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Topics: Community

St. Paul Participation

In the early 1970s, citizen groups and community councils organized to demand a voice in city government and local development planning, and the city responded by creating a comprehensive system of 17 District Councils. Today these councils play a large role in land-use planning, housing, hazardous waste and pollution control, crime watches, and arts festivals, and also have a major voice in determining the city's capital improvement budget. The councils are incorporated as nonprofits, and engage in many collaborative projects with other nonprofit organizations. Often housed in community centers with a dozen other nonprofits, they serve as an important hub of both formal participation and broader civic engagement. Case study plus.

Prepared by Ken Thomson as part of the Citizen Participation Project at the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University, funded by the Ford Foundation.


A. Beginnings and Authorization
B. Neighborhood Structures
C. Citywide Citizen Structures
D. Outreach to Citizens
E. Major Program Components
F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

A. Beginnings and Authorization

Born: October 9, 1975

Place: In five resolutions of the City Council defining citizen participation, authorizing the Mayor to set up participation councils where they did not yet exist, and allocating funds for the participation system.

1967: A City Planning Board Map dated August, 1987 shows the city divided into Planning Area Units composed of approximately 18 "Communities" and 50 "neighborhoods".

1972: Mayor Lawrence Cohen formed a "Committee on Citizen Participation" in June, 1972, fulfilling his election campaign promise to examine "in detail" the question of "how to create the best possible structure and process of participation of citizens in the affairs of Saint Paul government". His invitation letter to committee participants noted the evident need for citizen participation at all levels of government to restore citizen trust, and indicated that, at the time, "citizens often feel that their government is a hostile institution which is actively working against them".

The Mayor's stated purpose in establishing the participation committee was to enable "reconsideration of the relation of community groups to city government". Apparently a number of strong citizen groups and community councils had existed for some time in St. Paul, and were to be important in any new system. Cohen envisioned community council elections by that November.

1973: In a March 27, 1973 resolution, the City Council unanimously approves the appointments of the 12 committee members, who apparently had already been meeting for nine months. Two more members were approved by Council resolution on July 17. Mayor Cohen and Councilwoman Rosalie Butler were among the committee members. Three others represented a group called the Association of Saint Paul Communities. The committee distributed a "Community Council Questionnaire" to groups and individuals and held five public hearings.

The final report of the committee, "Making Democracy Work", was completed on September 26, 1973. It recommended a participation system very similar in design and spirit to the one currently in place in St. Paul. Four committee members issued a brief minority report recommending that the councils have final authority over zoning and public improvements in their areas, and that the city's Planning Commission be restructured to represent these councils directly. Apparently both majority and minority proposals were defeated.

1975: Mayor Cohen and two councilpeople (Hozza and Sylvester) try again to establish a citizen participation system in the city. A League of Women Voters report notes that "The catalyst for the attempt was the Community Development program which specified that federal funds could be used for citizen participation." Approximately $267,000 was put into a "contingency fund" for citizen participation. City officials took the lead, proposed a system of seven or eight participation districts, and convened a forum on January 28, 1975. Over 450 people attended. The League reports that "It was quickly evident that many felt resentment toward city government." This was the first of several weekly meetings of the Citizen Participation Forum, which then continued to operate, through task forces and general meetings, until at least the fall of 1975.

On July 22, 1975 the City Council adopted a resolution which accepted proposals from the Forum, including a structure of 17 districts and an "early warning communications system" for citizens, and called for a 45-60 day "cooling off period" before taking further action. The proposed resolution presented to the Council in July by the Forum was not adopted. The major points of disagreement apparently centered on a uniform council structure (especially its relation to existing citizen groups), and on the formal power of the district council in planning and development issues. On October 9, the council passed resolutions defining participation "as a process, not a structure", authorizing the mayor to "create or improve the participation process" in each district when district planning teams or neighborhood groups felt the district was ready, and providing $50,000 for these purposes to the mayor while continuing $10,500 per month to the "neighborhood development planning areas" which had been created under earlier federally-funded projects. Representatives of the Forum formally stated that they did not support the City Council resolution, but nevertheless disbanded the Forum at this point. Councilman Sylvester apparently wrote the final resolutions which passed the council. His report of September 30, 1975, asserted that:

  • each council should determine its own structure involving new or existing groups,
  • the city and each council should develop an agreed work plan (avoiding use of the term "contract"), and
  • recognition of each new council should follow a ten-point plan involving an inventory of existing community groups, definition of boundaries, creation of bylaws, and final approval by the City Council.
Sylvester's final proposals became the basis for the participation system still in place today in St. Paul.

