In re-election run-up, Rybak dogged by controversy

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January 31, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Newsletter spat hits front pages - but neighborhood politics simmer behind the scenes

January was a tough month for the Rybak administration. Neighborhood leaders charged that the city was cutting them out of key development decisions. Then there was the newsletter fiasco.

Rybak was expected to officially announce his candidacy for a second term Jan. 30, after this paper went to press. Six of 13 City Councilmembers have already announced support for Rybak, based largely on how he's lead the city during tough budget times and his high visibility promoting the city.

Yet the mayor's relationship with some neighborhood activists has soured, in part because of budget shortfalls. Many neighborhood leaders have complained that City Hall wants to control more of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), which has funded most neighborhood-level efforts in the past decade.

The latest row is over city contracts with neighborhood groups. In 2005, the city will give neighborhood groups $445,000 to involve residents on development proposals and related issues. Spread over more than 60 organizations, individual groups get relatively small grants. The Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood gets $2,150; the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council gets $20,000.

The new contract raised two key issues. First, neighborhood groups lost their traditional 45-day comment period on proposed developments. A new provision read "whenever possible and practicable, [the city's Community Planning and Economic Development department, or CPED] will provide affected organizations with notice prior to formal city consideration."

Also, the new contract defined neighborhood group responsibilities to the city but deleted previous contract language that spelled out CPED's responsibilities to neighborhood groups. The last contract included six city responsibilities, including giving neighborhood groups "maximum feasible opportunity to participate and advise" staff and the City Council.

When Jana Metge got the news, she said she felt the change undermined neighborhood review of plans that would affect them.

"I don't want to wake up someday with a bulldozer across the street from me and then have to react to something that is already halfway done," said Metge, a Phillips resident and staffer for the Citizens for a Loring Park Community.

Depending on whom one asks, the city's policy didn't change and people were misinformed by an unapproved city memo - or CPED tried to change policy and retreated when people complained.

On Jan. 19, CPED Director Lee Sheehy sent out an e-mail apologizing for the confusion and said it was never the Department's intention to eliminate the neighborhood's 45-day development review period.

Sheehy said a Finance Department staff member sent the earlier e-mail and it was inaccurate. Key CPED staff had not had a chance to review the e-mail before it got sent.

However, CPED's own Jan. 7 memo explaining the new contract seemed unambiguous about the department\'s intention to change course.

"The proposed citizen participation guidelines and criteria would redefine CPED's responsibility to one of informing (rather than consulting) neighborhood groups of proposed housing and economic development projects and programs," it said.

Bob Miller, NRP's executive director, said he got numerous calls from neighborhood leaders concerned about the proposed changes. CPED leaders "thought they could get away with this, figuring people would be too slow to pick up on it," he said. "They were not."

Said Sheehy, "A mistake was made and it has been corrected. I am not going to spend too much time analyzing the whys. What is important is that it has been corrected."

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the issue became very political. The contract language was posted on the Internet on Jan. 12. Within two days, Mayoral challenger Peter McLaughlin fired off a strongly worded letter to neighborhood leaders, saying the city again was trying to centralize power.

"This new policy comes from an administration that has consistently supported actions that leave neighborhoods and citizens out of the decision-making process," wrote McLaughlin, who is also a Hennepin County Commissioner.

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) fired back, saying McLaughlin was using scare tactics and engaging in conduct "unbecoming of an elected official working in the same jurisdiction."

Said Goodman, "I think it is unfortunate and desperate of Peter to not call our management and find out what the exact situation is. If he was a partner in government, he would have tried to get an answer before creating a campaign issue where there is none."

Goodman chairs the Community Development Committee and oversees CPED. She said the Department needed to rewrite the contract after CPED succeeded the independent Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA).

The city created CPED by merging MCDA, the Planning Department and the Empowerment Zone - which meant new responsibilities, Goodman said.

For instance, the Planning Department and city only get 60 days to review land use applications such as zoning changes. If the neighborhoods have a 45-day review-and-comment period, the city would have just 15 days to meet its deadlines, meaning all applications would be approved because of the city's failure to act.

The new contract language "is the furthest thing from trying to eliminate neighborhood review," Goodman said, adding the Council gave CPED explicit directions to protect neighborhood's interests "by having as much review period as possible while still maintaining a process that is doable under state law."

Still, the new contract drops contract language detailing CPED's responsibilities to neighborhoods.

Sheehy said CPED has ongoing public engagement policies and responsibilities. "I don't know what the need is to do more in a contract," he said.

McLaughlin defended his letter, saying he did not politicize the issue but engaged affected parties. He criticized the city for not notifying neighborhood groups in advance about the changes and discussing them.

"I am happy that they reversed themselves," he said. "I am happy to have participated."

Newsletter flap

Rybak took another hit, this one from State Auditor Pat Anderson who said his office broke state law by using $42,000 of city money to mail out an eight-page color glossy newsletter that touted Rybak's and the city's accomplishments and included many mayoral mug shots.

The mayor's office mailed 172,000 copies at 24 cents apiece for printing and postage.

Anderson noted that at a time the city had budget problems and couldn't fund enough cops, the mayor was spending thousands of dollars on a newsletter that broke state law.

State law 471.68 subdivision 3 reads that when cities, counties or other state political subdivisions issue reports or other publications for public distribution, "the report or publication must not include pictures of elected officials nor any other pictorial or graphic device that would tend to attribute the publication to an individual or groups of individuals instead of the political subdivision."

Jonathan Papik, a spokesperson for the Auditor's office, said the Auditor had no enforcement authority. The City Council and the City Attorney would need to determine if the mayor's campaign needed to pay back money to the city, he said.

Papik said Rybak might not be on the hook for the entire $42,000.

"Certainly the entire amount that was paid to mail this out would not need to be paid back," he said. "A large part of this newsletter was legitimate. It was about city news. The issue [comes] in the heading where it says 'Minneapolis news from Mayor R.T. Rybak,' the fact there is a picture of him in the left-hand corner, the fact that the first page is signed by him, all of those things combine to create the impression that it was not from the city but the mayor himself."

Mayoral Aide Laura Sether said it was the first newsletter the mayor had issued during his term. The issue appeared to catch the office by surprise, and Sether said similar newsletters were common practice among elected officials.

It appears that this case could be a first, at least locally.

Papik could not comment on whether any other local officials had sent out similar newsletters with photos and text that violated state law. He said he would have to see one before he could comment.

Leslie Sandberg, spokesperson for the State Attorney General's office, referred any questions on case law to local officials. Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pete Cahill and City Attorney Jay Heffern both said they had never dealt with the issue.

Heffern's staff is still working on the issue, he said.