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Wastrel neighborhood association votes whistle-blower off its board

Harrison is a neighborhood of Minneapolis, just west of downtown, which has between four and five thousand residents. Its neighborhood association has an annual budget of $252,000, mostly for staff salaries and benefits. It employs four staff people. The neighborhood is poorer than most and more racially mixed. It is geographically isolated, being separated from north Minneapolis by Olson highway and from Bryn Mawr neighborhood to the south by Bassett Creek. Glenwood Avenue runs east to west through the heart of this neighborhood.

Glenwood Avenue is conspicuously underperforming as a commercial corridor. The street seems largely deserted. There is no night life. There are few people walking about at any time of the day. Not long ago it had a small art gallery and a shop for Tibetan textiles. The Guthrie theater had an office for development. These are now gone. Leef Brothers is selling its factory near Cedar Avenue which used to clean industrial garments. Albinson’s large graphic-arts facility on Glenwood Avenue is also closed and up for sale. On the other hand, there is a new funeral home occupying the site of a former supermarket, anchoring the corridor. This is not an inappropriate image of a street whose commercial life is anemic or dead.

Much of the new construction in this neighborhood is undertaken on behalf of non-profits, tapping into foundation and government money. Aeon (formerly Central Community Housing Trust) raised $30 million to renovate buildings that once housed a maternity hospital and rehabilitation center and turn them into award-winning rental housing. Redeemer Lutheran Church built a $2 million facility to house Milda’s restaurant and provide church-controlled transitional housing. It has also renovated several houses. There are plans for more money to come into the neighborhood from Lutheran sources.

A decade ago, NRP and foundation money went into building a large new building at Harrison park which provides free space for the Harrison Neighborhood Association and Park Board functions. The Harry Davis Academy building on Glenwood Avenue, also renovated during that period, represents a major investment by the Minneapolis School Board. These government-operated facilities, which are not readily accessible to neighborhood residents, seem underutilized.

On December 10, 2010, the Harrison Neighborhood Association board considered a recommendation from its “Glenwood Business Revitalization” committee that the owner of a small acoustics-installation business which operated throughout the state not be granted a zoning variance that would allow him to rent storage space on a vacant building on Glenwood Avenue. The applicant was not asking for money. His proposed operation posed no parking or environmental problems. He was even willing to put money into remodeling and, as a building manager, try to bring other businesses into the neighborhood.

The Revitalization committee said that the applicant, identified as Thomas Uruhl, had failed a point-based test. Among the reasons contributing to the failure were: “1) Little to no local hiring, 2) no connection to any of the approved and recognized redevelopment plans ... 3) new projects do not even appear to improve the sites they are going into - aesthetically alone, 4) low ‘value’ of what the new project will bring to the neighborhood, 5) serves little to no ‘minority’ interests, 6) has little to no improvement of the environmental or no ‘green’ design, 7) little to no ‘full and fair participation’ of community members, 8) little to no consideration for fitting into Harrison transit oriented development, 9) does not fit in with the current zoning.”

Harrison board members seemed mainly interested in whether this business would create jobs that neighborhood residents such as themselves might take. Because his was a small business, the applicant could not promise any additional hiring. One board member seemed to equate a warehouse operation with “dumping” in a poor neighborhood. Another thought it did not sufficiently “revitalize” Glenwood Avenue although it was pointed out that a promised lawnmower repair shop and a real estate office in a now-vacant building would be steps in that direction.

After the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church advised members to remain steadfast in supporting the neighborhood’s “guiding principles” (adopted in March 2005) which had to do mostly with jobs for neighborhood residents and women and minority hiring, the board voted 11 to 1 to deny the man’s request.

The lone dissenter was Bill McGaughey, a representative of Area Three, who had previously spoken in favor of allowing the business proposal to proceed. Uruhl struck him at the time as a decent man presenting a legitimate, straightforward proposal but being given the runaround followed by outright rejection. The board members’ coldness and utter lack of human sympathy toward this man were shocking to him.

McGaughey told the other board members that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, adding that “there will be repercussions”. His concern was that Glenwood Avenue badly needed business development and the association was “shooting itself in the foot” by turning down what appeared to be an attractive proposal.

Some board members had little personal stake in the decision - the board president had lived in the neighborhood for about two years; and the revitalization committee’s representative at the board meeting, four months - but, as as HNA representatives, they were positioned to stifle the long-term commercial prospects of this neighborhood. McGaughey himself had lived in Harrison for more than twenty years and also owned property and a small business there.

The “repercussions” came on the following day. McGaughey wrote letters to two of Harrison Neighborhood Association’s funders, the City of Minneapolis and the McKnight Foundation, recommending discontinued or reduced funding for Harrison Neighborhood Association. His letter presented the basic facts of the Uruhl case and cited another instance of such treatment involving an exercise firm on Glenwood Avenue. He also argued that this community organization provided little or no direct services to community residents but instead acted as a quasi-governmental body that was a “choke point” for proposed projects involving this neighborhood. Copies of the two letters were sent to the association’s executive director.

McGaughey was also upset by the board’s handling of a proposal to sponsor a community event at the neighborhood center. He had long been advocating that Harrison Neighborhood Association provide direct services to neighbor residents and, in particular, organize public events at Harrison park such as musical or dance performances, lectures, or events featuring interesting people who lived in Harrison neighborhood. This neighborhood did have some positive aspects. (For instance, Prince grew up there.) In particular, McGaughey had developed the idea of a public lecture concerning the Minneapolis grain exchange - not exactly in the neighborhood but close enough to be of local interest.

