Cano dodges brunt of ethics violations

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Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune 

Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano dodged the worst of an ethics complaint today following her threats to release screen captures of similar violations by Council colleagues. The complaint, stemming from Cano’s tweeting of citizen emails (including names, addresses, and phone numbers) criticizing her involvement in a December Black Lives Matter protest, was ruled unanimously to have violated the “aspirations,” but not “substantive rules,” of the city’s ethics code.

 

The case against Cano initially centered around the use of city email for political purposes but escalated with a September 10th email to Council President Barbara Johnson and two colleagues. In the email, Cano expressed she was “extremely disappointed in how the Council, and [President Jordan] personally, handled the discussion” in a closed session with the city’s Ethical Practices Board that was decided to be continued in public at later date. “Barb you had told me you planned to make a motion to dismiss and not make this a public issue. You never made that motion and now everything will be in public,” Cano wrote.

The email to President Jordan went on to warn that Cano had been recording other council member’s use of city email and was ready to “circulate a press release to the media… with the screenshots I’ve gathered since January of 2016.” The letter added that “my lawyer and I are ready to take this to the next level if the Council votes to approve the ethics findings.”

Following her receipt of the email, Council President Jordan said she was disappointed with Cano’s response because “it’s terrible to treat colleagues like that.” She said she shared the email with colleagues whose emails had supposedly been recorded because “I want people to think about what they want to do.”

This is not the first flare up between Cano and her fellow council members. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to City Pages, several colleagues expressed frustration with her approach.

  • “She is always late to meetings. Sometimes she doesn’t show up at all. When she does, she hasn’t done her homework and has to wing it. The problem is this is stuff she’s supposed to know. It’s city council 101.”
  • “Unfortunately, its not a surprise anymore. It’s been like this for three years and just seems like she never pays attention. But what should we expect from someone who’s more concerned about the number of her Twitter followers?”
  • “We all know who she is. She’s lazy. She’s all about talking, not working hard.”

The sole comment prior to the dismissal vote Friday came from Council Member Blong Yang, who feared that Cano’s actions were retaliatory and showed no remorse. “Even if we as a council body don’t impose discipline, I would hope that the good folks in Ward 9 will take care of it next year,” Yang said.

Cano, the first-term representative for Ward 9, will face reelection in 2017.

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After Supreme Court snub, wage activists return to the street.

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Photo via MPR News

Following a MN Supreme Court ruling last month barring a $15/h minimum wage proposal from November ballots in Minneapolis, over 100 activists returned to the streets Monday demanding the City Council pass the wage ordinance themselves.

Proposed as an alternative to a public referendum, the City Council easily passed a motion to consider a minimum wage hike in 2017 after completion of  an economic impact study this October and staff policy recommendations the following April. But organizers are pointing to the Court’s decision as a sign that action can be taken immediately.

“We forced the council to open debate about an ordinance,” the group 15 Now MN said on its website, “the Supreme Court’s decision affirmed that the Minneapolis City Council has the power to pass $15/hour as an ordinance at any time.”

“We are not going to wait until April,” echoed protest organizer Nestor Garcia to the Star Tribune, “we want it now, because the rent won’t wait.”

The protest march began at the Wendy’s on West Broadway, one of the busiest business corridors in the city, and briefly closed the street between I-94 and Dupont Ave. Joined by some striking Allina nurses, the protesters visited several of what Neighborhoods Organizing for Change leader Rod Adams called “poverty profiteers.” These included drive thru restaurants and a payday lender.

With the decision now firmly in their hands, a vote by the Council to substantially raise the city’s minimum wage without action at the state level seems unlikely. Both Mayor Betsy Hodges and local business leaders are urging the City Council avoid acting alone.

Michael McDowell, an organizer for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, underscored the continued urgency they feel regarding low wages in light of the court decision. “What we want to let City Council know today is that  we need a $15-an-hour ordinance passed now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but now.”

 

Fight for $15/h on to MN Supreme Court

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Photo Credit: City Pages

After a tumultuous week of legal wrangling between the Minneapolis City Council and community organizations, the Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear a legal arguments on inclusion of a $15/h minimum wage question on the November ballot.

