11.10.05

mpls: 6th ward city council, and the need for decentralized power

I was at the Whittier Allaince meeting and city council candidate forum in Ward 6 last night, at the school complex at 26th and Grand Ave. S. The forum/debate between the two incumbents Robert Lilligren (DFL) and Dean Zimmermann (Green) was quite informative, and a study in contrasts. Both candidates handled themselves very well, as you’d expect from two progressive white councilmembers before a progressive white audience. However, from the get go they outlined some stylistic and philosophical differences. When asked to identify the most important issue, Zimmermann said global warming while Lilligren said crime. Other key splits:

  • the MPD’s STOP program -- Lilligren doesn’t like it, Zimmermann likes it
  • the 35W/Lake St. ramp expansion -- Lilligren says no way, Zimmermann had a crypic answer about the need for transit
  • the Franklin Ave. Wendy’s -- Lilligren says he coulda stopped it, Zimmermann says it was inevitable

Surpsingly, there was no mention of the FBI raid on Zimmermann’s house, though there was a rather awkward question about their respective relationships with notorious developer Basam Sabri.

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All these things are rather minor. Instead, the real difference between these two candidates is that Lilligren is DFL, and Zimmermann belongs to the Green party. (In fact, that these two incumbents are running against each other is due to the decidedly shady redistricting plan from last year… ) While the issue of party dominance wasn’t mentioned in the forum, it did come up rather obliquely.

The Whittier neighborhood meeting kicked off with a controversy regarding access to the press. The Mpls Observer has a report on it, but there was a conflict surrounding the Whittier Alliance’s year-old policy banning recording of meetings. Local public radio station, KFAI, wanted to tape the forum for broadcast. Given the amount of public money involved and at stake, there's a rather convincing case for open access to neighborhood meetings.

Eventually, after a pair of speeches by Society of Professional Jouralists representative (and MPR reporter) Art Hughes and KFAI News Director Ann Alquist about the reasons for a free press, the two candidates involved agreed to be taped, and the Whittier people backed off their microphone ban.

This sort of power politics has become fairly common at the Neighborhood Group level, where the city NRP money is doled out. What’s concerns me about an incident like this is how much it resembles censorhip. Sure, there might be a matter of degree, but what’s the real difference between enforcing a microphone ban and the Bush campaign’s rigid control over the media? What’s the real difference between the Prospect Park Neighborhood Association’s rules forbidding dorm students from voting and Georgia’s recent strict I.D. requirements? For that matter, what’s the real difference between the DFL's last rediscricting plan and Tom Delay’s redistricting plan?

From what I saw and heard, the executive director of the Whittier Allaince, Marianne, didn’t feel comfortable making the decision on whether or not to allow the recording of the debate. She insisted on getting back to the reporters, and, I’m guessing now, went off to call somebody about enforcing the policy. Who did she call? Who's in charge?

Robert Lilligren made a big show out of his love for the “horizontal structure” of Minneapolis politics, which is infamously composed of many independent boards and organizations. He touted the importance of community involvement and grassroots access to the system.

However, if each of the various boards and groups are being told what to do by the Minneapolis DFL, then all these independent organizations are no more than window dressing. From what I’ve seen, most neighborhood meetings are attended by a small fraction of their communities (white, well-to-do). There's a real problem with minority involvement at the Neighborhood level.

At the very least, a vote for Zimmermann, or any of the Green candidates, puts some check on possible power politics by the Minneapolis DFL, and that was the real undercurrent of last night’s Ward 6 forum.

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