The Need of Legitimacy of District Planning Councils: Case of District 7 Elections

Saint Paul City Council Candidate for Ward 1: Abu Nayeem

Published: 09/18/19


This is an informative post briefly explaining why district planning councils matter and their role in citizen engagement. The content is relevant to residents in other neighborhoods, not just within District Planning Council 7. In addition, this post is putting on public record that the district planning council 7 (D7), i.e. Frogtown Neighborhood Association (FNA), is proceeding to pursue board elections on September 17th, 2019, without abiding to their own by-laws. I have reached out to them** on their Facebook page publicly asking questions about the election, which has been deleted and further discussion about D7 is barred from the Frogtown community page.

Disclaimer: I am a former boardmember of D7, and I spoken out against the internal culture of the organization.  This led me to voted off the board, and, effectively, barred from ever joining the council via change of the by-laws, aka “No Abu rule”. You can read my public rebuttal of my resignation, and my posting on the legitimacy of election over three months ago; so there was ample time for them to respond accordingly.

In this post, I will proceed accordingly:

  1. Explain the importance of district planning council providing an example within D7
  2. The challenge of filling boardmember seats for district planning councils and what needs to change
  3. Provide a brief outline on the illegitimacy of the current District 7 board elections.
  4. Accountability/ Action Steps


** Executive staff are Co-directors Tia Williams, Caty Royce, and contract community organizer and Ward 6 city council candidate, Danielle Swift.

1)  Why does district planning councils matter?

The primary roles of district planning councils is local economic development and community/citizen engagement. My strongest criticism of District Planning Council 7 under a community lens is its hypocritical stance toward community safety, and lack of community engagement. The organization advocates strongly for community based solutions, while taking minimal actions and priority (See 2019 Workplan**) on engaging and building relationships with community members in respect to safety. In addition, they prioritize on anti-displacement and resisting gentrification, without recognizing the integral role that community safety plays in creating a stable community and reduce displacement.

From my experience reaching out to community members on safety within Sherburne Street and Victoria Ave, the residents from that area has been consistently ignored for years by their local leaders, and, if they are immigrants/first-generation, they may restrict their children playing outside/travel. If we do not address community safety adequately, the property values of homes will go down, and people will move away from the community, increasing the number of vacant properties, which leads to more crime and displacement. Note: eventually gentrification will occur, but that would be years later.

** If it is not altered retroactively. Also not available on their website anymore.

2)  The Challenge of Citizen Engagement within District Planning Councils

Many district planning councils have difficulty filling board seats, and/or finding active boardmembers. Often the elections are not competitive and there is no reason given to residents to pay attention. This poses a risk where certain individuals join the board to directly benefit themselves and/or boardmembers are hand-picked by the executive director (or prominent figures) leading to group-think; i.e. lack of diversity of ideas.

Who is responsible for citizen inaction? Is it the citizens and/or the organization?

There is responsibility from both parties. However, one of the primary functions of district planning councils is community/citizen engagement. If the organization is “intentionally” inadequate in reaching out to the  community,  it creates a negative feedback loop leading to inaction indefinitely. For example, the organization will say residents are not interested in being involved, while residents may be unaware that they even exist and/or do meaningful action. Impoverished and/or transitory neighborhoods are more likely inactive, as residents have less leisure and education than their wealthier counterparts, but it should be not wielded as an excuse. This setup tends to strongly benefit the persons in charge because they can stay in power indefinitely and seek more funding, while having no accountability.

The district planning council should be the nexus (i.e. connector) between residents and the city, among other duties. I believe, its the responsibility of the city council to build relationships with district planning councils and create some basic performance standards that district planning councils should abide to. The effectiveness of policy, and utilization/access of resources by community members is dependent on the efficacy of the district planning councils.

3)  The Illegitimacy of the District 7 Board elections:

Within in the last seven years, District 7 has considerable challenges keeping boardmembers. From 2014, the retention rate of completing a 3-year term was 16% or 5 out 31 board members. Three months prior, I did a detailed post highlighting the concerns of the election with accountability diagrams, and how the by-laws in favoring the executive director. For brevity, I will summarize the results. The following table below displays the number of years that currently board members served and the board make-up using the IRS document form 990:

According to by-laws (unless new changes being made), boardmembers can only serve 2 three-year terms. There should be at 11 vacancies, and currently only 3 new boardmembers are joining.  You can see the boardmember list here on FNA website.

Here are some basic questions not being addressed by the organization:

  • How is Christine Chapman (At-Large) re-running for the board again, after her two terms has expired?
  • Why is Walter Battle re-running for election?
  • How much total vacancies are on the board?
  • Should the board chair, Tong Thao, re-run for election?
  • How is the conflict of interest of a boardmember, Joyce Williams, having direct familial member related to the co-executive director resolved?
  • As of now, there are still vacancies for Subdistrict 3 & 4? Why has the organization not outreach to those areas for years, and more important what are they doing about it?

Finally, there is financial incentives for the co-executive director to maintain the status quo as illustrated on the chart below, which is not even considering the compensation of the co-director, Tia Williams.

4) Next Steps/ Accountability

There are two approaches in creating change within a district planning council. The traditional approach is joining the board, and slowly shape the direction of the board (path I took). In my opinion, this path is ineffective especially because the existing power structure will not stand down without a fight. Also why should residents be exposed to toxic board environment? Another option is for a bunch of boardmembers to join, but there will be significant community tension and conflict.

The other approach is seeking accountability from external measures. If there is evidence to suggest financial malfeasance, then the organization could be audited by the state. The district planning council is a private non-profit organization giving the organization considerable control in writing the by-laws, and not subject to laws related to public agencies. However, the city provides necessary guidelines for a non-profit to be recognized as a district planning council: (More Info)

1. That the organization is broadly representative of the area that it covers and involves a majority of all the groups and all major interests in the community (business, non-profit, religious, etc.).
2. That accountability is assured in the form of a mechanism such as recall, together with term limits for members of the Executive Committee, to make sure that the organization is controlled by the entire community that it represents.
3. That all activities are totally accessible including open, widely publicized meetings, where the greatest possible degree of community participation is encouraged and maintained.

In the case for District 7, they seem to have failed, at least, one of the guidelines via violations of by-laws and the lack of geographical representation within the board. Currently, the district planning councils receive funding from the city through Community Engagement Program of roughly $1.4 million dollars, you can view the breakdown here. Residents can hold their district councils accountable, in risk of them losing their designation and thus their funding from the city. There is also the other option of creating another non-profit that is more legitimate than the existing district council. This approach will be hard to gain traction if the neighborhood has been excluded for many years and residents are disenfranchised, such as in District 7.

In frankness, the executive directors/ boardmembers within the district planning councils may have built complex partnerships with city officials, and councilmembers.  Compliance is often rewarded with power and protection. Throughout the entire fiasco of district council 7 lasting for several months, there was no response from Ward 1 councilmember Dai Thao, while still partnering with D7 as if everything is normal. Feel free to contact your councilmember to file a complaint, but don’t expect much to change and/or expect them to place the burden of work upon you, even though they have an expansive network/influence.

Concluding Thoughts:
If we want community-based solutions, then we need to design systems that enable community success,  which means a district planning council that actively engage citizens to participate on things that matter. For Saint Paul citizens, I recommend either electing council members that understand this principally and/or demand accountability/action from progressive leaders/positions in power. i.e. Practice what you preach!

Abu Nayeem



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