Judge the Ford site process by openness and accountability, not just by number of meetings

This article was first published in the Pioneer Press on September 14, 2017. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Pioneer Press’s website. View on TwinCities.com (Pioneer Press)

Saint Paul STRONG has observed the Ford Site decision-making process playing out contentiously in our city. A recitation of this process was recently the subject of an opinion piece by Council Member Chris Tolbert in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. What has not been addressed are the reasons why this is increasingly the subject of heated, adversarial debates.

It is easy to conclude, as Tolbert’s piece suggests, that the citizens of St. Paul had adequate opportunities to make their issues known. However, this process should be judged by how transparent, open, and accountable it was — whether or not citizens were given accurate, complete information and a chance to be heard — not by the number of meetings held.

Meaningful input allows for genuine participation outside city staff’s control of the process. Announcing results of a citizen input survey and then admitting that many citizen votes were not counted is not meaningful input.

Meaningful input means the opportunity to ask questions and have conversations. When a “question period” is designated as “speak to staff,” robust discussion among participants is denied. Topic boards with subjects limited to selections predetermined by the City effectively quash open debate.

While it is laudable that CM Tolbert met with citizens in their homes, consider what that means. Citizens must be well enough connected to know they can request a meeting with a council member in their home, that they have a home in which they feel comfortable hosting such an event, that they are both privy to those meetings and invited. Where is accountability and transparency when intimate groups meet in homes?

Meaningful input allows for genuine participation outside city staff’s control of the process. Announcing results of a citizen input survey and then admitting that many citizen votes were not counted is not meaningful input. Processes that tend to guarantee a predetermined result, or that suggest that citizen participation is just a pretense, increase citizen frustration and cynicism.

The Zoning Committee, Planning Commission, Ford Site Task Force and all city department heads are appointed by the mayor. The Ford Site Task Force was commissioned to provide neighborhood perspective and help guide the development of the City’s plan. However, the task force was not shown plans until the public was — ensuring a done deal. The decision makers throughout the process until it reaches the City Council are all mayoral appointees.

As recently as February, 2017, the Little League fields on the Ford Site Master Plan were the city’s top priority. Now, they have been dropped from the Ford Site Master Plan completely with no explanation but a vague intimation that there is no money. Suggestions of funding sources have been put forward, yet no reason has been given about why such options have not been pursued.

Transparency and accountability are called into question when page 30 of the master plan identifies zoning districts but in the following pages, the architectural drawings show areas surrounded by parks. There is no zoning code for parks. It is disingenuous and dishonest to show drawings with parks when the planned zoning designations are for building heights of 65 feet and 75 feet for residential and commercial development. Also, the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area overlay districts have not gone through the required community process to update them to the 2016 Department of Natural Resources regulations. Until that process occurs, the current overlay districts apply. Those regulations call for maximum heights of 40 feet on the portion of the Ford Site within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. Through that community process, because the lower building heights are more protective than the DNR minimum protection standards, the City can elect to keep those lower heights.

Transparency requires the City to inform citizens that park pictures are for display only. All materials have advertised 9 percent parkland required by the parkland dedication ordinance yet neglect to note that a fee can be paid in lieu of giving land.

Accountability requires noting that Area C, also polluted property of the Ford Motor Company, has been dropped from clean-up discussions. Area C is proposed for possible recreational uses. The pollution report (May 2017), concluded that the current level of clean-up is not acceptable to recreational standards. “Direct contact with industrial waste and direct contact with surficial soil fill, contamination risk…” Why has Area C been dropped from the conversation? If the Ford Site Master Plan is approved, what leverage does the city have to get that polluted land in the river basin cleaned up?

Increasingly, citizens are frustrated. Too many report to St. Paul STRONG that they have no meaningful and significant way to influence major developments in their neighborhoods that potentially affect their daily lives and financial futures. The Ford Site process is just one example of the distrust that grows from that political reality.

Until the leadership of our City takes steps to provide meaningful processes and transparency about how the City does business, citizens will continue to see the kind of acrimony and hostility that currently characterize the dispute about the Ford Site.

Don Gemberling and Shirley Erstad are members of the steering committee of the group Saint Paul STRONG, which describes itself as “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.”