John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Planning Commission

As part of educating myself about how city governance works, I plan to attend at least one meeting of each of Maplewood's resident boards and commissions. Maplewood citizens are appointed by the city council to serve on these bodies. They study issues and provide advice to the city council, and in some cases have additional statutory responsibilities (such as the Police Civil Service Commission's role in police department personnel decisions).

Last week I attended the latest meeting of the Planning Commission. I took notes, and they're now available on Maplewood Voices. On the whole the meeting seemed very well run and uncontroversial. I was impressed by the diligence that the commissioners put into this volunteer work — going out to visit the site of a proposed development that they were discussing at this meeting, for example — and the respect that they showed each other and the city staff.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Getting Published

I often joke that I've never had a real job. I started down the self-employment path in high school, and apart from a handful of part-time jobs in college, that's what it's been for more than twenty years for me.

When I got back from Ireland in 1981, my friend Matt introduced me to a game that had become all the rage in the 6th grade while I was away: Dungeons & Dragons. This wonderful game was like gasoline on the creative flames that Irish castles and history books had kindled, and led to a lot of my adolescence being spent writing up fantastic adventures for the imaginary heroes my brother and neighborhood friends made up. Around the age 14, it dawned upon me that I was putting quite a lot of time into this hobby, and I wondered if I could find a way to make money from doing it as well.

(I'd always had an interest in business. Sometime under age 10 I devised a plan to buy bulk bubble gum balls from the grocery store up the street and sell them individually to kids on our block. Despite a mathematically sound business plan, this venture failed to turn a profit. I eventually realized that my little brother and business partner was eating the inventory...)

I learned about freelance writing and submitting articles and stories to magazines, and realized that one advantage of submitting manuscripts by mail to strangers is that the people reading them can't know that you're not old enough to shave.

I worked hard, took the many inevitable rejections in stride, and learned everything I could from the helpful suggestions of editors to improve my work. When requested, I revised and resubmitted material. The perseverence paid off – not long before my 16th birthday, I got my first acceptance letter and a contract to buy one of my articles. The article appeared in print in April 1986, and I was officially a professional writer.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Maplewood Anniversary Kick Off

This afternoon, Maplewood kicks off the celebration of its 50th anniversary. The event will be at the Maplewood Community Center from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM. I can't be there because I'm out of town today, but if you can make it, it sounds like a great opportunity to meet folks from all over Maplewood, learn about Maplewood's history, and eat some cake!

I know folks on the Historic Preservation Commission have been working hard to coordinate this event and more coming throughout the year. You can find a schedule of the planned celebrations on the city website.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Gladstone: The TIF Tiff

What's going on with Gladstone and tax increment financing? The council majority is sending contradictory signals to two different groups. On the one hand, some citizens who oppose the use of TIF have been reassured at various times that it's off the table. On the other, the development plan for the Lake Phalen Estates (the former site of the Saint Paul Tourist Cabins) is structured around a significant amount of TIF money, and the council has been unwilling to come out and tell the developer to draw up plans that don't assume some public money.

Someone is being misled. Is it the citizens or the developer?

Last summer, council member Erik Hjelle voiced a clear position on TIF. He wrote (you can find this in the council packet of the 6/26/06 workshop, page 97):

Tourist cabins. I will not support any TIF for this project. A builder/developer should not need any enticements to build on lakeshore that is 10 minutes from downtown. This is not negotiable for me.

In an August 8th commentary in the Maplewood-Ramsey County Review, Hjelle rejected claims that Gladstone redevelopment was in limbo. He touted the plan for the cabins site as “a proposal to build a 150+ unit Class A development at the St. Paul Tourist Cabin site with $0 public financing.” And again Hjelle touted the no-public-subsidy aspect of the project in the City News of September 2006.

At the Mayor's Forum on February 3rd, one of the mayor's supporters asked if there would be a taxpayer subsidy for this development. Mayor Longrie said there was no tax increment financing approved for it. City Manager Copeland said an application for TIF had been received, and would be reviewed at an upcoming council workshop.

I made a data practices request to the City of Maplewood to get a copy of the audio recording, to make sure I got her words right. Here is what she said:

He can certainly apply. I mean, we haven't said that nobody can apply. I mean, anybody can apply. But one of the guiding principles of the Gladstone redevelopment plan was indeed that TIF was not encouraged or looked upon favorably. So that was one of the guiding principles that the council also voted on, so I mean that gives you an idea of, I mean, there's always, with anything there's always, you know, people can present proposals, and we look at our guiding principles that we've already enacted and what is our public policy. And certainly I can tell you that my public policy, from my perspective, is that I think being ten minutes from the capitol – gosh, that's prime land all by itself. It doesn't need my help. But that's just me.

