St. Paul thwarts citizen participation in public policy

This article was first published in the Villager‘s March 30 edition, 2016.

The good news is that St. Paul invites citizens to serve on a variety of boards and commissions. The bad news is that information about these opportunities is inconsistent and confusing, and the appointment process lacks openness, transparency and accountability.

The city’s website states: “The city of St. Paul has over 30 boards and commissions to which the Mayor and the City Council appoint members. These boards and commissions cover a wide range of topics and appeal to a variety of interests, from public safety, education and housing to economic development. The Mayor and City Council rely on boards and commissions for thoughtful advice to create policies and develop programs.”

In other words, these boards and commissions play important roles in decision-making at City Hall, and there appear to be many opportunities for St. Paul residents to serve on them. But what happens when the process for these appointments isn’t open, transparent and accountable? Where is the information about the process for advancing applicants to the City Council for approval? What happens when the information about these boards and commissions is contradictory and hard to understand? What happens when these boards and commissions tend to have the same people serving on them year after year?

Interested in applying to be on the Planning Commission? Here’s the information on the online application: 2 current vacancies, 5 terms expired, 0 terms ending soon. Click on “Planning Commission” and then “Member Roster” and you’ll see that 5 Planning Commission members’ terms expired earlier this year, with only 19 members out of 21 members listed.

If you wish to serve on the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), here is the information on the city’s website: nine members total, six regular members, two alternates, one Planning Commission representative, one vacancy and an alternate position. Compare that with this information about the current BZA members on the city’s online application: 7 or 9 member board, 3 current vacancies, 4 terms expired, 0 terms ending soon. Click on “Member Roster” and you’ll see only 6 members listed; 4 members’ terms have expired. Up until recently, you could find the tenures of the BZA members listed as 29, 21, 16, two (two members), 10 and 3 years.

So according to the city’s website, it seems there are either six, seven or nine members on the BZA, there are one or three vacancies, four out of six members’ terms expired in January 2016, or no terms are ending soon. Six BZA members have served 10 or more years.

Can this public information be any more confusing to citizens of St. Paul?

The BZA makes decisions on zoning variance requests. In Ward 3, where new housing design standards took effect last September, many residents are disturbed by the way that variances to those new standards are being handed out like candy. In response to those accusations, BZA members have stated that the design standards are burdensome and challenging to enforce.

So our current, experienced BZA members are not able to do their jobs for Ward 3? It seems there is no better time to invite other highly qualified citizens to serve on the BZA.

The members of Saint Paul STRONG call on Mayor Coleman and City Council members to address these issues before the next round of appointments.

John Mannillo is a resident of Highland Park and spokesperson of Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving
open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and
supporting open and transparent public processes at City Hall, engaging
and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more
inclusive Saint Paul.