District Council History

City Partnerships With Saint Paul Neighborhoods

Neighborhood associations in Saint Paul stretch back to the early 20th century. Through the 1950s and 1960s, residents in many neighborhoods began to organize in response to major development projects happening associated with a national movement of "urban renewal." Large federal programs brought major federal into city neighborhoods across the country, often with little or no input from the residents in those places. By 1967, neighborhood organizations in Saint Paul had built enough momentum to be able to form a coalition as the Association of Saint Paul Communities. According to documents found in the archives at Minnesota Historical Society, this action was taken at the suggestion of James Dalglish, a member of the City Council at that time. Dalglish recognized the need for a medium to bring the problems of the various communities to the attention of the council and a channel through which city government could respond and inform the citizens of legislation and actions for which their government was responsible. Before 1980,  the City Council consisted of seven members all elected citywide on an "at large" basis. Saint Paul's form of government with no geographic based representation was a rarity for an older urban core city. No single member had the pulse of all the different neighborhood organizations and community groups. As a result it was difficult for the City Council to know who actually spoke for a specific area. There was no clear voice for individual neighborhoods in the City and there was widespread frustration with competing groups who claimed to represent certain areas and interests. Soon the association grew to 17 different neighborhood associations representing nearly all parts of the city.

In 1968, local government also began its first formal program for resident participation in planning and community development. In response to demonstrations against a number of developments in neighborhoods by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, City Council approved a citizen participation budget for the first Project Area Committee (PAC) in the West Midway. The PAC structure continued to be used in order to create a venue for active residents to guide urban renewal projects until the creation of district councils in 1975, when the PACs were phased out. Federal programming also spurred the development of citizen participation structures in the city. The city's participation in the Model Cities program led to the convening of many parties in the Summit-University neighborhood, culminating in the formation of the Summit-University Planning Council. This organization, which originally served as the venue for citizen participation for Saint Paul's Model Cities program, was the first neighborhood organizations to be funded by city government for the purpose of engaging residents.

Development of the Citizen Participation Process in the 1970s

Mayor Larry Cohen was elected in 1971 to serve as the city's first mayor under its modern "strong mayor" system. Early in his first term, Mayor Cohen established the Committee on Citizen Participation. At the time, he outlined a plan for giving neighborhoods broad authority to determine zoning rules, direct public investments, appoint members to the city's Planning Commission and even potentially veto proposed projects through a set of community councils. The committee was convened in order to develop the details of a formal citizen participation structure that would allow for the implementation of this vision. The committee convened from March 1972 into September 1973 and included a range of neighborhood organizers and activists, drawing heavily from participants in the Association of St. Paul Communities. After vetting their ideas through a series of public meetings, the committee finally produced a report entitled, Making Democracy Work: A Process for Citizen Participation. The committee recommended the creation of system of neighborhood councils to be involved in planning and encouraged the city to provide for funding and technical support to these organizations, along with creating a system for early and frequent communication regarding proposed development.

Landing on the precise details of the new citizen participation process was not easy. The City Council finally appointed an ad hoc forum on citizen participation in December 1974 to work through these details and make a set of recommendations for the council to adopt. The Citizen Participation Forum, convened by William Wilson, made its first set of recommendations in July 1975. In the interim, the US Congress had enacted the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. This legislation replaced seven major federal urban renewal programs with a new federal block grant model meant to empower local authorities to use federal money for local priorities. The funding, known as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), came with a requirement to have a clear citizen participation plan to direct the use of the funding. This new requirement created an urgency for the forum's work to proceed in order to align a new citizen participation process with the grant requirements of this new major federal program. The forum was able to deliver an initial set of recommendations, adopted through City Council resolution, in July 1974. The resolution, CF 265779:

  •  Established a map of 17 districts for citizen participation
  • Specifically identified the districts be used for the purposes of citizen participation guiding community development
  • Initiated the creation of an "early warning system" to inform neighborhoods of proposed developments
  • Called for city planners to create a district planning process for neighborhood priorities to be reflected in the city's Comprehensive Plan

The forum's work was controversial and several matters regarding its work remained pending. The July 1974 resolution also called for a "cooling off" period before the remaining matters were addressed. The final details were brought forward once again in October of that year. At that time, City Council adopted measures that:

  • Created a city policy statement regarding citizen participation (CF 266178)
  • Established a process for the creation and formal recognition of district councils (CF 266179)
  • Authorized the use of CDBG dollars to support the citizen participation in district planning, the operation of the "early warning system" and creation of district councils (CF 266180)
  • Approved funding of the new Citizen Participation Program (CF 266181)
  • Acknowledged the work of the Citizen Participation Forum (CF 266182)

Creation of 17 Districts: Focus on Boundaries Not the Number of Residents

The recommendation to create 17 distinct districts was made by an ad hoc boundary committee which was created by the Citizen Participation Forum. The committee used the neighborhood school boundaries in their attempt to identify natural or traditional neighborhood and community areas. Unlike legislative districts and wards, the main concern in defining a neighborhood area was the physical environment with consideration given to natural and man-made barriers such as railroad tracks, the river, and the freeway system. There was little concern about identifying an equal number of citizens as required by the Supreme Court ruling under the case of Baker vs. Carr (1962) which made proportional representation the basis for drawing political boundaries for political districts. The committee's emphasis on physical boundaries resulted in districts that varied widely in population from less than 5,000 to more than 25,000 people at that time.

