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The 5 local government stories you’ll still be talking about in 2019

From development to dockless bikes.

Earlier this year, both Minneapolis and St. Paul updated rules for when and how officers use mandatory cameras attached to their uniforms.
Earlier this year, both Minneapolis and St. Paul updated rules for when and how officers use mandatory cameras attached to their uniforms.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Among other things in 2018, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul saw: police-reform activists push to change how politicians approach public safety; housing issues become the focus of intense scrutiny and debate; and the launch of two new electric scooter rental services. Here, a look at some of this year’s most notable local government stories, on issues that will continue developing in 2019:

1. Updated body-cam rules for police

Earlier this year, both Minneapolis and St. Paul updated rules for when and how police officers use body cameras. 

In April, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced changes to make the department’s rules more specific as to when officers must turn on the cameras and harsher for officers who fail to follow the guidelines. The updates followed a series of controversies in 2017: the lack of body-cam footage in the fatal police shooting of Justine Damond, and a subsequent city audit that found many officers were not following previously-established policies for the cameras.

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The body-worn technology made headlines again months later, after footage from the officers who shot and killed Thurman Blevins became public.

Also over the summer, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell updated his department’s rules to clarify that officers must keep their cameras’ sound on. Axtell told the Pioneer Press the issue was not widespread, but a review of footage showed officers at some points muted the devices, “which caused me to pause and question why.”

These updated policies will remain important if or when officers are involved in another shooting or face allegations over the use of excessive force, since the cameras are a crucial tool for evidence in such cases.

2. Electric scooters, dockless bikes — and more

This summer, two companies essentially dumped dozens of rental electric scooters throughout the Twin Cities overnight. Minneapolis scrambled to write a formal policy to establish rules on parking and repairs for the scooters, as well as licensing agreements.

Meanwhile, St. Paul approved a pilot program with two specific companies, Bird and Lime. A spokesperson for the city’s public works department said it could potentially write an ordinance (similarly to Minneapolis’) in early 2019.

Though the scooters have been removed the scooters from sidewalks for winter — both cities are taking steps to prepare for them again when temperatures warm next year.

The appearance of the scooters wasn’t the only news in peer-to-peer transportation this year: Both cities also launched new programs for dockless rental bikes, after deeming the original (docked) bike-share system a success. Minneapolis created its dockless program from the ground up, with the local nonprofit Nice Ride creating most of the policies. Meanwhile, St. Paul took another approach, allowing Lime — one of the scooter companies — to operate a dockless bike service in the city.

In 2019, the number of bikes will only grow. Next year, project leaders of the Minneapolis program said they want some 3,000 dockless bikes on streets — more than triple the amount available in 2018 — before replacing the original green docked bikes. St. Paul is expecting to have a larger fleet available next year, too.

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3. Zoning 

Minneapolis 2040 is a done deal, which means city leaders will begin updating zoning policies to match the long-range plan. The changes will happen slowly and incrementally; city council members are still deciding on methods for notifying residents when it happens in their neighborhoods. Also unclear is what areas of the city will be affected first.

Among the plan’s most controversial items is the change allowing duplexes and triplexes in areas currently reserved for single-family homes. Right now, about three-fourths of the city’s population live in single-family neighborhoods or ones that allow only small multifamily housing. The change in Minneapolis 2040 aims to diversify the city’s housing stock — as the gap in affordable living options grows — without overrunning Minneapolis with big complexes that are out of character for many residential neighborhoods.

St. Paul is on a different timeline for its comprehensive plan. City planners have released a draft version of the massive policy document, about which anyone can comment until Jan. 11. That’s the day the city’s planning commission will hold a public hearing to weigh people’s concerns and start deciding on ways to alter and amend the plan. Commissioners will eventually forward those recommendations to the St. Paul City Council, which plans to finalize their 2040 plan after a public hearing in June.

4. The impact of political newcomers 

Hennepin County sheriff-elect Dave Hutchinson will take an oath of office Jan. 7, taking over for outgoing sheriff Rich Stanek, who has led the law-enforcement agency since 2007. Hutchinson — currently a sergeant with the Metro Transit Police Department — has a team of local public safety and government officials to help with the transition, a group that includes Metro Transit Police Department Chief John Harrington, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal and Retired MPD Deputy Chief Rob Allen.

After taking the oath, Hutchinson has said he will make employee morale among his first priorities. “We’re going to do some policy changes that benefit the rank-and-file so they’re happy and ready to take on a new leadership. We need them to be on board with our mission to be successful,” he said in November. He has also promoted improvements to people’s access to treatment for drug addiction or mental-health issues; new policies to ensure all sexual assault allegations receive a thorough investigation, and a different protocol during jail bookings so deputies stop asking inmates for their “country of origin.

Another newcomer who defeated a longtime politician will also take a seat on the Hennepin County Board of Commissions. In November, Angela Conley, who currently does job assistance for the county, beat Peter McLaughlin, who had been in office for 27 years. She ran a campaign that focused on the lack of diversity in county government, and has set a goal of creating a new Race Equity Advisory Council for the board. Beyond that initiative, Conley has said she wants to team up with other regional leaders to reform the cash-bail system; improve county roads for safety; and target ways to lessen the county’s impact on the environment.

In the race for an open seat on the Hennepin County board, candidate Irene Fernando came out on top of former Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang. Like Conley, Fernando has said increasing everyone’s access to county government is a top priority. Fernando and Conley will be the first commissioners of color to serve Hennepin County.

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Ramsey County felt voters’ push for new leadership, too. They elected newcomer Trista MatasCastillo over current Commissioner Janice Rettman — who had sailed through re-elections since she first won office in 1997 — for a seat on the Ramsey County Board.

5. The long struggle for affordable housing 

In 2018, people built large homeless encampments in both Minneapolis and St. Paul because they felt sleeping outside in tents was their best living option. A camp in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood, near Kellogg Boulevard and Interstate 35 East, grew to include a couple dozen people, while Minneapolis’ Hiawatha encampment included some 300 people becoming what is believed to be the largest site of its kind in the state. 

St. Paul officials ordered residents of its Cathedral Hill encampment to find new places to sleep within days, while Minneapolis leaders debated for months over how to help residents of the Hiawatha camp. Eventually, they agreed to build a new, temporary navigation center offering indoor beds and social services. That site opened just weeks ago. Project leaders hope to find long-term housing for all of its visitors before it closes under terms with the site’s property owners, Red Lake Nation, in May 2019.

Those emergency efforts to address a homelessness crisis punctuated a housing problem that extends region-wide. Rents are rising as the metro’s population grows, while the pace at which the area adds housing is moving slowly. That widens the housing gap, leaving more people than before in unstable living situations.

In response, both cities have carved out big investments in their 2019 budgets that aim to fill that hole. But, considering how long it takes to build new housing and the depth of the cities’ problems, those investments are not likely to change the cities’ housing landscape immediately or anytime soon.