Spin City


ONE COROLLARY EFFECT of the Brian Herron extortion scandal--hyperbolically named "Herrongate" in some circles--is that everyone is suddenly very curious about what goes on at Minneapolis's city hall. While no one has quite doped out the Manchurian events following Herron's resignation, the welter of documents subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney and requested by media outlets do yield a few gems. Like, for instance, these talking points, discovered among the piles of official documents requested by news media, including Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's interoffice correspondence. Presumably prepared in the mayor's office, these notes appear to outline Sayles Belton's comments during the July 18 press conference held by her and city council president Jackie Cherryhomes. They're not the Pentagon Papers. But a quick parsing may shed light on how the mayor, in the week after Herron's guilty plea, managed to spin the situation so completely to her disadvantage.

THE HEALTH-CODE VIOLATIONS cited by city inspectors at Selwin Ortega's Las Americas supermarkets include mouse droppings, food with mold, improperly refrigerated meats, "adulterated" food for sale, rodents, lack of overall cleaning, and personal hygiene violations. Yet, while these 17 "critical" and 41 "noncritical" violations date back to January 1998, it wasn't until April of this year that the city council recommended scheduling a hearing to consider revoking Ortega's license. As these details emerged in the following days, it began to look as though the city's definition of "safe" was negotiable.

WHEN IN DOUBT, defer to the rabble. Note, however, that the mayor is rather dexterously sidestepping the question of whether she--tacitly or otherwise--encouraged Herron's council aide, Vickie Ann Brock, to run for Herron's vacated seat. A few days later, it was revealed that Sayles Belton's chief of staff, Colleen Moriarty, had lent Brock the $20 filing fee and held her place in line at city hall's Office of Elections. Though neither the mayor nor Moriarty did anything untoward, Belton's initial coyness made her deniability appear less than plausible.

AT WHICH POINT Cherryhomes promptly inserted foot into mouth by saying that she had "encouraged" Brock to file for the seat. Brock later denied that she'd been prompted to run, explaining that the weeping city council president and mayor had merely provided her with tissue and reminded her that the filing deadline was fast approaching. The next day, Cherryhomes and Belton were back in front of the cameras, spinning like a pair of Firestones on an out-of-control SUV.

A WEEK LATER the attorney picked to head the investigation, Don Lewis, resigned because of potential conflicts of interest. Lewis contributed to Sayles Belton's campaign, held a fundraiser for her at his law office, and, most damning in the watchful eyes of the television media, staked a Sayles Belton lawn sign in his front yard. Though Her Honor insisted that she had no part in selecting Lewis and deferred to City Attorney Jay Heffern to find an appropriate replacement for him, she still seemed to be doing a pretty comprehensive job of treading on her own toes--no small feat, when you think about it.

FIRST RULE OF spin control: Hit the word "integrity" early and often. Say it like you mean it.

PERHAPS THE MAYOR refers here to the 1999 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "best practices" award received by Minneapolis's Department of Civil Rights Director Kenneth White (who was fired earlier this year when his practices turned out to be not-so-superlative after all). Or maybe she's talking about the "outstanding labor management" award received by the Minneapolis Fire Department in 2000 (almost a year before the department managed to resolve a 30-year-old employment-discrimination lawsuit that cost city taxpayers untold millions of dollars). Most likely, she's referring to a recent study of the country's 35 largest cities done at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs-- according to which, Minneapolis scored a "B+," ranking behind Phoenix and Austin and just ahead of Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Illustrious company, indeed.

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