St. Paul studies neighborhood council system

Tom Ford

Created to provide residents a means to get involved in neighborhood issues, St. Paul’s community council system has existed since 1975 without major policy changes.

But recently publicized problems within some councils prompted the St. Paul Planning Commission to study recurring concerns with the councils, such as financial management struggles.

At a public hearing Monday night, some council members agreed with different proposals and welcomed changes. Yet many others raised fears that solutions would be ineffective and threaten the long-held independence of the councils.

Larry Soderholm, administrator of the Planning Commission, said there is virtually no financial management assistance offered to councils, and this is why their accountability is low.

He said there have been problems with some councils that didn’t pay withholding taxes for their staffs.

St. Paul has 19 neighborhood councils that operate independently as nonprofit organizations. Most of their funding is generated through private grants.

The city does provide annual grants that amount to between $30,000 and $50,000, which largely covers costs for facilities and staff. Councils are made up almost exclusively of volunteers, some of whom are elected.

“People don’t volunteer because they want to be an accountant for an organization,” he said.

Soderholm said solutions could be achieved through systemwide standards, such as insuring financial training from the city.

Another solution the commission has considered is holding council elections on the same day to give them more publicity and thereby create more resident involvement.

Mike Gerber, executive director of the Hamline-Midway Coalition, said although city-wide standards need to account for neighborhood differences, the councils are “members of a family.”

He said developing common procedures, such as protocols for how councils arrive at recommendations, would help people better understand the neighborhood processes.

From the inception of the councils until the early 1990s, a city-level coordinator worked
exclusively as an organizer and resource for the councils. But the position was cut and its duties were spread between other workers.

Kathy Cole, executive director of the District 6 Planning Council, said the coordinator was a “key link” as the one person to whom the council could talk.

She said without the coordinator, who came out and trained council workers, the councils are on “all different pages.”

Rolf Nordstrom, president of the Merriam Park Community Council, agreed.

“There needs to be some reliable way for citizens to get training on board responsibilities and the other basic skills,” Nordstrom said.

He said he did not regard holding a hearing on the issue as a threat but rather an opportunity to raise awareness of the councils and improve the system.

But several other council members questioned city involvement emphasizing the autonomy of the councils.

Eugene Piccolo, president of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council, said the councils are “separate and independent organizations that choose to contract with the city.”

He said issues concerning elections and financial management are the responsibility of a council’s leadership. While he does not oppose increased city involvement, he said it must deliver on what they want the councils to accomplish.

Chuck Kupke, executive director of the District 2 Planning Council said “cookie cutter solutions” won’t necessarily help.

He said holding council elections on the same date would cause several problems.

He said uniform election procedures, such as using a grid system, which District 2 employs, would not fit for a council like the west side. He said in that neighborhood there are large concentrations of Hispanic residents, and a grid system, allowing one representative from one area, would limit their presence on the council.

“If the city attempts to instill regimentation in the councils, it’ll be an exercise in futility,” Kupke said.

He also said councils are not entities of the city, and resident involvement derives from the belief these are citizen groups that allow people to organize on an issue independent from or even in opposition to the city.

He said he is “amazingly concerned” with the direction in which the Planning Commission could be headed.