(You can download an audio clip of the mayor saying this — it's an MP3 file, about 1 MB).

While she parsed her words very carefully, the mayor left forum attendees with a sense of reassurance that TIF was not going to be used on this project. At the least, she implied that she opposed TIF for this specific development.

Two days later, the developer in question was in front of the council for a workshop. Numerous times and in several different ways, the developer and city staff gave the council an opportunity to express their principles and public policy philosophy when it came to TIF and this project. Each time, the mayor evaded the question. She repeatedly said that the council doesn't take action at workshops, but what the developer wanted was not a decision but rather a frank discussion of the public policy values of the council members in this open meeting.

Someone is being misled. Either it is the citizens, who are being reassured that taxpayer dollars won't be spent to subsidize this project on lakefront property so close to the heart of the metro; or it's the developer, who is being asked to invest thousands in a study and much more in planning, working from a blueprint that assumes some level of assistance from TIF.

It seems to me that this is the wrong way to govern. If you have concluded, a priori, that a plan on this site should be able to succeed without TIF, why not be straight with the developer? Tell him the truth up front, and let him build his financial plan around that reality. Don't lead him to waste a whole lot of money preparing a course of action that would require you to violate your policy principles.

On the other hand, if the council majority is truly open to TIF — as opposed to just worrying that if they say no, they might scare the developer away and lose the $1.8 million Met Council grant they are so proud of, or the park fees from the development that are earmarked for the Gladstone Savannah — then they should spend some time acting like leaders, persuading the public that it's an idea worth considering. Then, if they do decide to create a TIF district, it won't come as a shock to people who have been promised that it will never happen.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Police Civil Service Protections

One of the council majority's gravest mistakes of the past year, in my opinion, was the firing of Deputy Police Chief John Banick. This action not only displays a disregard for process, it constitutes an attack on the institutional checks-and-balances of city government.

State law grants Police Civil Service Commissions authority over the hiring, promotion, discipline, and termination of police department employees. While the city council sets the budget and organization of the department, it is prevented from making decisions about which specific individuals are promoted, demoted, hired, or fired.

The obvious purpose of this is to insulate law enforcement from political pressures. Imagine a city where every police officer knew his job was directly subject to the city council. In most cases, people would do the right thing and this wouldn't matter. But in some cases, a police officer might feel pressured not to enforce the law in one situation (say, not to arrest a friend or relative of a council member), or to overstep his authority in another (perhaps to harass an opponent of the council majority). The state has wisely defined the role of Police Civil Service Commissions to assure citizens that the police will enforce the law equally on all.

The current Maplewood regime has decided they stand above that law. In their view, as argued by their attorneys, the council's authority to manage the city's budget and organization trumps the PCSC. There was only one position in the department with the deputy chief's pay grade. Thus, the city said that their reorganization meant that he in specific had to be terminated, and the PCSC was irrelevant.

Why would they want to remove this specific officer? I attended a court hearing in January about this case. At the hearing, Banick's attorney argued that the firing was retaliatory. Among other things, Banick had been assigned to conduct the background check on the city manager, Mr. Copeland, who was nominated by the mayor and approved by the council majority. This background check raised questions about Mr. Copeland's suitability for his job, and thus embarassed the council majority and Mr. Copeland. (Some of that report is in the public record, and can be found at Maplewood Voices.) If what Banick's lawsuit alleges is true, this is exactly the kind of situation that the PCSC was created to prevent — retaliation against a police officer for doing his job, when the results were not what the current political regime wants.

The president of the Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police regards this situation as so serious that he wrote to the Maplewood Police Civil Service Commision, saying his organization is "committed to expending vast resources in support of his case at the state and national level should that become necessary." If this precedent allows city politicians to circumvent a PCSC and fire specific officers by means of budgets and reorganizations, it is a threat to police officers everywhere who are committed to applying the law with an even hand.

The judge at the hearing in January observed that, regardless of whether it was retaliatory, it seemed obvious that Banick termination was improper, because it did not respect the process for handling police personnel matters set down by law. (Indeed, since then the PCSC met and ordered the city to reinstate Banick in the department at a lower rank.) This gives me hope that common sense will prevail, the council majority's ill-considered action will be overturned in court, and the role of the Police Civil Service Commission will be reaffirmed.