The disagreement stems from the avenue used to present the minimum wage question to voters. Despite several community groups (Now Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha) submitting nearly three times the necessary signatures for a charter amendment to be considered by Minneapolis voters, a City Council majority followed the guidance of City Attorney Susan Segal in viewing a charter amendment, or a change to the basic structure and operation of city government, as inappropriate for addressing a minimum wage change. Segal argued that an ordinance change, which would be voted on by the City Council, was a better fit for the wage issue.

With time running out to finalize the ballot by the end of August deadline, representatives of the community organizations immediately sued.

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Judge Susan Robiner

 

Judge Susan Robiner sided with the community organizations arguing that the minimum wage issue broadly enough impacts the health and well being of Minneapolis residents to be considered for charter amendment. Judge Robiner explained in her ruling that because state law does not define what should be considered relevant to a city charter, there being no relevant precedent for blocking this type of charter amendment, and the $15/h proposal not conflicting with state law, its inclusion can not be prevented on the November ballot. As she wrote in her opinion, “there is no precedent holding that initiative and referendum is the only citizen power to legislate on matters of general welfare and that the power to amend a charter, with its constitutional right to citizen access, is something qualitatively different and lesser.”

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City Attorney Segal

In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, the council offered a mix response. Council Members Cano and Gordon, the only two who voted in favor of the wage issue being included on the ballot, took to social media in celebration. Councilman Andrew Johnson, who had voted to keep the provision off, went so far as to apologize for his decision, posting to Facebook that, “with the information I had at the time I felt it was clear that the minimum wage amendment was not legal and would not hold up in court, but it would appear that the majority and I were wrong, and for that I am sorry.”

 

City Attorney Segal, at least, stayed her course. Wednesday morning, she announced her intent to file both an appeal of Judge Robiner’s ruling and a petition for expedited review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. With time running short, the Court agreed to hear oral arguments about the case on August 30th.

Fight for $15 organizers in Minnesota are pushing for employers of over 500 to provide the higher wage by 2020, and small employers by 2022. A recent poll paid for by advocates of Fight for $15 found that 68% of Minneapolis voters surveyed indicated they’d likely vote “yes” if the question appeared on the ballot.

 

 

Does walkability get neighborhoods a step ahead?

POmapHoping to reinforce Uptown as “safe, engaging, and interesting” neighborhood for shopping and recreation, the Minneapolis City Council is considering significant changes to zoning rules in the “wedge” (along Hennepin and Lyndale between Franklin and 31st). The proposed “Pedestrian Overlay District” includes provisions such as:

  • Eliminating requirements for provided off-street parking.
  • Installing new bike racks.
  • Prohibiting reductions in building height or buildings taller than 4 stories.
  • Mandating denser development through tighter floor area ratios (FAR).
  • Requiring sidewalk-facing entry doors near corners for businesses.
  • Significant limitations on auto repair, drive-through, and fast food businesses.

While the physical benefits of walking are well established, the economic are harder to nail down. The astonishing variety of  retail / residential mixes that constitute “walkable” neighborhoods has left a scarcity of research on their economic advantages over automobile-centered development. Even if there were to identical communities to compare today, census data estimates that 50% of all retailers currently operating will close their doors within 5 years, meaning neighborhoods rarely remain static in their composition. Simply put, it is still too early to tell if there is an economic boost to businesses in location zoned for the kind of walkability the city council is proposing.

There is, however, there are significant economic boosts for existing residents of walkable neighborhoods. A recent consumer study found that 66% of all respondents stated a preference for living within walking distance of stores and restaurants. Further, studies in Atlanta have found the greatest inhibitor to growth in these neighborhoods was simply a lack of available housing stock. That high demand is despite cost premiums of $20,000 over similarly sized units in suburbs and trade offs with regards to parking and yard space. A study of 15 cities nationwide found that a shift from “average” to “above average” in a neighborhood’s Walk Score (a measure of walkability) increased property values between $4,000 to $34,000.

