time and the mayor only real power is chairing the city council. Almost all large cities are strong mayor and full time council. Citizens can than hold the mayor more responsible for issues in the city than an appointed official.

Scott Vreeland (current Park and Recreation Board Commissioner for District 3): I serve on two boards with Council member Ostrow. I have a good working relationship with him in these capacities. I don’t think what he is doing to eliminate the Elected Park Board is good for either the city or the Park Board. For me it is the like the choice between being starved to death or stabbed in the back and it looks like we get both.

I asked Council member Ostrow about the current city hall plan that provides essentially no capital investment for neighborhood parks in future years. He said he knows the parks have been under funded and that is the reason that it would be better if the city were in control of the park system. So we are being told that the current council’s actions restricting operating and capital funding is really a sign that is neglecting the park system has only occurred because they didn’t own the land?

Ed Felien: Now there is a proposal to further streamline City government by eliminating all those pesky and obscure offices that allow just about anybody to slow down the efficiency of government with endless debates and discussions. The Board of Estimate and Taxation: Didn’t Carol Becker try to slow down the elimination of the Minneapolis Public Library system? The Park Board: Why should it be an independent board? The Commissioners might get the false idea they were the equals to the City Council. For that matter, why should the School Board be independent? Wouldn’t it be much more efficient if they were all under the control of the Mayor and City Council? And, then, to eliminate the whining and turf battles of the City Council, wouldn’t it be even more efficient if we could do away with the City Council? And, instead of elections every four years, we could just cancel all elections and have a Mayor or maximum leader, or Duce or Fuehrer? Wouldn’t that be much more efficient? And maybe the buses would run on time?