More urgency needed on oversight of neighborhood orgs

The City Council’s PECE Committee held a public hearing last week to debate neighborhood organization oversight and funding.

About a week before the meeting, the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department revised their “Neighborhoods 2020” recommendations to remove all the the parts of the diversity action plan proposal that would actually require accountability from city-funded neighborhood organizations.

And the thing is, the accountability in that first draft wasn’t all that strong. It said that if an organization’s leadership was “significantly” out of line with the demographics of the neighborhood, it would have 18 months to develop and execute a diversity action plan. Failing to complete a plan and meet standards at the end of 18 months “may” have resulted in a reduction or termination of funding.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in the words “significantly” and “may.” I was glad the language existed — but deeply skeptical that it would be enforced in a meaningful way. My personal experience with NCR is that they have looked the other way while some neighborhood organizations have operated with exclusionary practices.

That’s not to place all blame on a city department. Over the years we have gotten the lax oversight that the city council has wanted us to have. There’s an opportunity this year to change course. But there’s also a danger that the city council will send a message to NCR to continue to take a hands-off approach.

Despite having the teeth removed from NCR’s Neighborhoods 2020 plan, there was still strong opposition from neighborhood organization staff and board members at last Monday’s hearing. That’s not to say that testimony was “nearly unanimous,” as characterized by Ward 12 Council Member Andrew Johnson. There was actual support for more oversight.

Opposition testimony focused on distrust of the city’s NCR department and glowing reviews of the work neighborhood organizations do.

After the meeting, a local paper had a headline calling the plan “controversial.” It’s one of those situations where a lukewarm city proposal is in retreat, but the stakeholder perception of that document is stuck on the white-hot outrage caused by the first draft.

The committee seemed split between council members who think it’s good that the NCR recommendations have no teeth, and Council Members who feel even more strongly that the NCR recommendations should have no teeth. I saw a distressing lack of urgency or recognition from council members that there was an actual problem in need of reform.

One exception was Ward 8 Council Member Andrea Jenkins who said she’d long been involved with and supportive of neighborhood organizations. But she spoke candidly about their shortcomings:

“The challenges that I have seen in some of these organizations is what I believe this framework is trying to address. There are neighborhood organizations right here today that have board chairs that have been there for decades with the same board members achieving the same exact outcomes.”

I don’t know where the debate is headed. It might be discussed at length during today’s City Council Committee of the Whole (1:30 PM, live on Channel 14). As a guide to the debate, here are some arguments that stood out to me from the public testimony last week.

Red Flag Arguments on Neighborhoods 2020 🚩

If you hear anyone making these arguments, you should raise your eyebrows in an ostentatious way to indicate that person is under suspicion.

🚩 WRONG: Neighborhood organizations have no problems other than a lack of funding and support from the city.

We have tried the “give us the money and get out of the way” approach to neighborhood organizations and it hasn’t worked. Some organizations are healthy and function well. Some aren’t doing very well and need guidance. Some are just plain bad. I’m sad to see that in the current debate, the healthy organizations are carrying water for the bad ones.

🚩 WRONG: Organizations haven’t had enough input on this plan.

The truth is that neighborhood organizations have been almost the only people giving input on this plan. NCR backed off recommendations for accountability because of input from the groups who would have been held accountable. We should have had a much broader citywide discussion about what we’re going to do with this pot of money.

Delaying the process so that neighborhood organization staff and board members can further weaken attempts at accountability is not the right approach.

🚩 WRONG: Citywide election day should be optional.

If it’s optional then it’s not really a citywide election day. Imagine the confusion:

“HEY Minneapolis! Your neighborhood organization might be meeting tonight! But probably isn’t, because we made it optional — and opposition to change is the founding principle of every neighborhood organization. Please go to the Citywide Neighborhood Election Day website for a list of organizations not participating.”

If you’re someone who believes in neighborhood organizations as a power for good in the world, this idea would increase participation and awareness that they exist. Why would you want to make it optional?

I have some practice trying to dig up meeting times and locations for various neighborhood organizations. Sometimes it’s unreasonably hard. Websites and social media pages might be long out of date or non-existent. And it becomes that much harder if an organization is trying to engage someone who isn’t actively looking for them.

Letting the city promote your existence citywide is a good thing that requires zero work from an organization. Suddenly everyone in the city knows their neighborhood group’s annual meeting and election is TONIGHT at this time and location. This is a question of how serious you are about engaging the people who aren’t already in the room.

Green Flag Arguments on Neighborhoods 2020 🥦

Green flag is represented by a broccoli because there is no green flag emoji. And because these arguments are good for you.

🥦 RIGHT: There needs to be at least a hint of accountability for city-funded organizations that are significantly unrepresentative of their neighborhood.

It’s not a lot to ask. If they’d like to operate as private clubs, they are free to continue meeting and organizing as independent non-profits free of any mandates from the city.

Here’s an unremarkable story of a neighborhood organization annual meeting I attended last night. The group’s board, made up of homeowners, was discussing neighborhood priorities, as determined by survey results where respondents were “majority” homeowners. And the neighborhood is 75% renter. This is not a unique or particularly egregious story, but we aren’t obligated to fund it in perpetuity.

If you want egregious, look to Whittier where they instituted a 6 month residency requirement to run for the board — in a 90% renter neighborhood. These lengthy residency requirements only exist in high-renter neighborhoods.

Why is there no urgency to make a change?

🥦 RIGHT: Reinstate “equity” as a core goal of the NRP program.

Equity seems like a meaningless buzzword until you see the Lowry Hill Neighborhood Association divert $200,000 in affordable housing money towards a fountain. I don’t know why equity was removed from the Neighborhoods 2020 recommendations — but it should be added back.