B. Neighborhood Structures

1. District Councils

The 17 District Councils which completely cover the city of St. Paul are by far the strongest, most visible part of the system. As in all the cities we have examined, the downtown district is much less developed than the rest. The population of the council areas ranges from 7,000 to 28,000, except for the downtown area which includes 3,300 residents. The median district population is 15,800.

Each council is a separately incorporated nonprofit organization, and several have or are applying for 501.c3 tax exempt status. While each District Council has been formally recognized by the City Council, and receive funds from the city, they remain relatively self-governing bodies in all other ways. Their structure, elections, relationship to other citizen organizations, officers, committees, staff, and office location and functions all are determined solely by the council itself, through its formal bylaws. Each organization is free to raise additional funds from any source open to a nonprofit organization. Only two visible city restrictions exist: the councils must be nonpartisan, and the money from the city must be used for its stated purposes--to hire a community organizer, for example, rather than a secretary.

2. Elections

The method of selection of each council is determined by each organization's bylaws:

  • Fifteen of the districts elect the council at an annual meetings, two at polls in a separate election.
  • Seven are all at-large, eight have elections by subdistricts, two others have mixed representation systems.
  • Nine have specific positions for representatives of neighborhood or business groups, in addition to the council members elected by the general membership
  • The size of the council ranges from six to thirty-one members, with most having fifteen to twenty.
  • Average turnout at annual meetings ranges from 30 to 200 people.

3. Drawing Neighborhood Boundaries

Boundaries for the districts were largely determined by the original citizen participation committee and forum. It was widely noted in the reports of these committees that citizens did not trust the city to come up with a set of boundaries. According to the ten-point recognition plan, the citizen groups within a proposed district "should first make every effort to reach agreement among themselves on the boundaries. If there is a dispute, citizen groups should be given a maximum of 45 days to resolve the matter. Any disputes are to be finally resolved by the City Planning Department.

Apparently most boundaries were settled by consensus, in large part following the lines of the 1967 community map of the Planning Department. Only in District 13 was a permanent lack of consensus obtained, resulting in a split of the district between three different organizations. Boundaries have occasionally been changed, most recently with a slight restructuring between Districts 9 and 15 in southwest St. Paul.

4. CP Administrative Funding

In contrast to the structures in our other cities, the St. Paul participation system has very little centralized administration. All the money allocated to the participation system goes directly to the district councils, with the exception of funds for the salary and expenses of the citywide participation coordinator which is paid from the Planning and Economic Development Department budget. In 1987-88, the total budget allocated by the city to the District Councils was $485,652. The sources of these allocations are the Community Development Block Grant for the eleven districts eligible for CDBG ($371,386), and general funds for the remaining six districts ($113,266). This breaks down to between $20,000 and $36,000 for each district.

Furthermore, city funds are only part of the financial picture in St. Paul. A substantial amount of United Way funds are allocated to community centers in eight of these districts (up to $480,000 in one district) and these centers are often a hub for the District Council activities. Grants from the McKnight Foundation Neighborhood Self-Help Initiatives Program (MnSHIP) have in some years increased the operating budget of certain councils by as much as 50%. For the 1987-88 fiscal year, over $423,000 came into the councils from non-city, non-United Way sources, in addition to funds for a half-million dollar block nurse program being administered by one District Council. These additional funds are used by each District Council entirely at their own discretion without any city oversight.

The city allocation is under heavy pressure in 1988 because of cutbacks in the city's CDBG funds from the federal government.

5. Offices and Staffing

Each district has its own office and staff, paid for out of its own operating budget. The staff are selected directly by the District Council, with less of a role by the city than in any of the other participation systems we examined. Staff size ranges from one to over three, with a typical staff being a full time person with a half-time assistant, or two part-time people. The equivalent of at least 32 full-time staff people work in the District Councils in 1988.

Staff salaries are more in line with citizen group organizers ($12,000 to $22,000) than with city employees. This has been the cause for serious complaint in recent years. Attempts are being made to form a union of sorts among the staff to lobby for higher salaries and higher total grants from the city.

