Whittier Alliance Among Most Restrictive Minneapolis Neighborhoods

On January 12th, the Whittier Alliance held a tense and somewhat controversial meeting for the purpose of amending their bylaws. Among the more contentious aspects of the new bylaw language was the section giving the Whittier Alliance’s Board of Directors the power to screen Board candidates according to subjective criteria. A clause was also added to require Board candidates to have been a member of the organization for at least six months (membership is typically activated by signing in at a meeting).

It should be noted that the Whittier Alliance was improperly screening candidates prior to this change in their bylaws. Last March, a number of Whittier residents complained to the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR) department regarding the neighborhood’s election process. In June, NCR sent the Whittier Alliance a letter, admonishing them for screening candidates and other infractions–like closing registration almost an hour before the election’s scheduled start, denying eligible voters the chance to cast a ballot.

bylaws

The Whittier Alliance’s old “Qualifications” language is typical of the vast majority of Minneapolis neighborhood organizations. The new, more restrictive language passed 40-16.

There were quite a few people at last week’s meeting who were eager to suggest amendments. Unfortunately, the first person called on by Board Chair Erica Christ was a Robert’s Rules ninja, and the new bylaws were adopted without a single amendment having the chance to be heard. One older woman explained her support of the new restrictions by alluding to an unspecified neighborhood that had its bank account drained by some unspecified people.

(Obligatory note for those who might say these changes are justified by a certain disruptive individual: Amending bylaws in a way that restricts participation seems, at best, a misguided solution to a legitimate problem, especially in light of Whittier’s election issues last year.)

Whittier Alliance’s Executive Director Marian Biehn says the new language is common among non-profit groups. In the wake of this meeting, I read (okay, methodically skimmed) the bylaws of 70 Minneapolis neighborhood organizations (results here). The comparison shows that Whittier is one of the few neighborhood groups with highly restrictive election procedures.

Comparison of Neighborhood Organization Bylaws

Among the small number of Minneapolis neighborhoods with unusually exclusionary election processes, all have large minority and/or renter populations. This would seem to exacerbate the existing problem of unrepresentative neighborhood organizations.

Of the 70 Minneapolis neighborhood organization bylaws surveyed:

  • Only two neighborhoods prohibit same-day voter registration: The Folwell Neighborhood Association (71% non-white) and Ventura Village (79% non-white).
  • 62 neighborhoods have no length of membership requirement to be eligible to run for a leadership position.
  • Six neighborhoods have length of membership requirements of 30 days or longer before you can run for a leadership position. All six are high renter, high minority, or both.
  • Three neighborhoods require candidates to have been a member for 6 months or longer: Whittier (6 months), Prospect Park (1 year), and Marcy Holmes (6 months). Each of those neighborhoods have high renter populations (83%, 74%, and 84%).
  • The Whittier Alliance is the only neighborhood whose bylaws contain anything resembling this sort of subjective qualification for Board candidates: “shall not have committed an act of malice or defamation against the Whittier Alliance or any member of the Board of Directors or otherwise disrupt the aims and purposes of the corporation.”
  • The Jordan Area Community Council has the most onerous attendance requirement for leadership candidates (must attend 3 meetings over the last election cycle). Interesting fact about Jordan: The neighborhood was 64% white in 1990; today it’s 16% white.
  • Whittier and Jordan are among seven neighborhood organizations that prohibit candidate nominations on the day of elections.

Other findings of note:

Read the full results here.


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22 Responses to Whittier Alliance Among Most Restrictive Minneapolis Neighborhoods

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 21, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    This is a really important story. There’s a large difference between Minneapolis neighborhood groups about how accessible they are operated, and how much outreach they do. Some are quote good, others are very poor. Tying it to race and renter status, as you do here, is something that we should take very seriously in an age when people often talk about inequality in the city.

  2. Janne Flisrand
    Janne January 21, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    I’m intrigued to see that my neighborhood (Lowry Hill) has an ID clause. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for my ID when attending meetings. Of course, I may not remember accurately, as I wasn’t aware it was required.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards January 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

      And my neighborhood, Lowry Hill East, doesn’t have an ID clause. Yet I think it was requested of some people at last year’s annual meeting.

      I didn’t make a big deal about voter ID in my post because allowing same-day registration is a good thing, and presumably that requires some form of verification. It would be nice if we could forego the ID for people who are pre-registered. Many neighborhoods use language like “demonstrate eligibility” without being specific about the form of ID required. Or they allow another member to vouch for someone without ID. I think flexibility is important.

