John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wood Smoke, Continued

So, what is the wood smoke task force doing? I had some idea of what they would be talking about when we approved its formation (Erik Hjelle offered the motion to authorize the task force, I seconded it, and the council approved it unanimously at our Feb. 25, 2008 meeting). This past Wednesday, Nov. 19th, I went to observe their latest meeting.

The group represents a wide range of opinion, and was trying to establish points of consensus. There was an audience full of people turned out by the false rumors of a ban on wood fires, which the task force was quick to refute. The task force moved ahead to agree on these points:

Education: There was a consensus that the biggest problem is a matter of resident education about existing rules for wood fires, and techniques for more efficient wood burning. Residents may also not be aware of existing programs (such as tax credits) available to help offset the cost of replacing older, less-efficient wood heating appliances with newer ones. For any kind of wood burning, "less efficient" means "more smoke," because wood smoke is the product of incomplete combustion.

Ordinance Clarification: The task force seemed to agree that the current recreational fire ordinance could use clarification. An example point of confusion was the issue of lumber -- either the current ordinance bans things that perhaps should be OK to burn (say, clean and dry pieces of cedar from a demolished deck), or fails to stop the burning of hazardous things (such as treated lumber scrap).

Other Code Updates: There was some discussion about whether the council should recommend adopting EPA ratings standards as a requirement for new installations of wood furnaces. It seemed to me that this may or not be in their final recommendation.

I am grateful to all of the task force members who are willing to volunteer their time to look at these issues and help find common ground for recommendations that can improve the health and happiness of Maplewood's residents.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wood Smoke

The city has received many phone calls and e-mails in recent weeks about the wood smoke task force, and fears that there will be a ban on wood fires in Maplewood.

No law has been proposed to ban wood fires in Maplewood, recreational or otherwise. I wouldn't support such a ban, I don't believe anyone on the city council would support it, and the wood smoke task force would never propose it in the first place.

The rumor mill has been going wild on this issue, and anonymous persons have been printing and distributing misleading flyers to residents in south Maplewood. Apparently some talk radio programs have also been helping spread misinformation, and a recent newspaper letter to the editor tries to further fan the flames of panic.

Perhaps the disinformation campaign for next year's city elections is starting already.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Sen. Wiger Surveys Our Lakes

The latest legislative update from Maplewood's state senator, Chuck Wiger, includes succinct and informative write-ups about the conditions of lakes in Maplewood, North Saint Paul, and Oakdale. If you're not on Sen. Wiger's mailing list, I encourage you to download the update from the senate website and take a look.


Open Space Protection

Today's Pioneer Press includes an article on the topic of protecting Maplewood's open spaces. I have a related item on the agenda for next week's council meeting.

The article states, "While still owning the land, the city would grant an easement to a conservation organization that would monitor the land and enforce any land restrictions. The restrictions also would be binding on future owners of the land."

Note the term "future owners." Conservation easements do not in any way prevent the city from selling land. On the contrary, they are the kind of thing you put on land when you expect it to have different owners in the future.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Budget Options

As we move toward finalizing the city's 2009 budget, the city council and staff have been looking at options for reducing the increase in the tax levy. Some broad options were discussed back in September when we set the maximum levy (the 6% potential increase that shows up on your truth-in-taxation statement). At our November 3rd workshop, staff presented a number of more detailed scenarios, from the full 6% down to a zero percent increase, with the manager's recommendation being a 3% increase. I've extracted the relevant portion of that meeting packet, so you can see the details.

The council asked for more details on the impact on a department-by-department basis if we went with the zero percent increase scenario. That information has been provided in the packet for the upcoming Monday council meeting; again, I've extracted the relevant pages, for folks who don't want to download the full 152-page meeting packet from the city website.

If you have thoughts about these budget options, now is a good time to share your views with the city council (you can e-mail us all at once at I take it as a given that nobody likes higher taxes per se -- what is much more helpful is to know what people are willing to give up, in terms of level of service, in order to see lower taxes.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Priory Preserve Politics

The mayor's column in the November city newsletter (page 5) again promoted her proposal of conservation easements for city parks and open space. I think it's interesting to contrast her account of a Parks Commission meeting with the draft minutes.

