A St. Paul district council primer

Council system began in the 1970s to give residents a voice in city planning

The recent proposal to redraw the boundary between neighborhoods southeast of Como Lake has launched discussions of how that ought to be done, given that the half-century-old St. Paul system has had few revisions over the years.

Residents of an area near Como Lake, now in District 6, wish to join District 10. The District 10 Como Community Council board has asked for a year to examine the proposal and revise its bylaws in order to accommodate the request.

District 10 chairman John Knox said the board is “amenable” to the proposal but needs to figure out how it would affect the organization’s structure.

If District 10 is expanded to accommodate the area of District 6 near the lake, the size of the District 10 Community Council may have to change.

“If we were to stay the same size but incorporate that area, I’d have to tell someone [from another area of the district], ‘Sorry, you can’t volunteer anymore,’ ” he said. So the board might add a seat or two, which would then require reconsidering the geographic subdistricts as they are now represented.

District 10 has heard this proposal before, Knox said, but what is new is a push from city council member Amy Brendmoen, whose Ward 5 covers District 6 and part of District 10.

The boundary change might have happened sooner if residents of the contested area had approached District 10 in larger numbers, Knox said. When more than 120 residents materialized at a January meeting, he said, the board was finally convinced to make the change.

The experience has made Knox wonder why changing a district council’s borders would be treated any differently than, say, the locations of stop signs at intersections, or the question of whether a restaurant can have a liquor license, he said. In both of those cases, there is a clear process for making a request, notifying neighbors and adjudicating disputes.

In the case of the Districts 6 and 10 boundary change, “there was no process here,” Knox said.

Diane Wanner, who serves as the city’s district council coordinator, agreed.

“There haven’t been that many times that a boundary change has been requested,” Wanner said. “I think one outcome of this is that the process will be reviewed.”

Urban renewal was the spark in the formation of the councils

The district council system, homegrown and perhaps unique to the City of St. Paul, grew in response to the wave of urban renewal sponsored by federal dollars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Neighborhood activists became concerned about the direction new development might take, particularly the threat (as they saw it) of industrial uses moving in to replace “blighted” residential buildings.

Some St. Paul neighborhoods organized themselves and drew funding from the Neighborhood Development program for civic participation. One of those neighborhoods was South St. Anthony, where Sherm Eagles, who still lives in the neighborhood, participated in the West Midway/South St. Anthony Project Area that would eventually become part of District 12.

The national movement for urban renewal was poised to expand industrial use in the area, Eagles recalled. “Because of complaints from the residential area, it got included” in the federally funded program, he said.

The episode is told in David Lanegran’s book St. Anthony Park: Portrait of a Community. Lanegran describes the neighborhood’s “Battle Plan for Survival,” led by Elizabeth Clark, as a 16-point plan to increase the residential area, separate it from industrial use and upgrade existing housing.

While Clark did not get nearly everything she was hoping for, Lanegran notes, her name lives on in the Elizabeth Clark Recreation Center, commonly known as “South St. Anthony Recreation Center.” The Park Bugle newspaper got its start in the same wave of redevelopment and organizing.

As Eagles recalled it, a shift in federal funding structure—from urban renewal to community-development block grants—“allowed the money to be used in a much broader fashion.” The St. Paul City Council held a series of meetings, Eagles said, “and established the framework for what is now the district council system.”

In 1975, Eagles chaired the citywide task force charged with setting up the council boundaries. “Part of the effort was to keep neighborhoods in one district,” Eagles said.

Unlike the city’s council wards, which by law must be balanced by population, the district councils are meant to keep neighborhoods together, Eagles said. Thus, district council areas are sometimes split between council wards.

The task force also considered how to make the districts small enough for direct participation but large enough to keep paid staff in place with limited funds. “There was an attempt to try to make them small enough so people would feel like they belonged,” he said.

Boundaries were drawn by those who showed up

Eagles compared the current request to change the District 6/District 10 border to debates that went on in the early years as activists tried to balance wealth and access to local power with poverty and access to federal dollars while keeping the interests of neighborhoods undivided.

A look at the map of the 17 districts, Eagles said, shows that many of the borders are topographical barriers, such as bluffs, railroad grades and highways.

