Roundtable Discussion about Community Engagement

Minneapolis Second Ward Council Member Cam Gordon convened a roundtable discussion on Community Engagement on July 12.

There were about twenty in attendance. Cam sought ideas on how the City could make engagement easier for the community. Judging from our responses, the City is not currently doing a good job.

A woman who tried to get an art program going at a local school ran into too much red tape at City Hall. She still struggled but was almost ready to give up due to frustration.

There seems no real teamwork among various government agencies and departments so projects that might benefit knowing of each other are instead completed with silo mentalities.

One man told us that first the City said to pave all dirt driveways. Soon thereafter, the water department began charging based on the hardscape (i.e. paved driveways) on property.

The library issue came up. The City’s libraries are not open enough and the forecast for the future looks bleak. Yet everywhere, people want the libraries open longer and for more days. Somehow the City is not hearing this or just ignoring the pleas. I tried to talk to Mayor Rybak about this at the Central Library’s grand opening. He said it was an issue with more police and more fire fighters. Like we should choose between literacy and city services? No. We should have them both. It’s up to these elected officials to find a way to do it. (We have a very large immigrant population who benefit from our Library system.)

My own frustration was with the work I did with the Digital Inclusion Coalition. As we progressed through the process of providing recommendations for the Community Benefits Agreement that will become part of the contract with the City’s wireless vendor, there was a sudden tectonic shift and a Digital Inclusion Task Force, basically charged with the same mission as we thought we were charged with, appeared on the map. The creation of the Task Force was via the City’s Business Information Systems and did not have any type of Council mandate.

The Coalition was a wide open bottom-up construct. Show up at the meeting and be part of the process. Everyone’s opinion was respected. We sought consensus on all of our recommendations. In the end, even after we were somewhat shunted to the side by the Task Force (which was information only with closed meetings), we completed our recommendations and presented copies to the City Council and to the Task Force. The Task Force used our work as the foundation of their own recommendations.*

There were complaints of the Park Board scheduling public hearings at their convenience and outside of affected areas. There is not a feeling of “we want to work with you” but “we’ve made the decision but will pretend to listen to you if you inconvenience yourself to get to our meeting.”

Complaints too of public hearings with little notice.

There is no easy way to navigate hallways and deal with red tape of city hall.

It seems sometimes that the mission of the City — to provide a healthy and efficient environment for us all to live in together reasonably happy — has been lost.

A man spoke very eloquently about how the city should be offering us inspiration and examples of creativity. I like that. Think of government as inspiring us! He sees it as failing in this mission.

Someone brought in the idea of some kind of representative or ombudsman to help residents in navigating red tape when they are attempting a project or to gather information. I think this an excellent idea. This person should also report back to the Council on ways to streamline and coordinate processes.

Adding to this ombudsman idea… have a staff of student interns learning the systems, drawing up charts of what’s going on, studying other systems in other cities, and feeding all this out back to the Council and over the Internet, both honest criticism and honest praise. It could be an a reporting system (blogs, wikis, discussion forums) that would serve to aid citizens in getting things done and in staying involved. Public policy experts from the U of M could help in looking at the systems and making recommendations.

Dissemination of information is really the critical piece here. I think that if this system were established, it would result in more and more data being pushed out to residents. Some of us with geek pedigrees will try to grab the data and make sense of it and share our revelations with those less comfortable with technology. (This is also a prime mandate for the local press, whether major or minor.) I believe that the inefficiencies of the system will begin to change as residents seek to know more and provide their ideas about how their City should be run.

Write your Council Member. Let’s get this going.


* I want to make sure and thank the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability for hosting the Coalition meetings and printing our final recommendations.

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