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Minneapolis finds diversity a continuing challenge in filling advisory groups

The number of applicants more than doubled from 2009 to 2011, but the number of non-white members dropped from 19 percent to 14 percent.

Bringing diversity to the 52 Minneapolis boards and commissions that advise the City Council and mayor on everything from animal care to zoning has not been easy.

The number of applicants for those appointments has more than doubled from 214 in 2009 to 439 in 2011. But at the same time, the number of non-white members serving has dropped from 19 percent in 2009 to 14 percent in 2011.

A year ago, Minneapolis adopted a plan designed to increase diversity that included an annual open house to introduce citizens to the possibility of serving. The plan also suggested reaching out to community and cultural groups to seek nominees.

The open house didn’t work, but the outreach did, according to Howard Blin of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations staff.

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The Minneapolis Workforce Council, an advisory group of business owners, knocked on doors to recruit new members and came up a winner with four of the five new members representing minority groups, according to Blin.

“It’s smart for us to focus our efforts on diversity,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren Thursday. Diversity is defined in this effort to include gender, race, age, income, education, economic status, geographic location, ethnic background, sexual orientation and disability.

Two years ago, the appointment process was reorganized to open it in both fall and spring and drop the old schedule of appointments scattered throughout the year. That is one of the changes credited with increasing the number of applicants.

Gender balance in 2009 was at 50 percent but by 2012 had shifted to 40 percent female and 60 percent male.

The boards and commissions continue to be dominated by homeowners. Only 17 percent of those serving in 2011 were renters, even though half of the city population rents their living quarters.

Each board or commission has a different appointment process.

The Charter Commission, for example, is appointed by the chief judge of the District Court.  Most others are a combination of appointments by the mayor and City Council, while some members are appointed by community or cultural groups.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden recalled her days as a young attorney when she wondered how she could get appointed to the Civil Rights Commission. She thinks the current system would have been easier to figure out.

Currently missing from the picture are young people. There are almost no board or commission members in the 18-to-35 age group.

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“Achieving diversity in income and education levels has also proven difficult,” according to a printed report presented to council members.Those currently serving tend to have higher incomes and education years than the overall city population.

“It’s more difficult to get low-income people involved,” Blin told council members.

“I just want to acknowledge how far we’ve come,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “Back in 2009, we had no idea of the makeup of our boards and commissions.”

The council, acting as the Committee of the Whole, asked city staff to come back with a plan to expand outreach, increase the applicant pool, achieve diversity goals and an orientation program for new members of boards and commission.

The council also will look at recruitment strategies and term management. Those studies should be complete by April.

Foreclosure counselor available

A mortgage foreclosure counselor will be available free of charge every Tuesday and Thursday at City Hall. The office in Room 333 will be open from 10 a.m. until noon and from 1 to 4 p.m.  For more information, dial 311 in Minneapolis and ask to speak with a foreclosure prevention counselor. Translation services are available.