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

City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/12/2020 - 12:27 pm.

    This is the committee that broke the law by excluding the press, and Cunningham is the council member who was there and did nothing to stop them, and then criticized the media for objecting to the committee’s illegal actions.

    Now he wants them to get paid? Sounds like Minneapolis elected a real knucklehead in this ward.

  2. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 02/12/2020 - 01:20 pm.

    Sure seems like it would be simpler for the city to sell the land in an auction and be done with it.

    Instead of spending $200M and having countless disputes like this, the city could pocket a windfall profit. Maybe use that money to lower property taxes.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/12/2020 - 01:42 pm.

    It isn’t necessary to diminish the work done by members of all other unpaid, appointed advisory groups, claiming that these folks on the Upper Harbor advisory group are somehow doing more work, or more complicated work, and therefore deserve pay for their time. No advisory group that I’m familiar with does only easy, simple, routine work, and often that work takes a big stretch for “regular folks” because they are not experts in a field. They’re just citizens volunteering time and work for the benefit of the community, not for their own benefit.

    These people want to get paid for their work. Period.

    That’s the issue: These unpaid North Side volunteers who have been named to study the Upper Harbor project are people who believe that they should be paid for their time. Be straight about this, and maybe, their reasons: they don’t have the time or the economic ease to do unpaid work.

  4. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 02/12/2020 - 03:48 pm.

    Not only no, but hell no! People from all over the city serve as volunteers on appointed boards, commissions, panels because they want to be involved in their community and because it is a public service. Compensating citizens for their bus fare or parking to attend meetings is reasonable, but paying them for the time spoils the notion of public service.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2020 - 09:25 am.

    I served on two different planning commissions in Colorado during my tenure there, and my experience in Colorado lends credence to Cunningham’s arguments about citizen involvement. All too often, the basic decisions about a redevelopment project of this size and scope are made A) behind closed doors; and B) long before the people who will be most affected by the decision have a chance to weigh in on it.

    That “weighing in” is a two-edged sword, however. I live in Ward 4, and not that far from the site, so this particular project is relevant to me personally, though I’m not directly affected. The opportunity for citizens to have a voice in how their community will be affected – for good or ill – is one that shouldn’t be dismissed. On the other hand, having sat through hundreds of community meetings, I’ll add that they can easily morph into ego contests and very self-serving concerns about just who’s going to be affected the most and in what way.

    My initial planning commission experience was for a small-ish city, rapidly growing, with multiple development projects coming before the commission nearly every week that required us to make decisions to send to the City Council. I, and several other commission members, felt ethically bound to physically visit the sites of development proposals to match the actual terrain with the descriptions in those proposals. Most – but not all – of the time, the City Council followed our recommendations. The work required at least a couple hours of my time each week, outside of the actual planning commission meeting, which was always open to the public, and often ran to 3 hours or more because of the pace of development in the city. Commission members in that city received no compensation for their volunteer service.

    The next planning commission on which I served was for a sizable inner-ring suburb of Denver, about half the size of Minneapolis. Mostly already built-out, new development took up much less of the city’s (and the commission’s) time and attention. Instead, we spent a lot of time and energy on REdevelopment of existing sites. This, too, required (I thought) physical visits to redevelopment sites to see what was actually there, compare it to what was in redevelopment proposals, and try to figure out sensible and equitable recommendations to the City Council in each case. These commission meetings were also always open to the public, and were sometimes just as lengthy as they had been in the previous city where I’d served. Overall, I found this commission less demanding of my time and energy, largely because it mostly dealt with a different kind and pace of development. While I was a commissioner in that community, I was deemed, technically, a city employee, and was paid $50 for each meeting I attended.

    So, having done it both ways, I could go either way on the pay issue. At present, I currently serve on another city commission for the City of Minneapolis, without compensation.

    • Submitted by Constance Pepin on 02/16/2020 - 09:51 am.

      This issue involves an advisory committee, not a planning commission. Decisions made by members of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission are final and legally binding, unless appealed, which means the Planning Commission operates (as the article quotes City staff) “at a level that’s a little bit higher and with more discretion than the normal advisory board.” The Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee, on the other hand, is an advisory committee with no policy-making power that primarily serves (per the article) “to formulate recommendations for the mayor and council.” In fact, to many people, this committee is the City’s token and dishonest method “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.” Hence, the resignations mentioned in the article. The Committee is completely constrained by the City’s insistence on building a 10,000-seat amphitheater, and therefore relegated to brainstorming “ideas for how the city should move forward with the music venue, as well as other aspects of the project” that many people, including adjacent neighborhoods never asked for and don’t want. The City stands to make more money by forcing this “amenity” on the River and unfortunately, CM Cunningham sees an amphitheater as a “nice thing” despite lack of support from constituents and despite adverse environmental effects of monetizing this land, as well as the losses incurred by privatizing part of the site.

      If the City Council agrees to compensate members of the Upper Harbor advisory committee, it will actually be causing citywide inequity because so many other advisory committee members are not compensated. Many people serve on many committees as volunteers who study and consider complicated proposals and projects, not only through a lens of racial equity but also through the lens of climate change, historical context, or other significant challenges with far-reaching consequences; those people would deserve compensation no less. In fact, many of those other committees have more responsibility since they are not just pawns implementing the City’s pre-determined outcome of an oversized amphitheater and other for-profit enterprises on the riverfront, at whatever cost to the neighborhood and our environment. It’s also important to note that no Indigenous People are on the City’s (or the MPRB’s) Upper Harbor Advisory Committees.

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