The city has one staff person, Jerry Jenkins, as Citizen Participation Coordinator, who works officially in the Planning and Economic Development Department but in practice is largely independent.

6. Neighborhood Activities

A great deal of the activity of each Council seems to revolve around the large number of requests for response that come from the city. Several staff complained that these requests kept them too busy to do other tasks pressing upon their district. Since there appears to be no penalty for ignoring the requests, except perhaps reduced influence with the city in certain areas, this problem seems to be within the control of appropriate priority setting in District Council itself.

While each Council does set very different priorities for itself, all have a significant focus on land use issues. This may include requests for zoning variances by developers, siting for single-resident-occupancy housing sought by the city, street and sewer reconstruction, environmental impact questions, or providing adequate off-street parking. In all of these areas, major issues have arisen and been resolved during the past few years with heavy involvement of the District Councils.

Beyond some of the core land use issues, each Council is involved in a wide range of other activities. These projects include crime watches, recycling, hazardous waste and pollution control, neighborhood clean-ups, drainage projects, festivals, arts projects, community gardens and composting, traffic control, park development, employment training, anti-pornography campaigns, tree planting, and energy audits. Another major consequence of the St. Paul's district orientation has been the construction of large community centers in many of the District Council areas during the last fifteen years (see description below).

C. Citywide Citizen Structures

1. Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget Committee (CIB)

One of the few cases of major city-wide impact for the participation systems we have seen is represented by the CIB Committee in St. Paul. This committee is part of a Unified Capital Improvement Program and Budget Process which deals with all capital funds available to the city during a two year period—including federal and state grants and local bond revenues.

There are 18 members of the committee: seventeen are nominated by the Districts and approved by the Mayor and City Council, the eighteenth is appointed by the Mayor and approved by Council. In addition, three task forces which do the first stage of project evaluation (Community Facilities, Streets and Utilities, Residential and Economic Development) are directly appointed by the District Councils with one representative and one alternate from each Council on each task force, no city approval being required. Members of the overall CIB committee serve as officers for each Task Force. Overall then, as many as 120 citizens have a direct role in determining the capital budget for the city of St. Paul.

Staff for the committee is provided by the Mayor's Budget Office, supported by planning department personnel. Proposals for the next biennial budget are submitted to the CIB by city departments, the District Councils, and individual citizens and are assigned to the appropriate task force. Each member of each task force rates all proposals assigned to that task force using an elaborate point system. The ratings of all task force members are combined and each project is listed in order of its combined score. The task force then goes over each project, in rank order, and votes upon a recommended funding amount. During this evaluation period, bus tours to the affected areas and meetings with the district councils in the area are often arranged.

These recommendation of each Task Force go to the full CIB committee where final changes can be made. They then go to the Mayor and the City Council. The system is unusual in the weight it gives to district representatives instead of city staff. Even in the initial proposal submission, we are told that the Districts often have the advantage, with city departments sometimes seeking out District cosponsorship of proposals before they are submitted. The mayor and city council apparently change very little in the typical capital budget after the CIB recommendations are made. We are told that 70-80% of the project finally funded were initiated by the districts.

Some projects are "directly implemented" by the District Council. This apparently means that the District Council receives funds to do the job. Examples include a crime prevention manual, a premises survey, and a neighborhood housing services program.

D. Outreach to Citizens

1. Council Meetings and Meeting Notification

All District Councils meet at least once a month, with most having separate executive committee and issue committee meetings each month as well. Each district uses a different means to reach residents of the district. Mailing and literature drops are common, with at least one-third of the districts mailing to all households on a quarterly basis or more frequently. Almost all do door-to-door distribution of flyers in several block areas affected by specific issues; for some districts this is done on practically a weekly basis. The amount of outreach in most districts compares favorably with many of the best community groups we have seen throughout the country.

2. District Newspapers

More than twelve of the districts are served by neighborhood newspapers. Most are published monthly, a few bimonthly or biweekly. These tend to be run by independent citizen groups with lots of volunteer labor. A few are run by District Council itself. These newspapers provide good coverage for the district, tending to have a calendar and several articles each month on issues related to the councils. Most are distributed to every household in the district. These papers are a source of great pride to the districts and those without active papers usually place a high priority on finding a way to develop one.

