Mr. Ferdig Goes to City Hall

Just before Christmas, I visited the mayor’s office here in Minneapolis. You ever visit your mayor? You might want to try it sometime. 🙂 Here’s what happened, and here’s a post about advocacy, those who advocate, and the process of seeing policy change.

It all started when a friend of mine got a traffic ticket. She was unaware of the “moving over a lane” law when a cop is alongside the road. No doubt she broke the law, but they fined her more than a day’s wage, and she’s the kind of person who would’ve learned from her mistake if the policeman simply informed her of the law.

But as she drove away she saw she wasn’t alone as two other cars were pulled over within a stone’s throw of where she got nabbed. This always seems fishy as we all know local governments rely on fines and tickets to satisfy budgets.

In the end, we don’t know if the cop pulled Rachel over for reasons of safety or financial gain, and having to wonder isn’t good, because it creates a wedge between the citizens and law enforcement.

So my idea was simple, don’t use ticket and fine revenues for budgets. The temptation gives law enforcement an incentive to think about money rather than safety, and it actually gives local governments a reason to need people, to want people, to break the law. Sounds like a bad set up to me.

So I decided to talk to the mayor. (And honestly, I fantasized about him thinking my idea genius and a no-brainer to implement.) I requested a meeting and heard back via email. The mayor’s secretary asked me to come to his monthly “open house”, a window for any citizen to come get some face time with the ace of Minneapolis.

When I got to his office some days later, I saw I wasn’t alone. About 8 other folks would come this day to take advantage of the Open House.

Waiting for their voices to be heard

What kind of people actually take the time to visit the mayor? Who’s so motivated to take time off work, or their lunch, or any deviation from the normal day? Well it turns out a few varieties of folk make up the brood.

The lady in black, she had stories to tell and some wisdom to dispense. She came from a tough upbringing and a lot of life lived. And today she was here to give the mayor a piece of her wisdom. She was a bit bitter because services she relied on are getting cut.

The gentleman in the center was a talkative man. He entertained the room with questions and comments in a loose and goofy manner that honestly had me wondering what was mixed with his cola in that over-sized cup he carried with him. He had the mayor’s secretary print off Christmas cards for the mayor and his staff and handed out coupons to them for free pizzas. Merry Christmas. Ultimately, he was there because he wanted to give the mayor some ideas about how to build the new Vikings stadium.

Then there was the duo of Mom-n-son.

Not your average mom and son activity

It seemed nice to have Mom supporting her boy—the lady in black made that point known—as he came to voice his concerns to the mayor. He said he was an “environmentalist” and wanted to ban single-use plastic bags in the city. “The kind of bags you see laying all over”, he told me.

Lastly, I talked to one more fella–a white thirty-something with glasses, goatee, and dark, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. He seemed the advocate type and was grudging about the KMart *on* Nicollet Avenue, literally. It was built upon and now interrupts this nice road that would go from downtown Minneapolis clean to Burnsville, but for this roadblock. There’s some story behind how it got built that he said involved shenanigans, and it doesn’t hurt his cause that the building is pretty ugly. He wants this KMart to pay for some outdoor artwork at a park adjacent to the rear of the store. That, and ultimately he’d just like to see the building be razed.

It’s all so interesting, the reasons we advocate, because we feel impassioned about a topic, strong that we are doing the right thing. Yet the thing is, many people disagree with your “right thing”. How can that be—if you feel something is so right in your heart and yet it offends someone? What does that say about the little voices we’re supposed to follow? The gut instincts? Even our morals and conscious? This scenario brought to light the truth that “right” has a subjective element to it.

As well, it brought to light the idea that the mayor’s job is tough, and that it must take a good amount of concern for the city (or state or country) and/or love of power to keep politicians running for office.

But now let’s get down to brass tacks.

I was asked to enter one of the conference rooms within his office while he finished hearing out another citizen. Here’s what it looked like when Mayor Rybak heard mom and son’s concerns about those darn plastic bags:

The mayor's aide, to his left, took notes as heard out what these fine citizens had to say. And if I may, I can't say I'm too keen on the artwork of the Mayor back there--sort of makes him look like a zombie.

Soon after this shot, I entered the other conference room. And a couple minutes after that, he entered, aide at his side. I expressed my gratitude for his time and whipped out my laptop to show him a power point presentation I made. It started off awesome; he gave a theatrical, indicative nod that he was on board with my sentiment. (And in hindsight, I should have shut my laptop and gone in for the sale right here.)

But I kept yammering, and he just kinda spoke back to keep the conversation flowing, bringing up semi-related points about parking meter attendants not always paying for themselves and such. It was my fault; I should’ve kept the convo on task, but I got nervous; what can I say? I didn’t have the guts to look him straight in the eye and ask him right out:

“Mayor, if you agree with my concern that the city’s financial dependence on tickets potentially interferes with safety being the priority and creates an unnecessary wedge between citizens and law enforcement, then why not remove the potential by removing financial penalties–tickets,fine–from general budget use?”

Of course, that didn’t come out, and in the midst of less direct back-and-forth and four other citizens waiting for him, he had to skedaddle and left me with his aide.

She said the city implemented measures to make sure law enforcement doesn’t abuse its power for financial gain. They were good measures–probably effective ones, too. But I never got the reason why they don’t simply cut that line of funding off altogether.

“So is this it?”, I asked in a trying-to-hold-on kind of way.

“The mayor gave you his position in the matter”, she flatly retorted. She said I could take this up with the city council if I wanted.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease is the conclusion I came to. And frankly in Minneapolis, I don’t think this concern is all that squeaky. You just don’t hear about the kind of extreme measures being taken by law enforcement, in other cities/states, to “getcha” into paying fines. And with all the other issues that are making a lot more noise, this is a non-issue from their perspective.

To them, I think, it’s not about idealism, but balancing the factions, hitting the whack-a-mole when it pops up. The issue I brought up is just not “hot enough”, not worth the investment of time—not to mention loss of revenue.

It’s too bad, because there’s no doubt in my mind the city—any city–or state, county, etc.—would be better off with this moral hazard removed, but then again, I did just say above that “right” is subjective.

I left the office and, from the window, saw the last remnants of Occupy Minnesota still hanging on—good winter to protest, actually.

Down to occupying these 25 square feet.

But there’s a lesson here. The Occupiers want change, and are willing to work at it—for a long time, if not indefinitely. Things do not happen overnight in most any government–big or local–even if the idea is the best one ever come up with. Getting involved in policy requires a lot of effort and confidence. I remember a friend of mine running for local office, and after a real butt-kicking, still said he thinks everyone should run for office as a practice of putting yourself out there and learning about how our system operates.

I felt like I did this a little bit on this day. And hey, when I’m 50 and bored, I can run for mayor myself. I already have the first item on my platform. 🙂

to new plateaus,