The recommendation to create 17 districts was formulated and made to the City Council in April, 1975. Although many assumed that there would eventually be numerous boundary changes as the various districts established themselves and identified their own territory, there were only two or three minor boundary changes approved by the City Council. The boundary procedure itself did not require proportional representation. Rather, it more closely resembled a municipal annexation procedure which required all affected residents to agree to any boundary change. As a result the districts that exist today are largely the same as those recommended in 1975 with few major exceptions.

The Recognition (Legitimization) Process for Each District Council

Initial funding was approved for each district individually by the City Council after districts completed the "recognition process". The recognition process required each district to demonstrate to the City Council's satisfaction that it had developed an organizational structure complete with legally binding bylaws that met three critically important criteria:

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.). That the board and its executive body is representative of the "age, ethnic, business, social, and economic characteristics of the community".
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.

The actual determination that the organization met each of the three criteria was made at an official City Council Public Hearing held in the district. After the hearing, in which the Council heard from all those who wished to speak, the Council made its findings based on the testimony at the hearing and recommendations from staff. Once recognition was received, the district organization was eligible for City funding and was listed on the Early Notification System (ENS) mailing list. The ENS list continues to be used by City departments, offices, and various agencies to provide notice of all pending actions (zoning changes, license applications, proposed building projects, etc.) that impact the interests of the district.

Early Notification System

The Early Notification System (ENS) is the only part of the Citizen Participation Process that was established by City Ordinance. Contained in Chapter 11 of the Appendix to the Administrative Code, the ENS legislation requires city agencies, including many boards, commissions, and task forces to inform neighborhood organizations and concerned citizens of"all considered, proposed, planned or implemented developments, legislative and policy changes, and enforcement actions (city actions) which may potentially impact the neighborhood and/or area residents. Notification through the ENS shall be in addition to, and not as a substitute for, notices required by federal,  state, county and city rules, laws and ordinances." In the last ten years, the ENS system has been modernized to rely on digital communication to transmit this information. You can subscribe for ENS notifications for your neighborhood at http://www.stpaul.gov/connect.

Creation of District Plans

One of the driving forces behind the initiation of the citizen participation process was the desire and need for development of neighborhood plans as a main component of the City's Comprehensive Plan. Federal regulations for Community Development and other federal funds and the Minnesota Metropolitan Land Planning Act all required the development of plans "with maximum feasible" citizen input. The Office of City Planning and later in 1997, the Planning Division of the newly created Department of Planning and Economic Development, assigned major staff and financial resources to each district council to develop neighborhood plans with the assistance of experienced and professionally trained city planners. Some planning had already been done by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority under the old federal urban renewal programs through the Project Area Committees (PACs). Communities including Downtown, Summit-University, Thomas-Dale, West Midway-South St. Anthony, the West Side­ Concord Terrace redevelopment area, and the Phalen E-2 Code Enforcement Area already had neighborhood plans. Some of these neighborhood plans were developed without the full support of the community. Therefore, the lack of support for the plans translated into support for a more representative citizen participation model.

The conflict over specific neighborhood plans was also one of the factors that led to a major reorganization of local government redevelopment agencies in the City. In 1976 the State Legislature authorized the breakup of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority into two pieces, the renewal function was combined with city planning, community development, and economic development into the new City Department of Planning and Economic Development. The public housing part of the HRA was kept as the separate and distinct Public Housing Agency. The new Citizen Participation structure approved in 1975 provided an effective means for developing plans that were more broadly representative of the community and would therefore garner more general support with the Mayor, the City Council and the community as a whole. By August of that year, the Planning Commission and Housing and Redevelopment Authority had released a staff working paper describing how general district plans would rely on resident collaboration. 

Emergence of the Ward System & "Better Neighborhoods" in the 1980s

The Saint Paul City Charter was amended by the voters in 1980 to provide for the seven City Council Members to be elected by seven districts or wards. The ward boundaries, based on proportional representation as required by Baker v. Carr, were drawn without regard to the existing district council boundaries, which were drawn to reflect existing neighborhood boundaries. The result was, and continues to be, a mismatch between wards and citizen participation districts with some wards containing parts of four or five different district council areas. The ward system became effective on January 1, 1983, and it soon became apparent that no one wanted to change the district council boundaries, which by then were well established. By the early 1980s Saint Paul's district council system enjoyed widespread support locally and was seen across the country as a model for citizen involvement.

In 1986, in response to an in depth study of Saint Paul's strengths and weaknesses published by the Planning Commission as Saint Paul Tomorrow, Mayor George Latimer launched the "Better Neighborhoods Program" (BNP) which was designed to further strengthen the neighborhood planning process by focusing city resources on the top two or three priorities of each district council. One of the major findings of the report was that Saint Paul had maintained a larger percentage of middle-class families than any other city of its size in the US.