For example, while playing up the 4-4 split vote about the Priory, she doesn't even mention that another conservation easement was discussed under the very same agenda item, for Jim's Prairie -- and that the commission unanimously agreed not to recommend that easement. That pesky fact might undermine her dishonest political argument, which has been to suggest that questioning the appropriateness of conservation easements means you must want to see our Neighborhood Preserves sold to developers. (Remember the fear-mongering in last year's election campaign?)

In reality, as the minutes make clear, there are plenty of other reasons to question conservation easements on public land, starting with the cost. The city has already sunk about $8,000 on outside consultants, plus many hours of staff time, on this idea that the mayor has been pushing for the past two years. Proceeding with the easements would mean spending another $25,000. It sounds to me like some on the Parks Commission would rather see the money spent directly on restoration and management of our open spaces, rather than funding the mayor's political gambit.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Maplewood Makeover

I just noticed that the redesign of the Maplewood city website is now live. I haven't had a chance to check it out in detail yet, but my first impression is very positive.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Truth in Taxation Notices Arriving

Truth in taxation notices are starting to arrive in local mailboxes, and ours was here today. I've been very curious to see this, the first time I've gotten one since joining the council, to see what our potential maximum tax levy works out to on the bottom line for a homeowner.

In September we set our maximum levy at a 6% increase. We can reduce this further, but we can't increase it, in our final budget meetings in December. At our last budget workshop, staff indicated that they were recommending cuts that would lower the increase to 3%.

The levy has a complicated relationship to an individual property owner's tax bill. We actually set a dollar figure as the levy, and then a state-determined formula is used to apportion those total taxes among property owners, according to classes of property (businesses, homes) and individual property values as assessed by the county (some may increase in value one year while others decrease).

For our home's taxes, the assessed value of our property declined 5.5%. This is pretty well in line with what we heard was typical across Maplewood -- declines in value of about 6% for residential properties. If the city went with the maximum levy (as the truth in taxation notice assumes), the city portion of our property taxes would rise just 1.6%, which already is less than inflation. If we go with the staff recommendation of a 3% levy increase (or lower) versus the maximum 6%, I'm betting it will mean our final city tax bill will be lower in 2009 than 2008, and that would be true for most Maplewood homeowners.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

My Ballot

This is a big election year, as you may have heard. While the media focuses on the “headline” races, such as President and Senator, there are actually twenty-one choices to make on my precinct's ballot. In some Maplewood precincts, with school board races, there are even more races to be decided.

If you're like me, in many years you've gone into the voting booth only to wonder, “Who the heck are all these people?” Not this year – I'm determined to examine the candidates in every race, and figure out ahead of Tuesday who I'm going to vote for.

A big help in this regard is the Star Tribune's website, and its “My Vote” feature. Enter your address and ZIP code, and it'll tell you your polling place and which races are on your ballot. Click on the candidate names to see the profiles that the candidates themselves filled out for the Star Tribune (which often include links to candidate websites).

What follows are the results of my own homework on contested races in the non-partisan portion of the ballot, including the referendum question.

Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage, and Natural Areas (Constitutional Amendment)
Somewhat reluctantly, I am planning to vote in favor of this amendment. As a matter of principle, I think a constitutional amendment is a lousy way to set spending priorities. I am also no fan of reliance on sales tax, because of its regressivity. On the other hand, as a practical matter, this amendment would provide desperately needed funding for all these areas. The need has only become more apparent to me from my experience on the city council. In general terms, these are areas where investments are for the long term, which makes it too easy in the legislative process for them to get cut or delayed in each year's budget process at every level of government. Tomorrow's generations rarely have as loud a voice as those who want lower taxes today. I remain conflicted, but at this point, my inner pragmatist is winning the argument.

County Commissioner
I enthusiastically support the re-election of Victoria Reinhardt for County Commissioner. I even wrote a letter to the Maplewood Review endorsing her in September.

