Mayoral Tag Team

Sharon Sayles Belton's office is vowing to increase its commitment to an anti-graffiti campaign that's popular with business owners. Must be election season in Minneapolis.

WITH NOVEMBER LOOMING on the horizon, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton appears to be resurrecting her popular "stop the graffiti" campaign pitch. During the '94 race, Her Stealthness ran TV ads imploring taggers, vandals, and frustrated artists to "not deface my space." The ads, which ran at a time when citizens feared gangs were infiltrating Minneapolis in droves, were a savvy piece of political posturing. It allowed Sayles Belton to both strike an anti-crime posture and align herself with the business community, which contends graffiti scares off customers.

This time, it seems, Sayles Belton may not have to buy time advertising her anti-graffiti stance. To fulfill her campaign promise, Sayles Belton three years ago created a graffiti-removal program aimed at helping homeowners. And last April, according to a glowing article in Monday's Star Tribune, she created a second program aimed at helping businesses with their more expensive cleanups and, supposedly to meet rising demand, increased the budget for both by $80,000 to $230,000. The Strib story quoted mayoral aide Pierre Willette saying the city wants to expand the effort in '98. "This is not something we're just going to drop," he told the Strib. "Our commitment will only grow."

Notice that Willette didn't say funding would increase. Contacted by City Pages, Willette conceded that demand in fact does not exceed supply, and that chances are anti-graffiti funds won't increase for 1998. "We haven't spent all the money for this year," he admits, "and it looks like we probably won't."

Cops and politicians alike acknowledge that painting buildings isn't a gateway crime--it won't lead to crack-dealing or assault--and apparently says little about gang activity. According to figures compiled by the Minneapolis Police Department, which implemented a system last spring to track the incidents, the majority of tagging occurs in Uptown, and is done by white men from the suburbs. By the MPD's count, less than 10 percent of tagging activity is gang-related, and most of that occurs in the Phillips neighborhood.

So why the fanfare over the mayor's removal program? "People have complained about it, and we're reacting to their requests," says Willette. "It's more of an aesthetic device than an anti-crime one... Minneapolis is known for its cleanliness, and graffiti ruins our appearance." And for a mayor known better for her style than her substance, it's also good politics.

DROP IN THE BUCKET

THE CITY OF Minneapolis and its obstinately discriminatory fire department received a financial break of sorts last week when U.S. District Court Judge Robert Renner ruled that the city need pay only $266,858 in plaintiffs' legal fees rather than the $310,929 asked for by attorneys representing the six minority firefighter cadets who successfully sued the MFD over unfair hiring practices earlier this year. With Renner's ruling, discriminatory behavior at the MFD has now cost Minneapolis taxpayers approximately $1.5 million over the past five years.

And the meter is still running. Last May, the six cadets filed civil suits against the city and the MFD, claiming civil-rights violations and defamation of character and asking for a minimum of $75,000 apiece. They figure to get at least that much after Renner's July decision, which not only ruled the city in contempt for violating a 25-year-old court order to integrate the department, but noted MFD Chief Tom Dickinson's improper behavior in referring to some cadets as gang members without substantiation. Depositions and other testimony resulting from that contempt case also indicate that city officials helped stir rumors that some cadet class members had committed rape and arson, allegations that again have never been substantiated. "Considering what the court has already done in this matter, we are obviously going to pursue this very aggressively," says the cadets' high-powered lawyer, Jeffrey R. Anderson. "We're going after them, big time."

 
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