NRP Proposal to Address Conflicts, Would Force Choices

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

Monday, October 23, 2000

When Robert Miller was named director of the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) in 1992, he promptly quit as vice president of the Fulton neighborhood group so his loyalties wouldn't be divided.

Now Miller and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, chairman of the NRP's governing board, have proposed a tough new conflict-of-interest policy that would impose higher standards on people involved with NRP -- elected officials, their families and neighborhood leaders alike.

The policy will get its first discussion at today's meeting of the NRP board.

Under the proposal, all NRP board members -- and their family members -- would have to choose between sitting on the NRP board or holding a key position with an NRP-funded neighborhood or other group. Such positions include sitting on the board or working as an employee or contractor. Typically, conflicts arise between a person's role on the NRP or neighborhood association board, and potential financial or other gain on a personal, business or organizational level.

For example, a business owner involved on a neighborhood's board or its NRP committee might apply for a loan or grant to fix up the appearance of the business or expand it. Miller argues that granting such a loan might undermine confidence in the NRP unless there's a procedure to handle such conflicts.

The proposal already is provoking reaction. "It's overkill," said George Garnett, a former NRP board member who wants to rejoin the board and wouldn't be able to under the proposal. He said existing laws handle conflicts sufficiently, by requiring that conflicts be disclosed and that people abstain from board action.

"This is by far the most extreme policy I've seen.

"When people volunteer to improve the city, to turn around and disenfranchise these people makes no sense to me," he said.

The NRP board oversees neighborhoods as they set priorities for and spend their portion of the several hundred million dollars the city devotes to the program, mostly taxes from successful downtown development.

The 19-member board is composed of public officials, including members of the City Council, the Hennepin County Board, the Minneapolis library, park and school boards, and other interest groups. City-recognized neighborhood associations elect four board members plus four alternates.

Too much or just right?

Gretchen Nicholls, a veteran NRP board member, argues that the proposed policy is so far-reaching that it would bar virtually anyone with substantial experience with NRP from serving on its governing board.

But Miller sees it differently. He said it doesn't prohibit people from being neighborhood volunteers or from serving on NRP's board after serving on a neighborhood board. It's intended, he said, to make sure that neighborhood representatives on the NRP board speak for neighborhoods generally, not just their particular neighborhood, another organization they're involved in or for neighborhood employees who are paid with NRP funds.

"We have to model the behavior we want followed," he said.

Under the policy, Nicholls would have to give up several other posts to keep serving on the NRP board. She has been a neighborhood organization president in Loring Park, was board secretary in the Lyndale neighborhood and is running for the board in Seward, where she now lives. She also serves on the board of a nonprofit housing agency that gets NRP money and works for the Minneapolis Center for Neighborhoods, a nonprofit group formed by neighborhood activists that monitors NRP activities.

As an alternative to the proposed policy, some suggest that people with divided loyalties could be forced to abstain from discussing and voting on issues when they declare a conflict. That's how elected officials generally deal with such situations.

Tough decisions

Stenglein himself had to decide whether, given that he was NRP's board chairman, he should seek aid through an NRP home-improvement program in his Logan Park neighborhood. The replacement of his furnace was eligible for the aid, but he decided the political cost would be too high.

The proposed policy sets forth circumstances under which NRP insiders, including politicians and neighborhood leaders, could obtain such aid. They would have to meet eligibility requirements, stay out of the selection process and not use their advance knowledge to jump to the head of the line.

If Garnett succeeds in his bid to rejoin the board as a neighborhood representative, he would face a choice under the proposed policy. He's a consultant to neighborhood and nonprofit groups that get NRP funding. His wife works for the Hawthorne neighborhood. They'd have to give up those activities for him to be a board member.

Conflicting loyalties?

Some point to Garnett's multiple activities as a reason for the policy. For example, several years ago he proposed as a governing board member that a portion of NRP funding be allocated to creating affordable housing. He was also co-chairman of the Minneapolis Consortium of Community Developers, composed of nonprofit organizations that develop housing and undertake other economic development. Garnett said that his resolution didn't earmark the money for any group and that he has abstained from board votes when appropriate.

Although Stenglein and Miller already were moving toward toughening ethics rules for NRP, the board gave them explicit direction to do so after a Star Tribune story last Autumn. The story detailed how an NRP housing subsidy had been used to provide rehab financing for a home purchased by City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, who has served as an NRP board member. That action was OK'd by the city attorney's office under city ethics rules, but an NRP policy prohibiting board members from benefiting from NRP programs wasn't considered.

Cherryhomes often has delegated her NRP board seat to council members who serve as alternates. But she noted that she and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton often are accorded positions on the boards of NRP-funded nonprofit groups by virtue of their city positions. For example, both are on the capital campaign committee for the Urban League, and Cherryhomes' husband is on the league's board.

Steve Brandt can be contacted at sbrandt@startribune.com or 612-673-4438.


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