But the only directly measurable impact of walkability on area businesses is, similarly to residents, found in property values and rental rates. Studies in Washington D.C. found that rent for office space in areas with substantial walkability (again, measured by Walk Score) commanded a 27% premium over comparable locations without. A further study sampling 10,000 retail locations nationwide has noted that businesses with a Walk Score of 80 were 54% more expansive than those with a score of 20. But even that limited data must be taken with a grain of salt. Some experts warn that the rent premiums which indicate hot properties for businesses begin to dissipate just 4/10ths of a mile from a walkable neighborhood’s center of density. Further, areas with the highest cost premiums tend to be occupied by franchise businesses and not the mom and pop operations that draw residents and that areas like Uptown are trying so hard to cultivate.

It would seem that while the walkability of a community does positively impact property values and rental rates, the evidence that residents will actually their car in the garage in favor of patronizing local shops is still shaky. Uptown’s proposed Pedestrian Overlay District is a needed step to revitalize the heart of the neighborhood and draw in a new generation of young families, but sales pitches based on a windfall for area businesses are still largely unsupported.

 

 

 

Twin Cities lead suburbs in population growth

POP changeAfter a decade of stagnation, Minneapolis and St. Paul led the metro region with over on third of all population growth since 2010 according to findings from the Metropolitan Council. With rates of population increase topping 5.5%, a level unseen since the late 1970s, the Twin Cities outpaced the population growth of cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Overall, the U.S. population grew just 4% during the same period.

Despite Minnesotan’s return to urban life, trends of suburbanization haven’t totally dwindled. Communities on the suburban edge, such as Blaine and Woodbury, also grew considerably with rates of 8%. As Met Council Manager of Regional Policy Libby Starling, noted to the Star Tribune, “We are seeing growth in all parts of the region. That means people who live here and move here have choices and options about where to live.”

The return of households to Minnesota’s urban core is a welcome validation of recent efforts to increase walkability and quality community programming. As the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota has explained, “This is part of the national trend of empty nesters and millennials wanting to live in a more urban place where you don’t have to use your car as often or drive as far. They want to be closer to amenities.”

As I noted in a previous post, however, the growth of Minnesota’s urban corps is not without ramification. The Twin Cities region’s total addition of 58,906 households (a 5.3% increase) since 2010 came with construction of only 43,287 housing units (a 3.6% increase). That means roughly 16,000 families were left to find existing apartment TC-rental-market-chart-500x374stock with vacancy rates under 2.8% and average rents topping $1,000. That housing stock includes single family homes, usually out of reach for the first generation immigrants who made up fully one third of the region’s population growth.

It is important to recognize the success of urban revitalization, but care must be taken to mitigate the growing pains that come with it. If affordable housing continues to lag, the Twin Cities risk concentrating poverty in low-income and minority neighborhoods that are already struggling to accommodate the influx of new residents. Without a comprehensive plan for both metro and outstate economic development, greater Minnesota will continue to dwindle and the growing metro will be left with a stalling economic engine. It is only by comprehensively and purposefully planning for economic development  on a statewide level that the Twin Cities population boom will translate to the prosperity all Minnesotans have earned.

MN insurers face rocky road in Obamacare exchanges

MN insurers face rocky road in Obamacare exchanges

Facing tremendous unanticipated costs, large insurers based in Minnesota face pressure to exit or alter Obamacare’s individual insurance markets. The state-based “exchanges,” designed to provide health coverage to those left out of employer provided programs, are stretched by an inundation of chronically ill patients and a void of healthy participants to offset them.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota followed on the heels of PreferredOne last month by announcing their exit from MNsure (Minnesota’s exchange) due to a loss of $265 million on the markets in 2015 and projected losses of $500 million over the next three years. As BCBSMN has explained, “Shifts and changes in health plan participation and market segments have contributed to a volatile individual market, where costs and prices have been escalating at unprecedented levels.”

While the MNsure health exchange only serves 5% of the state’s population (the state has relatively strong employer-provided coverage), the withdrawal of two of its largest providers has forced over 100,000 Minnesotans back into the ungainly market and cast uncertainty on a foundational element of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As Governor Dayton noted ,”This creates a serious and unintended challenge for the individual market… Blue Cross Blue Shield’s decision to leave… is symptomatic of conditions in the national health insurance marketplace.”

UnitedHealth, the largest single health insurer in the country, faces its own loss RANDnationally of more than $850 million in 2017 due to an influx of chronically sick individuals to the exchanges. As CFO Steven Schumacher explained, “The reality is the severity of chronic conditions inside the population actually increased on a year-over-year basis. If you look at the prevalence of chronic disease, things like HIV and hepatitis C, diabetes, COPD, those are examples of things where the prevalence was high to begin with in 2015, and that has increased into 2016.”

