Corruption should not distract city governance

Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Herron has admitted to taking money, the U.S. attorney is issuing subpoenas for documents and the city is calling on an outside investigator. Meanwhile, city-wide elections are being contested, and the mayor and City Council chairwoman have been accused of favoritism in helping a candidate to replace Herron. Our civic virtue, once a matter of comfort, seems suddenly in question.

Herron’s admissions call into question all of his City Council votes. We have tolerated and in some ways demanded a system of privilege for council members whereby the city council defers to the judgment of the local member concerning issues in his or her ward. How often did Herron vote to support council members on issues outside of his ward in order to maintain a system of privilege for him within his ward?

Once a council member starts taking bribes, he or she becomes a hostage. To
deliver on what has been paid for, the member has to play the game of mutual accommodation on ward issues. Simple laziness can also play a part – there is no need to examine issues in another ward if you always just “go along” with that ward’s council member.

Minneapolis has done a few things over recent decades that contribute to this situation. We amended the city charter to give council members four-year terms. A good result is the council members don’t have to continuously campaign, but this also has created distance from the electorate. We have supported a system of nominating candidates for city offices that funnels endorsements and party funding through a convention system until now, two years prior to the elections. We have removed large amounts of city spending from the city budget process and directed it through the Minneapolis Community Development Agency bureaucracy.

Herron has stated that he gave in to temptation. The public should be looking at the sources of that temptation. Corruption and bribery are not the only temptations council members face. These are probably among the least of temptations because most of our politicians respect the law and fear its consequences.

Political support for re-election and fund raising is a more likely payoff in a system of ward privilege. Board memberships, business opportunities, small perks and gratuities, favoring relatives, rewarding friends and
punishing enemies and the pleasure of holding the power to get things done – these are more likely benefits from a system of ward privilege.

People holding political power are not naturally inclined to reform where reform means lessening of their power. Reform generally comes from the outside. A hard look at the problems in Minneapolis should not stop with city inspectors. There is nothing in the Herron admissions that should distract our attention from considering reform of the political structure. The U.S. attorney can investigate lawbreaking in city government. The public’s focus should be on what affects all of us the most – the city’s governance.

Paul Zerby is a 2nd Ward candidate for the Minneapolis City Council. Please send letters to the editor to [email protected].