3. Block Clubs

Several of the districts have placed a high priority on the development of block clubs within the district, usually as part of a crime watch program. Several districts have received MnSHIP grants to fund block club organizers, and a few claim to have a block captain on every block in the district. (District 14 boasts 350 block clubs, and districts 12 and 16 have organized 120 each). These block clubs typically serve as communica-tion links to the residents, in addition to their crime watch activities. Block club captains are often responsible for distribution of issue flyers and meeting notices to all residents. Maintenance is difficult: a periodic task for many district councils is rejuvenation of the system of block clubs in their area.

E. Major Program Components

1. Early Notification System (ENS)

This system was formally detailed in an eight-page ordinance enacted in August, 1979. Its stated purpose is "to provide TIMELY information to community organizations regarding the City's various activities that are being considered, proposed, planned or implemented. Further, the system facilitates feedback to the City regarding the neighborhoods' response and position."

The ENS system consists of a two-part mailing list (by district and citywide) and a policy for using and maintaining the list. Included on the list are the community organizers in each district, two District Council members, two members from each citizen organization in the city, and neighborhood newspapers. The system requires that each ENS communication designate the districts affected, and the contact person in the sending agency. A log of all such mailings is required, with quarterly reporting to the Citizen Participation Coordinator.

All major agencies must send meeting notices and agendas to the ENS mailing list, and other committees and commissions may be required to do so if a request is made by citizen organizations or the Coordinator. One provision states that any district may request that a controversial issue may be held over until the next regularly scheduled meeting. Tavern and liquor licenses require a 45 day notice through the ENS system, as do "development ads, street vacations, special assessments, and any public policies affecting neighborhoods". Quarterly notices of public lands available for redevelopment are also part of the ENS system. Detailed requirements are given for notices involving: rezoning, "determination of similar use", conditional uses and variances, "40-acre study", and building condemnations and demolitions.

In general, the ordinance adopts the tone and substance of the participation system itself. For example, the ordinance exhorts city officials to "Emphasize the positive aspects of what City government is proposing. In every case possible, do more than simply notify: explain reasons behind a project, activity, or change." The Citizen Participation Coordinator is the ENS manager, with responsibilities which extend to maintaining the ENS mailing list, establishing a central log of mailings, and training city staff on how to use the system.

2. District Plans

In the late seventies most districts worked on land use plans for their area. Some are undergoing revision at this time. Staff from the Planning and Economic Development Department have spent a great deal of time assisting in the formation of these plans. But it is unclear how effective these have been for managing growth and development in the districts. We did not frequently hear them referred to by the District Council leaders. A 1970s planning department report notes that this planning process "brought lots of city staff out to neighborhood meetings" and was designed to be tied into the capital budgeting process.

3. City Planning Staff support

A striking feature of St. Paul is the degree to which the staff of the Planning and Economic Development Department are neighborhood oriented. There seems to be a very high degree of communication between PED staff and the District Council staff. Most project plans and proposals, except those for the downtown area, seem to be cleared through the appropriate District Councils before staff take them to the Planning Commission or the City Council. These include capital improvement projects to be proposed to the Capital Improvement Budget Committee. Several divisions of the planning department specifically target neighborhoods as the basis for their operations.

4. Community Centers

At least eight of the Districts have major community centers of their own. These facilities typically house up to a dozen nonprofit organizations, and provide a focus for community meetings and recreational opportunities in the district. Apparently much of the construction cost for these buildings originally came out of the CDBG and CIB process. Since their construction, however, maintenance and staffing for the buildings has sometimes been a problem. The United Way covers a substantial share of this cost, in two districts nearly 2/3 (or over $350,000 per year). A number of current issues for the District Councils revolve around ways to find funds for continued maintenance and staffing of these facilities.

5. Neighborhood Partnership Program

A major development program of the city, the Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP), is designed to fund small business ventures created by individual entrepreneurs. Over the course of six years (1980-86), NPP has awarded over $4 million to 42 projects, with a private funding match of over $20 million. These have ranged from commercial and residential area revitalization programs, to crime watch, human service, and community art projects. District Councils have occasionally taken advantage of these programs through development of applications of their own.