To be sure, Obamacare’s early years have seen successes. At close of 2016 open enrollment, 16.9 million Americans had gained coverage through the market exchanges and roughly cut the uninsured rate in half from a high of 18% to 9.2%. Following the departure of BCBSMN and PreferredOne, there remain 99 plans on MNsure for this year alone.

But increases in the chronic conditions Obamacare was built to, in part, address put the entire enterprise of an exchange-based system into question. Without taking steps to increase the number of healthy policy holders, like merging small employers into the exchanges or allowing individuals to purchase coverage through MinnesotaCare, even the most finely tuned plans will continue to prove unprofitable. While the exchanges are still in their infancy, cost volatility has and will remain the single greatest challenge to the public / private hybrid of a system Obamacare has established.

Battle for $15/h Begins in Minneapolis

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Organizers launched the campaign last February.

Organizers in Minneapolis are ready to deliver nearly three times the necessary signatures for a vote on amending the city’s charter to include a minimum wage of $15 per hour, despite opponent’s claims of murky legality.

 

The organizers, 15 Now and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, explained that a charter amendment would withstand legal challenge in a conference call Monday. “We found that the city of Minneapolis has the power to adopt a local minimum wage through its general welfare powers,” said staff attorney Laura Huizar with the National Employment Law Project. “It has broad power to address the health, safety and well-being of its residents.”

The fight for a $15 minimum wage is cited broadly by proponents as a salve for working family’s declining purchasing power. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a single full-time worker with one child paid minimum wage would be “far below the income necessary for… a secure living standard even in the least expensive area.” The National Center on Children in Poverty estimates that an hourly wage of $14.50 per hour would be the minimum necessary to meet that family’s basic needs.

Leaders of Minnesota’s communities of color argue a wage hike’s value in closing yawning racial equity gaps. President of the MW 2Minneapolis NAACP Nekima Levy-Pounds, a key note speaker for the campaign’s kickoff in February, explained “I do believe people of color will benefit from a $15 an hour minimum wage because we are overrepresented amongst the working poor. This is a way of ensuring greater levels of equity for people of color.”

Despite the seeming legality of a charter-driven wage hike, opposition to the plan is coalescing. In the wake of a similar citizen-driven effort securing paid sick leave for Minneapolis workers, Republican legislators and business groups are discussing passage of a state law prohibiting the exceeding of state work standards by individual cities. Dan McElroy, head of Hospitality Minnesota, cautioned that efforts like unilateral wage hikes could carry unintended consequences. “I think for Minneapolis to travel alone is fraught with risk,” he noted, warning of spikes in youth unemployment from employers unwilling to pay and increased automation of low-level positions.

Controversy over the $15 initiative began with the launch of the effort just six weeks after the 2014 Minnesota wage hike from $7.25 to $8 per hour. At the time, Small Business Minnesota spokeswoman Audrey Britton expressed her alarm over the pace of change. “We’re generally in favor of fair wages, but our concern was and continues to be that your can’t make up for 10 years of inaction in one or two years time.” The original wage legislation mandated a minimum of $9.50 statewide by this year.

Regardless the debate over the particular rate of $15 per hour, long-term employment data reflects the need for wage supports beyond just for the lowest-income earners. While the casselman-irt_0401.pngUnited States continues to add jobs following the Great Recession, low and high income job earnings have increased an average of 11.5% while middle income positions have lagged behind at little more than 8%. This, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has led to a hollowing out of the middle. As noted by Ben Casselman of 538, strong evidence for this hollowing effect can be seen through the rise of supplemental income “gigs” such as Uber and old-economy employers increasingly contracting out greater shares of their work. As of April, 16% of middle income workers spent at least part time in an alternative employment arrangement such as temp or on-call positions. That is a jump from just 10% in 2005.

While Minneapolis is absolutely right to focus on supporting low-income families and communities of color through fair wages, let us not forget equally necessary support for the dwindling middle class we hope those families will one day move into. Meeting basic needs while neglecting our greatest avenue for economic advancement and social mobility is simply entrenching subsistence.