The Planning Commission report attributed Saint Paul's ability to retain the middle class to the City's strong sense of neighborhood identity and overall neighborhood stability. For example, the Aurora-St. Anthony neighborhood was singled out as having a high percentage of ownership (more than 70%) that had owned the same property for more than 30 years. Nevertheless, the Planning Commission report cautioned that the City had to figure out ways to maintain and strengthen its neighborhoods to meet the challenges of the 1980s which included addressing the needs of new immigrants, a sense that the public schools were stressed financially, and that crime and an increase in absentee landlords was causing increased housing deterioration.

The Better Neighborhoods Program ran into controversy almost from the start as it tackled the issues of the day which often pitted neighborhood interests against city-wide or broader community interests. Examples included the elimination of so called adult-oriented businesses at University Avenue and Dale Street, the redevelopment of the Chestnut and Warner Road intersection, and the relocation of West Publishing.

In spite of several widely publicized controversies over certain redevelopment proposals, the link between the Mayor's Office and the various district councils was strengthened through the Better Neighborhoods Program because the mayor was successful in achieving neighborhood priorities. A host of projects were pushed through with his support that continue today including the creation of neighborhood clean up days, the provision of space in city buildings for district council offices, and the initiation of community policing efforts. The 1980s and early 1990s were sort of a golden age for citizen participation in Saint Paul when citizen involvement flourished and the District Council structure was respected by city staff, local and state officials, and the business community. During the period Saint Paul was host to several national conferences on neighborhood initiatives and the city was recognized nationally for its strong, neighborhood based, citizen participation system.

In a 1992 study by Professor Carmine Scavo, a political scientist from East Carolina University, Saint Paul was rated number one in the United States for all cities over 100,000 in total population on the extent and quality of overall citizen participation and open accessible government.

Funding Changes and Shifting Neighborhoods

In the 1990s an economic recession reduced tax resources to state and local govermnents, and the federal government began cutting back financial support to cities. The City's Community Development Block Grant was reduced from an average of $18 million in 1977 to less than $10 million annually in the mid 1990s. Reduced resources resulted in less funding and support for citizen participation. Many groups expanded their funding base by obtaining private money for crime prevention and housing programs, and the city provided support through several small neighborhood-oriented programs such and the Neighborhood Partnership Program and later the Sales Tax Revitalization (STAR) Program. Nevertheless, overall resources were reduced and this in turn led to high staff turn over at the neighborhood level.

From 1977 to 1987, overall funding for citizen participation (CP) grew by 84%, and the City's General Fund grew by 85%. From 1988 to 1998, CP funding grew 33% and the City General Fund paralleled the growth at 39%. From 1998 to 2003 Citizen Participation funding has grew by only 2% while the General Fund has grew by more than 13%. In 1998, the position of Citizen Participation Coordinator in the Department of Planning & Economic Development was eliminated. Less oversight from the City by the lack of a Citizen Participation Coordinator, coupled with a high rate of staff turnover have contributed to a decrease in the capacity of the district councils.

By 2004, city government had convened a new Ad Hoc Committee on Citizen Participation. This group of stakeholders from city staff, City Council ward offices, Council Research and district councils examined a range of issues related to district councils. The report surveyed the range of concerns emerging among district councils and made a number of recommendations for improvement, with a particular focus on a creating a new, more equitable funding formula to reflect the needs of Saint Paul neighborhoods. With the City Council's adoption (Res 05-123) of this recommendation, the funding formula accounted for the percentage of non-English speakers in the neighborhood. The report also recommended the re-establishment of a coordinator position in city government for district councils. In 2008, that position was created in Council Research following additional recommendations from a report issued by the League of Women Voters Minnesota.

Through subsequent years, district councils and city government continued to work to make adjustments in order to respond to both the changing needs of neighborhoods and available funding through both federal grants and the city's General Funds. In 2013, two major changes. The first was the first major boundary change since the early 1980s. The boundary change process had not been revisited for several decades. A movement in the South Como neighborhood to annex into District 10 - Como from District 6 - North End led to a study into formalizing a boundary change process. In 2014, a new process was adopted as Chapter 95 of the city's Administrative Code. City government also began to re-examine the funding mechanisms used to support the district councils. The census completed in 2010 led to the first re-calculation of funds and the boundary change process between Districts 6 and 10 led to major shifts in their populations. At the same time, the city was re-considering the use of CDBG dollars for the purpose of crime prevention. District councils were the primary recipients of these dollars. In order to streamline city contracts, smooth out funding transitions for neighborhoods and also create a new resource for district councils to make citywide improvements, the city combined the Citizen Participation and Crime Prevention Programs into a single Community Engagement Program. (Res 13-1724) Along with the formula-based allocations, the new program also included an Innovation Fund. This fund, a competitive grant meant to promote collaboration and innovation between and among district councils, has supported a range of research, planning and experimental engagement activities. Over the course of the first three years of the Innovation Fund (2015-17) the work eventually evolved to focus on equitable engagement through district councils. That work is examined more closely on our Innovation and Equity page.