6. Advisory Boards

There are at least 30 citizen advisory boards to government agencies in St. Paul. Most receive appointments by the mayor or the City Council. Two special types of advisory boards affecting neighborhoods are the Mayor's Rehabilitation Advisory Committee and six Identified Treatment Area (ITA) Committees. The ITA committees provided oversight for several major development-oriented projects located in half a dozen districts, in the 1979-1983 period.

7. Citizen Monitoring and Evaluation Process

The St. Paul Citizen Monitoring and Evaluation Process, which began in 1978, is focused on the CDBG program, but includes all aspects of the unified capital budget process. It includes quarterly and annual status reports sent to "interested citizens", evaluation sessions held annually by city staff at district council meetings in districts which receive CDBG funds, and an annual, citywide Performance Hearing. With the major impact of the CIB process, however, this monitoring operation seems to have much less of role than in many other cities.

8. District Council Leadership and Board Development

Several of the boards have received grants, primarily form the from McKnight Foundation's MnSHIP program, to help with board training. Ron Hick, an outspoken advocate of neighborhood empowerment, and frequently a critic of the District Council system, has been one of the trainers in this program. The city itself seems to take a minimal role in this process.

9. Neighborhood Information

The Planning and Economic Development Department is the source of most neighborhood information in the city. It produced the book, St. Paul Today, and the St. Paul Tomorrow study, both extensive sources of comparative information by neighborhoods. The Citizen Participation Coordinator also provides a great deal of information about the Districts, and is the chief troubleshooter for the whole operation.

In addition, an Office of Information and Complaint reports to the City Council. Their primary role is to direct citizens to the right government agency to take care of their problem. There are no direct ties of this office to the District Council system, but the office does work with the community organizers in the districts when appropriate questions or requests come in from citizens.

But the primary contact point for citizens to receive information about their neighborhood in St. Paul is their local District Council. Almost all information that goes out from the city which relates to the participation system in any way includes the names, address, and phone number of all 17 District Council offices and community organizers.

10. Other Projects and Events:

  • Altogether, the McKnight Foundation's Neighborhood Self-Help Initiative Program has more than $5 million available for Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods during the next ten years.
  • The city also has had a Neighborhood Business Revitalization Program since 1982.
  • Mayor Latimer asked the districts to submit priorities for a Better Neighborhood Program in 1986.
  • The city has a number of citizen-administrator task forces to work on specific problems for a limited time. One recent task force, on Community Residential Facilities, proposed changes in state law and city ordinances to better distribute halfway houses and the like throughout the city. Six of the ten non-Planning Commission members of the task force were from district councils. Other recent task forces have focused on dangerous traffic patterns on Shepard Road, Snelling-University neighborhood design, College Zoning, and parking in Victoria Crossing.
  • The Riverfront Initiative is a long range planning project for St. Paul's riverfront areas. In addition to the usual planning operations, and attention-gathering events such as arts projects and the Mississippi Peace Cruise, a small grants program is offering funds for citizens and groups to develop events on or about the riverfront.

F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

St. Paul has a history of independent neighborhood groups and a reputation among its citizens for citizen participation. Born in an era of city vs. citizen group confrontation, the theme of the participation system lies in people working together to build better neighborhoods, and in citizens having a direct role in the city's decisionmaking process. Land use planning and control and communication with citizens are seen as central roles for the district councils.

The participation structure has gradually grown into one of the most coherent and comprehensive of any city we have seen. While originally proclaiming that participation is process, not structure—because the city and citizen groups could not obtain agreement on the complete structure—clearly defined structure has become a mainstay of the St. Paul system. From the CIB system to the District Councils themselves, the structure that has developed gives every appearance of being there to stay. Almost all participation opportunities offered by the city are funneled through the council system. Because councils were given such a substantial role, other citizen groups came to feel that there was an overwhelming advantage in becoming part of the council system. And so they did. The result may be somewhat cooptive of independent citizen action, but the variety that does exist is striking: each district has its own style and mode of operation which grew out of its original citizen group beginnings.

A substantial advantage to the St. Paul system is that each neighborhood of 7,000 to 28,000 people is able to have its own office and at least one full time staff person. The grant from the city seems to come with very few strings attached. The main "string" is the dependency the group develops on this city money. On the other hand, since each neighborhood has staff, each neighborhood has a substantial level of activity. Contrary to every other city we looked at, no part of St. Paul suffers from a complete lack of citizen organization.

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