You could serve on a city commission

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A little girl plays quietly as her father listens to others talking. Columbia Park Manor’s richly timbered ceilings bounce the sound around. It’s a particularly comfortable if cacophonous, almost hallowed place to be hearing thoughtful and passionate citizens called to community service through Minneapolis’ boards and commissions.

“People showing up does make a difference” through their “reasonable and well thought-out testimony,” said architect James Nutt, who serves on the Zoning Board of Adjustment , a quasi-judicial board composed of different professions. It’s a technical, not political task, he says, where 82 percent of the requested variances have been approved. “We deal in the gray areas.” It’s there where challenging the old rules and pushing new ideas will lead to change, he said.

People on the Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities relish the chance to shape the new football stadium’s accessibility, just like they did for Target Field, and will do for the Interchange. Their work crosses over with a senior-serving task force, a bicycle task force, and even special service districts. Spokesperson Amanda Tempel sparkles with enthusiasm, encouraging others to step up. “We’re always encouraging participation, and have orientation and training. We suggest that people join us for a few meetings before being recommended. They can see what kinds of subcommittees they want to serve on.

Minneapolis has more than 50 boards and commissions with council members or the mayor appointing about 400 of the more than 600 members. It’s the fall season to apply to serve (the other appointment time is in spring). According to a flyer passed out at a recent Sheridan Neighborhood Organization meeting, 16 of those bodies have openings, and application review will start Oct. 19. With term limits and other occasional vacancies, the composition is always changing but on each purposeful panel there are some very experienced people and some new.

“The city is such a big machine, that’s why you’re on there for three years,” said one commissioner. “In the first two to three months you’re not expected to be a change agent, because you’re learning.”

First Ward Minneapolis City Council Member Kevin Reich sponsored the event, where First Ward resident appointees as panelists about equaled the number in the audience (about 20). It’s hoped that those attending would apply for something that interests them.

“It’s good to have the new people,” said Amy Fields, serving on the Central Avenue Special Services District. “I’m a middle person, there are some who’ve been on longer than I have, and we get stuck in ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ The new people ask, ‘why do you do that?’ And that’s good for us.”

JP Hagerty, on the Ethical Practices Board, said she’s lived in Northeast for 10 years, and saw this as an opportunity to give back to her community.

Volunteer board members and commissioners have been involved in everything from bike lanes on Central Avenue and energy conservation in high rises, to twinkle lights, flower pots and flags, to police internal affairs, in what member Pat Kvidera describes as “the most turmoiled” group fighting over business process.

There’s the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission whose charge, member Jeffrey Martin said, is to figure out how to reach the city’s 384,000 residents. The Capital Long Range Improvement Committee makes major decisions on when projects will be funded; First Ward resident Michael Vennewitz serves on that body.

Everyone applauded Rita Deyo, who had a long record of volunteer service in Waite Park before also serving on the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee; though “at 82 I decided it was time to stay home.” She said she was always very impressed with the number of senior citizens involved in their own neighborhoods.

One speaker explained that Minneapolis’ government’s “broad horizontal model” is conducive to volunteers having a big role in governing the city. It’s not a strong mayor or strong council system. Staff expertise and citizen expertise work together.

Matti Gurney, a former chair of the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, an all-citizen group, said assigned staff members are supportive. He found that “the staff is good with people who bring a child.”

It’s good to get those future commissioners started early.

More information on Minneapolis’ boards and commissions can be found at www.minneapolismn.gov/boards/index.htm.

For information on volunteer city-related service in St. Anthony Village, inquire at 612-782-3301. The planning commission makes appointments in January, and there is a parks commission. Website: www.ci.saint-anthony.mn.us.

For Columbia Heights boards and commissions, information on their structure is available at www.ci.columbia-heights.mn.us under “government—boards and commissions.”