Who will represent the neighborhoods?


The simple question from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) — do neighborhoods want to meet on Feb. 21 to talk about representation on the city’s new Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission? (NCEC) — begs a much larger debate about the future of local resident participation in city government.

Once seated, the NCEC will be a 16-member advisory board for the newly created Department of Community Engagement, which is set to take the reins of NRP-like programs and funding in 2011 as part of the city’s Framework for the Future.

The City Council, mayor and Park Board have or will soon choose their eight representatives. Park Board representative Ami Thompson has already been named. The city’s Council of the Whole held a public hearing Jan. 22 about the City Council’s five choices and mayor’s two picks; the full council is expected to choose seven of the eight potential appointees on Feb. 6: Tony Anastasia, David Crockett, Crystal Johnson, Ed Newman, Doris Overby, Matthew Perry, Breanne Rothstein and Jeffrey Strand.

It falls to the city’s 81 neighborhood groups to select the commission’s other eight representatives. Also up to them is the process of doing so, which NRP Director Bob Miller hopes the Feb. 21 forum will help facilitate — if a 60 percent majority of the neighborhoods agree to participate.

An email from Miller and NRP Policy Board Chair (and Hennepin County Commissioner) Gail Dorfman went out to neighborhoods in late November, asking that they sign on to the Feb. 21 meeting by Jan. 30. Lack of response would be considered a “no” vote, and, by late January, Miller had received about 20 yes votes (including only Marcy-Holmes, Seward and Southeast Como from our coverage area) — far short of the 60 percent needed.

Prospect Park (which, like many groups, did not meet in December) was to discuss the matter at its Jan. 26 board meeting, a point that speaks to timing difficulties noted by Miller in a late-January interview with The Bridge.

Both Miller and David Rubedor, senior project manager for the city, were careful to say that the decisions about the process and choices for neighborhood representation should be made by the neighborhoods themselves.

“It’s important that the neighborhoods be at the table on the commission,” said Rubedor, who responded to a call for comments made to Jennifer Lastoka, the city’s community engagement coordinator. “It’s a vital part of the work that needs to be done with this commission and new department.”

At this point, there are no guidelines or criteria for choosing neighborhood representatives except that they live in Minneapolis, said Rubedor.

Miller said NRP called for the Feb. 21 meeting “because nobody was doing it,” and he accused the city of ignoring the neighborhood nomination process. As for NRP’s role, Miller said a third-party facilitator would likely be brought in, should the meeting take place.

“We don’t want to … look like we’re trying to oversee the process or take it over,” he said. “We’re not going to facilitate it, not going to staff it. We’re just arranging for it to be held. Then it’s up to the neighborhoods and everybody who attends.”

Rubedor said that, while the city would offer its support in any way it can, “it’s really got to be the neighborhoods that do the selection.” He said his department would be more than happy to work with NRP to get the Feb. 21 meeting set up. “If it’s not coming together, we will look at other ways to facilitate the discussion,” he said.

Rubedor expects that the new commission will hold its first meeting on April 28, and he’s optimistic that it will include the eight neighborhood representatives. His department has sent a letter to the neighborhoods asking them to complete the appointment process by April 20.

By contrast, Miller said he could see the nomination process taking as long as even May or June, given the organizations’ monthly meeting schedules. “I don’t know what the neighborhoods are going to come up with as a process,” he said.

Miller said a couple of neighborhoods have said they won’t participate in the process at all because they don’t recognize the new city-centered model as valid – an even larger issue looming beyond the question of neighborhood participation.

Last year, as many as half of the city’s active neighborhood groups signed on with the group Neighbors4NRP to oppose the city’s Framework for the Future.

Still, Miller said neighborhoods not coming to the table is counterproductive. “My hope would be that they would at least take the opportunity to meet as a group and have some discussion.” While he is optimistic that “reason will show itself in the end,” Miller said the process could be a sloppy one.

“Democracy is a sloppy business,” he said. “I’ve heard wild ideas about what kind of process should be used. I think they’ll come up with a process in the end, and they’ll probably revise it two or three times over the next few years. In the meantime, it’s going to be chaos.”

Check the NRP website, www.nrp.org, for updates about the Feb. 21 meeting.