Money Pit

Ten years, $200 million, and one heck of a political headache: Minneapolisís grand plan for neighborhood revitalization enters the home stretch.

 

Scallon is not the only current or former city hall insider who has come to regard Miller with some suspicion. Some politicians now regard the NRP director's casual demeanor as a front that masks canny strategic acumen. Miller, they mutter, has an infuriatingly effective way of politely nodding his head when the politicians talk--and then going out and doing whatever he feels like.

On February 17, city council members were seated in one of the conference rooms on city hall's third floor for their biweekly caucus meeting--an informal bull session where Minneapolis's elected representatives review issues and kibitz. Council member Lisa Goodman asked Jackie Cherryhomes whether she'd heard of some meetings scheduled in various neighborhoods for the purpose of discussing plans for Phase II. Not really, Cherryhomes replied testily: All she knew was that a few days earlier she'd gone to what she considered the official meeting on the topic at Whittier Park. Someone had handed her a flyer announcing a whole different set of get-togethers--orchestrated, of course, by Miller.

The NRP Policy Board, said Cherryhomes--who at the time served as that body's chair--had not been made aware of the gatherings. "What else is new?" she concluded, rolling her eyes. Goodman suggested that an official "letter of concern" be drafted for Miller's personnel file. It was suggested that council staffer Kent Robbins be directed to handle the matter.

But no letter ever materialized. "We opted not to do that," Cherryhomes says now, "because [Miller] works for the policy board and not the city council. I wasn't happy [but] I talked to Bob about it, and we worked it out."

Miller insists that he had no intention of blind-siding the politicians. He told the policy board that there were going to be neighborhood meetings to discuss Phase II, he contends: He didn't say when, where, and how because "I didn't know."

But it's no secret that Miller doesn't always agree with his bosses' approach to citizen participation. "The [city's] idea of having one community-wide meeting is bullshit," he says. "C'mon, that's a show." As if remembering the politics of his job, he hastens to add, "I support those kind of meetings, yes." Then he continues: "The difference between providing information and obtaining information is pretty significant."

In many ways, the dust-up about the meetings was typical of Miller's tenure. Former city council member Steve Minn calls Miller "one of the best politicians at city hall"; he also compares the NRP director to Huey Long, the populist, controversial Louisiana governor and U.S. Senator of the Twenties and Thirties whose slogan was "Every Man a King." "Every neighborhood was a king with Bob," Minn says. (Miller laughs: "I would have never thought of that one.")

Over the years, Minn adds, Miller has cultivated his own relationships with neighborhood groups, effectively cutting the politicians out of the deal. "NRP was set up with way too much autonomy for Bob," says Minn. "He set it up so that it was absolutely impossible for the council member to question their own neighborhoods."

Minn says he liked some things about the program--like the low-interest fix-up loans for homeowners--but suspects that its goals were too hazily defined. "We just weren't very careful with the money," he maintains. "We sort of told folks, 'Dream your biggest dream and we'll find a way to pay for it.' The concept was really quite brilliant--I just think the rules were too loose."

Current council member Lisa McDonald, who served on the policy board for a few years after being elected to her Tenth Ward seat in '93, dubs Miller "crazy like a fox." Explains McDonald: "I admire him, but he makes me really mad sometimes. I think he really knows how to work the system. I think he's playing both ends against the middle [so] it's really unclear as to who he's working for."

Like Minn, McDonald says Miller has keen political instincts. She says she has learned not to be deceived by his folksy exterior: "Yes, he is that guy, but he's very astute underneath that. You can't let that demeanor blind you to the fact that he's very sharp.

"He probably knows at any given time not to make anybody too mad or too happy," McDonald goes on. "He cut his teeth at the county, and he has a political background. He's got his facts and figures lined up. He's organized. He really knows his program back and forth."

Perhaps because of Miller's political savvy, even those who have clashed with him rarely couch their disagreement in anything but the politest terms. Cherryhomes will say only that "we aren't always going to agree"; she and Miller, she adds, have "a good working relationship and a good ability to work through issues."

Some of Miller's overseers on the NRP Policy Board suggest that he sometimes acts like the leader of a breakaway republic. "One of the frustrating things of his style is he pits people against each other," says Gretchen Nicholls, a board member who also serves as executive director of the Center for Neighborhoods. "I think the neighborhoods feel like they're fighting against the city, and unfortunately I don't think that helps us move forward constructively....We need to think of ourselves more as partners, rather than antagonists. I don't think Bob sees himself as a partner."

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