Still, that leaves us with a council majority that took this path, in spite of warnings; defended their action; and remains defiant even today, as far as I can tell, refusing to acknowledge the PCSC's authority. I don't know if they'll have the sense to settle the matter rather than fighting in court to the bitter end. What I do know is that we need a new council majority with the common sense to respect the law, understand the limits of their own power, and not lead our city down a path like this in the first place.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Arbitrary Rules, Misleading Data

At the December 11th, 2006, city council meeting, I spoke twice. I didn't go to the meeting with any plan to talk — these comments were just provoked by events at the meeting. The clip below, my first trip to the podium, took place during visitor presentations.

The first visitor to speak that evening had been an attorney, warning that the council's planned action, to fire his client (a highly respected, 20+ year veteran of the police force) simply by eliminating his position in the 2007 budget, ran afoul of state law and civil service protections. When he offered to respond to any questions from the council (since the budget was up for a vote this evening), the mayor told him, "We don't have exchange of dialogue at visitor presentations."

This was a rule I had never heard before. In fact, I had witnessed dialogue in the visitor presentations at many previous council meetings. I even had notes on my laptop from some of those meetings, recording who the dialogue was with and what it was about.

Obviously, this attorney raised uncomfortable issues and the council majority didn't want to talk with him. So Mayor Logrie pulled a new rule out of thin air and used it to send him away, or she dredged up a previously ignored rule and decided to enforce it just then because it suited her.

There are two things that really bugged me about this.

First, creating or enforcing rules in this kind of arbitrary manner offends my notion of the rule of law and a basic respect for process. We have enshrined in our Constitution (Article I, Section 9, paragraph 3) that "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law will be passed." You don't make up rules after the fact, and you don't make up rules to single out and punish a specific individual. And you shouldn't enforce rules only on the people you don't like.

Second, this was completely unnecessary! The mayor could have said, "We choose not to respond to you." Simple! Instead, she conjured a hitherto unknown rule, as though to persuade the audience that she's as much a victim of circumstances as this attorney and his client.

This incident may seem trivial. Unfortunately, it illustrates a pattern we have seen repeatedly with this council majority — making up, selectively enforcing, or misinterpreting rules so that they can feign helplessness while enacting their agenda. They also have a related talent for ignoring rules, like those civil service laws, when the constraints don't suit their purposes.

Anyhow, I decided to call attention to the novelty of this rule, and suggest that if it is indeed a rule they should formalize it and apply it to everyone.

Then I discussed a completely different topic — a very misleading salary "study" that the city manager had published in the November city newsletter. He felt compelled to publish the salaries of half of the members of a newly formed city employee bargaining unit, the Maplewood Confidential and Supervisory Association. The speaker before me had waved a copy of this article, while expressing outrage at the salaries and apparently huge increases demanded by this new union. I believe the city manager was trying to elicit citizen outrage like this, to use against the city employees who had recently asserted their right to organize.

There were all kinds of things wrong with this deceptive work of propaganda (note, if you look at the fine print, that the table compares salary alone in 2006 to salary plus benefits in 2007, for example). I wanted to focus on one simple and amusing observation — that its big claim is basically that half of this group of employees had above-average salaries. How surprising is that?

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Saturday, February 17, 2007


When I wrote about growing up a couple of days ago, I left out a very important year of my childhood. In 1980, my family moved to Ireland. My dad was taking a sabbatical, and then teaching in St. Scholastica's study abroad program on Ireland's west coast in the spring. My mom was getting her Montessori elementary certification in Dublin. Thus I spent a very impressionable year surrounded by Irish culture, thousands of years of enchanting Irish ruins, and going to an Irish school, where there was an intense focus on creative writing and history. (Is it any wonder Ireland has turned out so many great writers?)

In 2004, my dad went to Ireland again for the same teaching program. Michelle and I took the opportunity to return to the Emerald Isle (she had visited it briefly in college when she was studying in London for a semester). We flew to Dublin with my mother and one of our nieces. My dad met us there, and we all bundled into a tiny European rental car and drove across the island and back, visiting many places I remembered fondly from my childhood.

On one day of this trip, Michelle and I hiked to the top of Croagh Patrick, a traditional pilgrimage destination amidst the rugged landscape of County Mayo. Here's a picture of us after our hike, with the mountain behind us.


New Meeting Notes

John has two new sets of meeting notes up today ...