Where no such barrier existed, Eagles said, the lines were drawn by those who showed up at meetings. That meant that highly organized areas like South St. Anthony became focal points.

There was talk of combining South St. Anthony with Desnoyer Park, Eagles said, but the freeway proved too much of a barrier. Bridging the railroad tracks to the similarly well-organized north St. Anthony neighborhood made more sense, he said.

There was also debate about joining the Como Park neighborhood with St. Anthony Park, Eagles said, but the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus were judged too big of a distance to bridge.

Differences in wealth among neighborhoods have been central to the district council discussion from the beginning, Eagles said, because the point of urban renewal was to target funds where renewal was most needed.

A good example was the debate over who would get the wealthy properties along Summit Hill, he said. “They know how to get things done,” Eagles said, and the Summit-University area wanted to include that area. But Summit Hill ultimately formed its own community council.

City is councils’ main funder

Federal funds have come and gone, but district councils continue to receive most of their operating funds from the city, designated for citizen participation, crime prevention and community events. The councils generally hire an organizer, who may also be the executive director of the nonprofit, to carry out those duties with the help of a volunteer board and various committees.
The city also offers technical assistance, coordinated by Diane Wanner and often shared with other neighborhood nonprofits. Wanner offers training for district council staff and boards, leveraging city resources such as expert staff and meeting space, she said.

Past members of community councils, while nonpartisan, have launched some visible political careers, Eagles said.

Janice Rettman is one such example. Now serving as a Ramsey County commissioner, Rettman was on the District 10 Como Community Council from 1979 to 1985, the last three years as chair. She went on to the St. Paul City Council, then to the county board.

Rettman’s notes from a September 1985 District 10 report reflect the blend of folksiness and civic seriousness typical of district councils. “Following the election of officers,” the notes read, “the Chair will open the floor to interested citizens who can voice their opinions and ideas on such subjects as the State Fair, commercial revitalization of Snelling Ave., street paving, tree planting … the neighborhood in general. You name it, if it is community-related, we’ll discuss it.”

Rettman recounted a District 10 request from around that time for improvements to restrooms and dressing rooms at Como Golf Clubhouse. The city came back with a proposal to build a newer, bigger clubhouse “snuggled up so tight to the Montana-Lexington residential area that golf balls may literally hit the single-family homes,” Rettman recalled.

She said that after a packed hearing, “the city heard the District 10 residents and moved the new and improved clubhouse to where it is today.”

Councils are nonprofits not government entities

The district councils have their own homegrown structures, but they are all some form of nonprofit rather than government entity. This has raised questions over the years about the openness of their records. As nonprofits, they are not clearly subject to Minnesota’s data practices statutes.

Betsy Leach, executive director of District 1 community council on the east side of St. Paul, said she recalled a debate several years ago about the open meetings requirement and a subsequent consultation with the William Mitchell College of Law’s clinic.

The conclusion was that district councils do not meet the definition of a body required to comply, she said.

“Our bylaws say that all our meetings will be open to the public except when the board is acting as a personnel committee,” Leach said. “This is not the same as being held to the standard of the open meeting law.”

A neighborhood’s welcome mat Eagles, Knox and Rettman emphasized the importance of getting residents and businesses to attend meetings, lamenting the poor attendance and lack of diversity—racial and economic—that has plagued the system from the start.

“Just showing up makes a statement,” Rettman wrote in an email. “Plus, there are always opportunities to get involved.”

She continued, “The issues of land use are critical to livability—zoning, new development, encroachments, group homes, licensing, problem properties, the neighborhood needs, crime and so on.”

Diane Wanner acknowledged that electronic communications have both helped and hurt the effort. Email makes it faster and cheaper to keep residents informed, but it’s also harder to keep addresses current.

“There’s no substitute for knocking on doors,” she said.

Civic leaders stand by the effectiveness of district councils in spite of the challenges.

District councils, Rettman said, can “shape a welcome mat and a vision of what the neighborhood is about.”

Click here.to see a map of the district councils.

Anne Holzman is a freelance writer who lives in St. Anthony Park. 

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