      • Thatcher Imboden January 23, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

        I saw SOME people at the LHENA annual meeting last year be ID’d. I thought it was strange and enforced randomly. Not a fan of ID verification. Requiring signing in with an address seems reasonable and if someone wants to challenge someone’s voting rights, so be it…but the onus should be on the accuser to prove someone falsified their address than on someone to prove their legitimacy.

  3. Evan Roberts
    Evan January 21, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    You deserve some sort of medal, or at least course credit, for doing this.

    Given that the city treats neighborhood organizations as public organizations a question we should ask is why are voting and candidacy requirements more onerous than in state and local elections. Independent non profits can (and probably should) have qualifications for board members that require them to be invested in their mission etc etc.

    This story deserves wider attention given the role these organizations are given in our local government.

  4. Rebecca Airmet
    Rebecca Airmet January 21, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Whether it’s “baddies” trying to fortify and keep a power position on a board, or “the good guys” trying to prevent the “bad guys” from gaining board positions, excluding a swath of residents from the public process is not a good thing. The ends do not justify the means.

    I think it’s crucial that neighborhood and district councils, funded by public money, maintain transparency and prioritize outreach and engagement, especially to those who may be disenfranchised by the existing political system.

  5. Anton Schieffer
    Anton Schieffer January 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    This issue was touched on last year during a discussion of whether neighborhood associations truly represent the people that live in the neighborhoods. Part of this conflict exists because board members aren’t intended to be elected representatives of a neighborhood, but are supposed to serve the interests of the organization.

    When bylaws are altered to limit participation, especially in areas with large amounts of renters and minorities, it should be up to NCR to put their foot down rather than assist with these types of changes. Reading the above-linked NCR letter to the Whittier Alliance made me wonder about their cozy relationship – I think both will just turn a blind eye towards this topic and hope it goes away.

  6. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 22, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    A while back I wrote about Mpls neighborhood groups varying attempts to engage with renters: http://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2014/09/minneapolis-neighborhood-groups-try-bridge-renter-gap. It’s sort of the ‘carrot’ to the ‘stick’ that is election requirements, but both work together to create the actual on-the-ground engagement level.

  7. NRPer January 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    I take issue with the “you are excluding renters” point. I’m tired of hearing it. Until you have worked for some years trying to get renters to engage with neighborhood groups, don’t even talk about them. I can go on a laundry list of why the majority of renters are not cognizant of their local politics, let alone their ability to even take care of their own lives. And until you’ve walked door to door, thrown weekly to monthly events, talk face to face with all sorts of neighbors on constant occasions, heard marriages and divorces, and memorized not only the people who lived in an apartment building but people who use to live there, you’re not qualified to speculate how much “outreach” is being done by the neighborhood groups.

    This is not to say, forget about renters, I’m saying neighborhoods do a fantastic job of outreaching and do it even when the odds are against them. It’s up to the people to answer the call and very often they don’t. People act like we’re asking them to join the military.

    As for the politicking of the directors seats, it is doubtful anyone has an agenda to exclude minorities or renters as all of you are implying. Executive level decisions involve relationships with city politicians, and posturing for future investments. People with skin in this game are typically property or business owners, and white. Many of them have inherited their interests. This is just a fact. It’s a historic trend of a city that in 1950 was 90% white and is still 70% white. So on the outside it appears there’s some devious racial implications when to be honest people are too busy to give two cahoots, it’s always been about money.

    • Anton Schieffer
      Anton Schieffer January 22, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

      So the implication is that only those who own property have “skin in the game,” therefore practices that deter renters from participating is okay? And if renters already aren’t bothering to show up, why are neighborhood organizations passing new restrictions on how new residents can participate?

    • Matt Steele January 22, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

      I’m thankful you aren’t on my neighborhood board with me.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards January 22, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

      I’m sympathetic to the difficult work of outreach, but do you think the Whittier Alliance’s new restrictions make including newcomers easier or harder?

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino January 23, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

      The immediate takeway here probably shouldn’t be that whatever neighborhood group is actively discriminating, but that there always should be automatic asterisks attached to any claim that the official neighborhood group “represents the neighborhood” when the demographics of the participants are way out of whack.

  8. O January 22, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    This is really valuable and important research right here. As others have said, you deserve some congrats at least for pulling this together. And as other commenters mentioned, this is particularly important at a time when the city has some huge racial/class inequities.

