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Council member wants members of Upper Harbor Terminal advisory committee to get paid

Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham has faced push back from other council members over his idea to provide a stipend to the 17 members of the advisory committee working on the $200 million Upper Harbor Terminal project.

City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
Under an initiative by City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, city officials are considering a possible exception to that rule that citizen-led advisory boards work without pay.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

From the Transgender Equity Council to the Tree Advisory Commission, Minneapolis’ citizen-led advisory boards that help city officials make policy decisions work without pay.

But now, under an initiative by City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, city officials are considering a possible exception to that rule: He wants to establish a system to provide compensation to the 17 city residents on the advisory committee working on the $200 million Upper Harbor Terminal project.

Said Cunningham, whose Ward 4 includes the T-shape property between the Mississippi River and Interstate 94 where the project will be located: “They deserve pay.”

To legally make the change, Cunningham needs majority support from other members of the city council, which created the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee last year. Not all council members are on board with the push, however, and at least one council member is urging more public dialogue over stipends before the city makes a first-of-its kind decision for the Upper Harbor Terminal committee.

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To create any citizen-led commission or committee, city leaders must approve a measure that establishes the new group’s goals and its relationship to city government. The agreements also say whether the boards qualify for stipends or other types of payment, such as parking vouchers.

Currently, only boards or commissions that have the authority to make policy decisions — or require a professional background — meet existing criteria for compensation. Since state law requires the Local Board of Appeal and Equalization to include at least one licensed realtor or appraiser, for example, the city pays the board’s members, City Clerk Casey Carl said.

Members of the city’s Planning Commission, who meet weekly to negotiate property rights and pass definitive policy motions, also receive $50 per meeting, totalling a maximum of $200 monthly. “The planning commission makes decisions,” Carl said. “They operate at a level that’s a little bit higher and with more discretion than the normal advisory board.”

Of the city’s 53 advisory commissions or committees total, 14 qualify for compensation and nine of those receive stipends, Carl said. 

The remaining groups, including the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee, are advisory boards that have no policy-making power and primarily serve to formulate recommendations for the mayor and council. For example, the council has launched groups to provide feedback on public-safety strategies that do not involve police; study 911 calls after dispatch data showed thousands of calls lingered in the emergency system annually, and brainstorm ways to improve what it’s like to live or work in North and Northeast neighborhoods as part of the city’s Green Zone Initiative.

Why them? 

The council and mayor established the Upper Harbor committee in May to quell concerns from residents who felt the city was proceeding with plans to redevelop the 48-acre site without adequate input from North Side residents. 

While working alongside the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department, the committee meets bimonthly to brainstorm ideas for how the city should move forward with the music venue, as well as other aspects of the project. Already, the council has approved a concept plan for the site that sets aside 300 to 500 units of housing, a utility hub, 40,000 to 85,000 square feet for businesses along Dowling Avenue, parks space, office space and possibly a hotel. 

The group has garnered public attention for other reasons, too. Two members have resigned because they don’t agree with the group’s direction, and members recently agreed to restructure leadership. The group also made headlines last month for trying to stop journalists from recording or photographing members’ discussions.

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Shortly after city leaders appointed the committee’s members last year, Cunningham said he began exploring the possibility of providing members stipends. He said they must answer complex questions that are unique to the Upper Harbor Terminal project due to its size and scope. 

“I just find this project to be incredibly more complicated,” than other advisory committees, he said. 

But his main argument for the stipends is that group is framing its decisions for the massive redevelopment project through a lens of racial equity that no other advisory group has used before — a process that the city can replicate in future development, he said. 

“We’re going to be doing development differently now based on the work that’s being done,” he said. “There’s justification for, actually, the city ourselves pay them for … doing the work.”

At first, the council member tried to find a grant to cover the expense, Cunningham said. Then, after that effort failed, a private citizen came forward to donate his own money. But that gift presented a potential conflict of interest, since the resident had an ongoing contract with the city of Minneapolis on a separate issue.

Meanwhile, some council members expressed concerns for how the public would perceive a system in which the city of Minneapolis helps provide financial incentives for a group that was established to make decisions free from city influence. Or, they think the change would be unfair to groups that play similar advisory roles to city-sponsored initiatives.

“The City Council would have to approve an amendment and then you would have to accept the money as a gift and all of that requires,” Cunningham said. “It’s giving me gray hair because it’s, like, I thought this was going to be so much easier than it is I figured most folks would get behind paying black North Siders for their time.”

What other council members say

In an email Tuesday, the mayor said he “will support the council’s determination” on whether to modify the measure establishing the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee to include language allowing stipends.

But it’s not entirely clear whether other council members are on board with the idea. Several council members, including President Lisa Bender of Ward 10, Alondra Cano of Ward 9 and Andrew Johnson of Ward 12, declined to comment on the issue.

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Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano said in an email that she could entertain Cunningham’s argument for paying members since the Upper Harbor Terminal committee is a temporary group and it must produce a “very specific output,” like other boards that receive checks. 

On the other hand, she also wondered whether there is a potential conflict of interest with the payments. “It’s hard to say [because] we have never done this before,” she said.

Meanwhile, council Member Cam Gordon of Ward 2 said he is open to considering Cunningham’s proposal, and that it  “would be easier to accomplish if the stipends came from another source” than the city itself, similarly to how the city used grant money to fund aspects of the Green Zones Initiative.

In an interview this week, Jeremiah Ellison, who represents Cunningham’s neighboring Ward 5 on the North Side, said it’s appropriate for the council to question when the city does and does not compensate people for work they do at the council’s request. 

But before the discussion progresses any further, the council should have a public debate to create a rational that it can apply to future cases. He said he’s open to hearing Cunningham’s case for stipends, as well as arguments from “a lot of my colleagues who feel strongly in the opposite direction.”

“We’re asking folks that maybe don’t have a ton a time and have been historically at the margins of developments like this … and now we’re asking them to sort of be experts in this kind of development,” he said. “It’s appropriate to ask the question, but I also don’t know … that we should do it, sort of, on the fly.”