City Council 02-12-07
Gethsemane Workshop 02-12-07

You can see all of his notes at

Friday, February 16, 2007

Dec. 18th Visitor Presentation

As I suggested a couple days ago, Maplewood needs a seasoned, professional city manager, who can effectively manage the city and implement the council's directives. Launching a search for such an individual needs to be the first priority of a new council.

For most of 2006, the council's stated intention was to undertake such a search. However, the council majority decided instead to make the interim manager permanent (on a 3-1 vote with one member on a planned absence). On December 18th, I went to the city council visitor presentations with prepared remarks, to ask them to restart the search process. Here is a video of my presentation.

(If you have problems playing this as it downloads, I recommend clicking on the Pause button and letting the whole video load before you click Play again.)


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Growing Up

This website is a way to introduce myself to the voters of Maplewood, so in some entries I'll be talking about my life. I may as well start at the beginning!

I was born in Milwaukee in 1969. Before I was a year old my family moved to Duluth, where my father had gotten a job teaching at the College of St. Scholastica. In Duluth I attended the Carmel Heights Montessori preschool, Holy Rosary School, and then the Duluth Cathedral School, where I graduated second in my class. (My class, 1987, was the last to graduate under the Cathedral name; it is now known as the Marshall School.) Among other things, I lettered in two sports (track and cross country skiing), was a member of the Knowledge Bowl team (state champions, my senior year), and a National Merit Scholar. Thanks to another scholarship I was a member of the first sister-city delegation between Duluth and Petrozavodsk, which gave me a chance to visit the Soviet Union before it dissolved (and get ticketed for jaywalking in Moscow!). I am the middle child of five, with three sisters and one brother. Both of my parents are teachers: my father is a professor of philosophy (ethics is his specialty), and my mother founded the Montessori School of Duluth, where she is the principal and an elementary teacher. It's not a surprise that I've had a life-long love of learning and education. My mother tells me my first word was "book."

Growing up in northeastern Minnesota made me a lover of nature. My family bought a “rustic” log cabin on a lake up north of Duluth in the early '70s. “Rustic” here is a code word for “no indoor toilet” -- today we still rely on an outhouse. Many fond childhood memories are of days spent at that cabin – hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, fishing, gathering berries and making jam, pretending to be Robin Hood with a bow and arrow, and making our own toys out of strange and wonderful objects that had been left behind by the blacksmith who built the place in the 1930s.

My childhood also included many trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, canoeing in summer and even skiing and camping on frozen lakes in winter. My parents taught me the importance of protecting and preserving nature, as well as the responsibilities we had as visitors (such as not to leave trash behind).

One of the reasons Michelle and I chose our Maplewood home in 2001 is the presence of so many trees and lakes, which remind me of my childhood. I still love the North Woods, and find comfort in its beauty and solitude. After more than thirty years, the sunsets seen from the cabin's dock still take my breath away.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What's My Motivation?

Why am I running for office? The short answer is that I have concluded that Maplewood city governance is broken, and I believe I can help fix it.

Over the coming months, this website is meant to explore the long answer to that question, but let me kick things off with some general observations.

I know that political candidates often have laundry lists of things they want to do — support this project, oppose that one, cut these taxes, raise those fees, cut that budget, etc. There's a place for that, but I think in the current Maplewood situation the problems run much deeper. Until we restore some competence and a basic respect for process at the top of city government, none of those policy debates really matter.

Let me give you an example: the firing of Deputy Chief John Banick. Set aside the policy question of whether or not the deputy police chief's position belongs in our police department. Whether by choice or ignorance, the city did not follow its own written policy concerning job eliminations, and it did not respect state law with regard to role of the Police Civil Service Commission. As a result, the city is embroiled in a completely unnecessary lawsuit, which we appear certain to lose.

We've seen many more examples over the last year, and I'll talk about some of them in the future. For now, let me suggest that we need to restore professional management and a respect for process at the top. That can only happen by changing the council majority, and by hiring a competent and professional city manager capable of executing its will effectively. Then we will be in a position to engage in meaningful debates about the policy details.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Starting Block

The rumors are true — I am running for Maplewood City Council.

Over the past year a number of people have suggested that I should run. They've included fellow Maplewood residents, assorted politicians, members of the current council, and a few complete strangers. I thought about it, and I decided this is something I want to do.

Why would I want to do this? Well, that's a good question that deserves its own entry!

For now, this note is just the starting block of my race. I want to welcome you to my website; thank Michelle, my beautiful and multi-talented wife, for setting it up; and invite you to come back often, as we add more material and I do my best to persuade you to vote for me in November as a positive alternative for Maplewood's future.


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