    Wondering if it would be possible to take this analysis one step further and find out the race/ethnicity, gender, and renter/homeowner information for board members of neighborhood organizations across the city? (No idea if that data is even kept or required by the city or individual orgs.)

    That information, combined with what you have here already, would really paint a picture as to which groups were doing the work to include underrepresented populations and which are not.

    • Matt Steele January 22, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

      NCR recently sent a survey to neighborhood groups to understand board composition and involvement.

      Here are the results:
      http://surveymonkey.com/s_thankyou.aspx?sm=1JONq4ranfbxa6N6y5V9BQYvV8YdF0wwqeemt081Im4%253d

      78.2% homeowners, 15.7% renters
      87.8% white, 8.6% black
      96.4% English as first language
      55% male, 45% female
      90% heterosexual
      30.5% single
      median income appears to be on high end of $50-75k
      82.3% have at least a 4 year degree

      Interesting stuff.

      • John Edwards
        John Edwards January 22, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

        I should have included this in my post!

      • aexx January 23, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

        It’s good to see an ALMOST even split between the sexes, though equilibrium would be better.

        I’d also say it’s pretty great that 10 percent of board members are apparently part of the LGBT community. That’s pretty in line with estimates for the city, right? I believe about 1/8 (12.5 percent) self identify.

        The rest…well, we’ve got some work to do.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards January 22, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

      I’d also like to see a demographic survey of residents who attend their neighborhood association’s annual meeting–a time when those who are engaged with the organization are most likely to show up. It would be nice to quantify the overwhelming sense of whiteness (of both skin and hair) I get at my neighborhood’s annual meeting.

  9. cdElle January 22, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

    This was a necessary analysis of neighborhood bylaws. There shouldn’t be any barriers to participation. Screening candidates is ridiculous. Voting or participating in your city-funded neighborhood shouldn’t be harder than voting in any election.

    The past year, I’ve been more involved in observing and learning about my neighborhood group. It’s fair to say, their bylaws don’t prohibit participation but good luck trying to get elected to the board when you’re new, young, and/or renter. They support their own, along with their interests. Outreach is nonexistent, and why would they try? It would only undermine their own influence. Under the surface I think there are barriers set up even when it’s not written in the bylaws. These groups say they represent everyone in their neighborhood, but even without problematic bylaws it’s unlikely to be the case.

  10. Brian Finstad January 23, 2015 at 8:39 am #

    I made a complaint against the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council three or four years ago for violating their Community Participation Contract with the City (upon which their funding is dependent) and called for their funding to be suspended. They not only had meeting attendance requirements at the committee level, but to even join a committee you had to not only fill out an application, but the board had to VOTE on approving the application. It was right at the time of transition between NRP and NCR. Ironically, even though NRP was seen as the program that was on the side of “the people” and NCR was feared as being some new, imposing, top down bureaucracy, it was actually NCR who sided with my complaint and NRP would not take it up. That experience definitely opened my eyes to seeing the change to NCR as a good thing. The reason why NRP would not take it up was that the HNC had been controlled by the same small subset of people for decades and the NRP staff had developed long term familiar relationships with those people. Relationships can be a good thing, but they can also become dysfunctional. After the organization was told they needed to change their bylaws, I joined the board and was a part of that process. I wasn’t just throwing daggers at them from the outside – I rolled up my sleeves and worked on the problem. It was tedious and not any fun at all, but we got it done.

    IMHO the City is not taking these issues serious enough. They are serious issues. The most blatant in my opinion is the Jordan Area Community Council. That organization actually has been aware that they are in violation of their Community Participation Agreement with the City and at their last annual meeting had to vote upon the bylaw changes necessary to bring them into compliance. And guess what? They knowingly voted AGAINST making the corrective changes. Some of the best people I know are involved with JACC and were not happy about the outcome of that vote. But a vote is a vote and as an organization, JACC took a decided position not to be in compliance. And guess what? They are still getting funded. The City needs to get serious about suspensions in cases where the violations become so open and intentional IMHO.

  11. Brian Finstad January 23, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    By not making the appropriate funding suspensions when necessary, the city is essentially saying that open and transparent access to community participation is not important and oversight of compliance with contractual obligations regarding public funding is not important. Both of these are not little deals, they are BIG deals in my opinion.

  12. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 24, 2015 at 2:05 am #

    I find this post inspiring, and it makes me want to keep streets.mn going strong. (not even ironic)