Guilt by Association

A political snipe-fest drowns out residential harmony in Minneapolis's up-and-coming Central neighborhood

On May 31 an emergency meeting of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association's board began on a somber note. Eighth Ward Minneapolis City Council member Brian Herron, whose district includes the Central neighborhood, stood up in the conference room at Sabathani Community Center. He spoke of the neighborhood as his pride and joy. He spoke of CNIA as a model for other community organizations trying to turn their areas around. And he offered an impassioned speech that had the distinct tone of a minister scolding unruly Sunday-school students.

"My heart is breaking," says Herron. "We talk about our young people and how they can't solve conflict. Look at us," he laughed sardonically. "If we can't do it, how can they do it? If this is about you and your personal agenda or being vindictive, maybe you need to rethink why you're here. Maybe you should go do something else. I ain't got time for this," Herron continued. "There's other stuff out there that has to happen. There are folks out there who are hurting. This organization has the resources to help those people who are hurting. We have to be respectful of each other to make it work. If our neighborhood can't get better, then shame on us. All of us, including me."

The first thing the new leaders did was fire Jana Metge, the neighborhood group's popular, connected executive director
Diana Watters
The first thing the new leaders did was fire Jana Metge, the neighborhood group's popular, connected executive director

The Central neighborhood, roughly 70 blocks that span Lake Street and 38th Street on the north and south, and I-35W and Chicago Avenue on the east and west, is overflowing with civic industriousness, from housing rehab programs to street cleanups. Driving that process is millions of dollars from the city--including $6 million from the first phase of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and the potential for at least $4 million more in the next phase--and grants from nonprofits. For a while it seemed that with a dedicated, omnipresent executive director, Jana Metge, CNIA couldn't fail to spin those dollars and projects into a strong community web.

But none of this was in evidence in the sparse room at Sabathani where CNIA members had gathered to try to unsnarl a tangle of recriminations produced by the recent election of new representatives to the neighborhood organization's board of directors. His reprimand delivered, Herron announced he had a prior commitment and left. Community leaders seated around the conference table--divided roughly into two factions--took their turns speaking, and the tension rose to a slow boil.

One director made accusations that votes in a recent election had been stacked. Another said he suspected personal agendas to be at work. They called into question each other's competence and said CNIA's paid staff had been treated "unconscionably." They talked over each other, ignored each other, raised their voices. Some got up and left midmeeting. While the purpose of the gathering was to create a smooth transition between the old CNIA board and new members elected just two weeks earlier, the discussion was in keeping with the often-acrimonious tone of neighborhood politics.

To fully understand the tumult that night it's necessary to go back to May 16, when CNIA held its annual meeting to elect new board officers. A slate of ten candidates, largely minorities, known as the "Blue Crew," had prepared for the event by campaigning door to door, explaining to neighbors that CNIA was the body that helped plan revitalization efforts for the neighborhood and promising to bring control of funds--including millions of dollars from the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program--to the people. The Blue Crew won the May 16 election, and soon after the results were announced someone at the meeting moved to seat the new board members that same evening. Several of the new directors, believing they had been officially sworn in, swung into action. Within two days, the new majority had voted to fire Metge, CNIA's executive director of eight years, and to place her staff on paid leave. A number of holdovers from the old board said the new directors had no power to make those decisions. CNIA's attorney, the new board members' attorney, and a representative of the Minnesota Attorney General's Office met to discuss the situation; they decided to hold an emergency meeting on May 31 to iron out a transition date and--without declaring who was right or wrong--start fresh. When the group gathered at Sabathani, however, things just got worse. For two hours bickering and accusations flitted around the conference table. By the end the old board members voted to let the new board take over the next day, on June 1; the actions taken by the new board in May were not recognized as official, but could be ratified after June 1. The old board also voted to retain CNIA's paid staff, at least until the monthly board meeting scheduled for the last Tuesday in June. They formed a committee made up of old and new board members to smooth the transition.

The next day Metge was all optimism that some of the ill will could be ironed out and still wished for a smooth bridge to the new leadership. But within a few days it appeared that the new board had no intention of returning her to work. "I really thought there was the hope and desire to transition and understand the obligations," Metge says, a slightly bitter edge to her voice. "That doesn't appear to be the case. It makes you question what the rationale is for this. Is it the good of the neighborhood, or is it personal?"

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