Friday, July 31, 2009

Has ECCO Crossed the Line?

The controversy over the proposed Lake and Knox development has taken the Uptown area by storm. As one would expect, the NIMBY-dominated neighborhood organizations have banded together to protest the recent Minneapolis Planning Commission ruling in favor of the development. If nothing else, recent neighborhood board activities highlight the dysfunctional nature of these organizations, and the need for real and substantial change in either the role or the implementation of neighborhood board activities. The recent allegations over ECCO’s recent activities are a good case study.

First, some background. The ECCO board previously voted to oppose the project due to concerns about height. It was not a unanimous decision, and several recent debates (including several letters and commentaries in the Uptown Neighborhood News) have led to heightened tensions at the board level. A difference in opinion in itself is not a bad thing; neighborhood residents seldom share the same view on something, and it’s only reasonable that the board members would also have differing ideas.

Fast forward to July. The Planning Commission met, approved the project, Lara Norkus-Crampton resigned in protest, and the NIMBYs rose up to declare the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP) dead. The neighborhood boards and nine individuals are appealing the decision. This, however, is where things in ECCO get complicated and possibly cross both ethical and legal lines. Nancy Ward, ECCO’s board president, sent an email to ECCO board members asking if they would support an appeal, and, if so, would they be willing to contribute ECCO funds to do so. (I should note right here that I am not on the ECCO board, have never been on the ECCO board, and have not seen the email in question. If someone has the text and understands the situation differently, feel free to add your comments below.) It was not couched as a formal vote, and was never formally debated, discussed, or approved. A slim majority of respondents were favorable to the appeal, and the board (or at least a few members of the board) moved forward.

Assuming the allegations are true, this should be taken seriously by both the city and the neighborhood. ECCO is a nonprofit organization, and as such is expected to abide by certain laws and regulations. There is no excuse for ignoring legal obligations or for failing to follow the organization’s own bylaws. The bylaws, for example, state that “any action that may be taken at a meeting of directors may be taken without a meeting if authorized in writing and signed by all the directors.” An informal email poll hardly qualifies. The bylaws also clearly state “only the ECCO board of directors may make a binding commitment for the ECCO area.” An informal, non-binding email non-vote is clearly not sufficient.

There are many problems at play here. Local neighborhood boards are grassroots politics at the micro-level. ECCO’s own bylaws also state that one of their objectives is to “act as a spokesperson for the ECCO neighborhood before city boards, commissions, etc. and as otherwise needed.” If the ECCO board is going to assume that responsibility, and if the city and state are going to recognize it as speaking for the neighborhood, then it need to follow the rules.

I have little hope that the issues facing Uptown neighborhood boards will ever going to be fully fixed, but there are some potential actions that could help alleviate some of the problems. An open letter of suggestions for current and potential board members:

Take board membership seriously. A board is not just a social club or even a group of like-minded neighborhood activists meeting to discuss local issues. Boards have legal obligations, and as a director or trustee a member of the board it is your responsibility to know the law, as well as to read and understand (and follow!) your board’s bylaws. ECCO is a “duly authorized nonprofit organization under the laws of the State of Minnesota,” as ECCO’s own bylaws remind board members and residents. That status comes with rights and regulations. Board members – and especially officers – need to be conversant with their bylaws, and to fully understand just what they’re taking on when they join a board.

Board education is key. Obviously there are a lot of board members out there who quite possibly have never even read their own bylaws. Bylaws are boring. I understand that; I have plenty of personal experience both serving on boards, answering directly to boards, and attending board meetings as a non-voting participant. Still, every new board member should receive adequate orientation before assuming the mantle of “director” or “trustee.”

Boards shouldn’t ethically be allowed to speak as the “voice” of a neighborhood unless improvements are made. I don’t know about the legal issues involved, but if an Uptown-area board consists almost entirely of white, middle-class, middle-aged homeowners then I think it’s safe to say there are some potential problems. You can’t make people participate, and there’s no reason why a white, middle-class, middle-age homeowner can’t also take into account the potentially different needs of a young renter or an old renter subsisting on social security checks. Still, boards need to take a more active role when it comes to adding board diversity. A nominations committee should focus on outreach efforts, and the board as a whole should work to address the issue of lack of representation.

Board members are public officials, and need to be treated as such. If board members are going to assume representative powers then the residents – all residents (or eligible stakeholders) – in the neighborhood need to know just who these people are and where they stand on relevant issues. Realistically not all (or even many) residents are going to pay any attention to this, but neighborhood organizations could at the very least post candidate statements on websites prior to neighborhood elections, publish them (as paid advertisements, if necessary) in the relevant local neighborhood newspapers, and send them out via email.

Boards need to acknowledge their weaknesses. I’ve read and heard statements to the effect that if you don’t care enough to participate yourself, then you have no right to complain. I think this is hogwash. It is the boards’ duty to think about the needs of all residents, participants or not. It would be nice if everyone in the community could and wanted to participate in local issues, but that’s not the reality. That in no way means that the needs of non-participants do not matter. A good board acknowledges both its strengths and its weaknesses, and endeavors to consider the needs of the broader community.

Accountability is a good thing. Politics are obviously not perfect, and board members should be able to vote based on their conscience, not due to fears of political repercussions. But board members do need to be reminded that their decisions can have a significant impact on the development of the neighborhood. If, for example, a board member does something in his or her board capacity that is unethical or illegal or otherwise violates the public’s trust, then he or she needs to be held accountable for that action. Similarly, even if an action does not violate ethics – CARAG President Aaron Rubenstein’s comments in the Southwest Journal about the “very significant, long-term damage” to the Uptown Small Area Plan by the Planning Commission, for example – neighborhood residents should be aware of just what it is that their neighborhood representatives are saying on their behalf, and be prepared to boot those officials out of their board membership role if they decide that those opinions do not, in fact, represent the view of the neighborhood.

To bring this back to the situation in ECCO, it sounds like things are pretty seriously amiss if the allegations hold true. Bylaws and regulations aren’t perfect, but they are an attempt to protect people from potential misuse of power. In this particular case the NIMBYs are in the position of power; if the political makeup changes in the future and they represent a minority of board members then they, too, will appreciate why there are checks and balances in place to keep a few activists from making all of the important decisions. This is democracy at the micro-level, and it can only work if residents – and board members – take it seriously. If ECCO has indeed run amiss of ethics and the law then it’s time for a major shakeup, potentially a board recall, or at the very least some major internal soul-searching.

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