Conservation District Supervisor, District 2
As far as I can tell, of the three candidates for this seat, only David Bogue has a website, albeit not much of one. He's also the only one of the three who answered a questionnaire from the Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts. His Star Tribune profile suggests he has good qualifications in terms of an education in environmental studies, professional experience with water quality and habitat restoration, and volunteer activities. He seems like a good pick, so I plan to vote for him.

Conservation District Supervisor, District 3
This race has some “interesting” candidates, including former Maplewood City Manager Greg Copeland; and an incumbent, Jill Wilkinson, who who reportedly embezzled money from the Libertarian Party when she served as its treasurer.

I plan to vote for Mara Magnuson Humphrey.

Supreme Court, Associate Justice 3
Incumbent Paul Anderson was appointed in 1994 by Gov. Arne Carlson. The supporters listed on his website are an impressive and bipartisan roster, with luminaries such as Democratic former Vice President Walter Mondale and Republican former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger giving Anderson their seal of approval.

From reviewing the website of challenger Tim Tingelstad, I come away with the impression that he wishes both to subordinate our laws and constitution to his interpretation of the Bible, and to increase the role of politics and partisanship in the selection of judges. An article in The Minnesota Independent corroborates that impression. If there's one thing history teaches us about the Bible, it's that different people and sects read some very different things in its pages, and I have no desire to see our court system turned into a venue for debating interpretations of scripture.

Anderson has my vote.

Supreme Court, Associate Justice 4
Incumbent Lorie Skjerven Gildea was appointed to this seat by Gov. Pawlenty in 2006. The names I immediately recognize on her list of supporters skew toward the right (such as Sarah Janacek of Politics in Minnesota and John Hinderaker of conservative blog Power Line). I also see former Chief Justices Kathleen Blatz, Russell Anderson, and Sandy Keith on the list. And on the DFL side, I do see former Speaker of the House Phil Carruthers, and former Attorney General Mike Hatch.

Her opponent, Hennepin County Judge Deborah Hedlund, recently won herself some media attention by hitting reply-all on a message she sent, appearing to agree with an e-mail suggesting that Muslims can't be good Americans. As the Minnesota Independent reports, this isn't the first time she has been controversial in her time on the bench.

Interestingly, I see that Gildea authored the majority opinion in Wensmann v. City of Eagan, also known as the Carriage Hills Golf case, in 2007. This was an important land use case, with implications for recent Maplewood situations such as the CoPar litigation and the question of the “park” comp plan designation for Gethsemane Lutheran Church's land.

I am comfortable voting to re-elect Gildea.

Court of Appeals, Judge 16
Terri J. Stoneburner was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2000 and then re-elected in 2002. Supporters listed on her website include former governors Wendell Anderson (DFL) and Arne Carlson (R), among others across the partisan spectrum. Notable in her website Q&A is the statement that Judge Stoneburner “is concerned about those who seek to introduce partisan politics or religious or issue-specific tests into the judicial selection process.”

Her opponent, Dan Griffith, is another judicial candidate who wants the judicial races more politicized. An article in the Minnesota Independent describes Griffith as “a right-wing evangelical Christian who would make rulings based on his faith.” (I'm seeing a trend among this year's judicial challengers ...)

I will vote for Judge Stoneburner.

Ramsey County District Court, Judge 21
This is an open judicial seat, with candidates Howard Orenstein and Gail Chang Bohr. Both have impressive resumes, impressive endorsements, and appear to have worked hard in campaigning for the spot. I've seen their volunteers out dropping lit, and have received mailings from both campaigns. Both campaigns, as far as I have seen, have been upbeat and focused on the positive attributes of their candidates. (The Minnesota Lawyer Blog says of the recent Orenstein/Bohr candidate forum, that though the "race is one of the tightest of any district court race in the state, the tone of the forum was cordial.")

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, I have yet to make up my mind between them. To be perfectly honest, my impression is that they'd both make great judges. I guess being uncertain whom to pick between two great candidates isn't such a bad place to find oneself in a democracy.

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