The July 2010 issue of Harper’s magazine carried a cover story titled “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it.” Evidently, Goldman Sachs had started a “commodity index fund” in 1991 in which wheat was one of the commodities. Because that fund bought and never sold wheat futures, the price of wheat futures soared. This affected the price of hard red spring wheat traded on the Minneapolis grain exchange. The price quadrupled between 2005 and 2008. Two hundred and fifty million people around the world, who could not afford the high-priced wheat, were made hungry.

McGaughey knew a man who had been a grain trader at the Minneapolis exchange and asked him if he would be willing to give a talk on grain trading at the Harrison neighborhood center. The man agreed to this without requiring a fee. McGaughey thought the main benefit of such an event would be to expand the mental horizons of young people living in this mostly poor neighborhood and give the prizewinners something to put on their resumes. With that in mind, he proposed that Harrison Neighborhood Association provide $500 in prize money to be awarded to a handful of Harrison or Northside teenagers judged to understand best how the Minneapolis Grain Exchange worked after hearing the talk. McGaughey brought his idea to the Harrison board in August.

It became clear that the board was not going to simply approve the event. First, it appointed an arrangements committee to take charge of the project. Then, in the name of balance, it wanted other speakers besides the grain trader to make presentations. Someone wanted others besides the teenagers to be eligible for the prize money. Someone else wanted the park board rather than the neighborhood association to sponsor the meeting. This discussion went on month after month while the grain trader was kept waiting. Finally, McGaughey pulled the plug on the project at the December meeting after the board voted down the business proposal for Glenwood Avenue.

It is a practice that the officers of Harrison Neighborhood Association, comprising an “executive committee”, set the agenda for the monthly board meeting at a special meeting a week beforehand. For January’s meeting, this committee put an item titled “Board Member Conduct Discussion” on the agenda. It had to do with McGaughey’s conduct at the December 2010 meeting and his two letters subsequently written to Harrison funders. A message was left on McGaughey’s answering machine urging him to attend this meeting. The photocopied board packet contained copies of McGaughey’s two letters, a letter to the board from board president Maren McDonell, and the organization’s bylaws.

A pertinent passage in the bylaws under the heading of “resignations and terminations” gave the board authority to appoint a successor “if any officer of HNA resigns or becomes ineligible for membership during his/her term of office, or is removed by the Board with good cause after having been given an opportunity to respond thereto at a regular meeting.” That explained the notification and intent.

Ms. McDonell’s letter stated that “the last Board Meeting was troubling and disturbing for many members ...There is concern that Bill McGaughey’s conduct had crossed the line of acceptable behavior. Additionally, Mr. McGaughey made threats against the organization before finally quieting himself.” (Note: On the previous Saturday, a deranged man in Tucson, Arizona, had shot nineteen persons, killing six and severely wounding a Congresswoman.)

What kind of threat was meant here was indicated by McDonell’s remark, when she opened the meeting, to the effect that the police would be called if there was any kind of disturbance. In the subsequent discussion, McDonell and others claimed that McGaughey had screamed and yelled at people during the December meeting and that several of the women had been frightened. (McDonell later berated McGaughey for not respecting women when he objected to being interrupted by the board vice president, also a woman.)

McGaughey denied having yelled at anyone although he did admit to having raised his voice when he told board members they “ought to be ashamed of themselves”. Those who had been at last month’s meeting knew the true situation, and the others would never know. McGaughey asked McDonell what “threats” had been referenced in her letter. Evidently, his remark, “there will be repercussions”, was interpreted as a personal threat, frightening to women. McGaughey explained that he was referring to the two letters that he subsequently wrote to Harrison funders.

The “Board Member Conduct Discussion”, originally the fourth item on the agenda, was moved to the beginning so that a member could participate who had to leave soon. McGaughey sat quietly as, one after another, perhaps a dozen different board members faulted him for various things.

One said that, as a board member, McGaughey owed loyalty and obedience to the board - evidently the Minnesota Attorney General has assigned such a responsibility to officers of non-profits - and that McGaughey had violated that obligation in writing letters to the association funders. Another member, the Lutheran pastor, expressed his personal displeasure that board members should have to spend time discussing such matters when other business needed attention. Another said that, if McGaughey wished to complain to funders, he should have resigned his board position first. Several expressed concern that Harrison’s future funding was put in jeopardy by McGaughey’s recklessness.

While these various people were finding fault with his behavior at the December meeting, McGaughey kept to himself, comforted by the fact that, unknown to others at the meeting, the publisher of the Watchdog newspaper, Jim Swartwood, was sitting across the table from him taking in the entire conversation. At length, Ms. McDonell asked McGaughey to respond to the comments.

After inquiring about the “threat” mentioned in her letter, McGaughey admitted that, yes, he had crossed a line in writing the letters. That line had been crossed when he realized that Harrison Neighborhood Association was doing more harm than good to neighborhood residents. He said his principal loyalty was to the neighborhood, not to the association board. The Attorney General’s opinion had no legal or moral force. McGaughey said he “did not park my citizenship at the door” when he became a Harrison board member. He was free to speak his mind on any subject. He was free to throw light on abusive events happening within organizations that might otherwise not be known.

The subject that concerned him most at this time was how the Harrison board and its committees were squashing business opportunities along Glenwood Avenue. He could not stand by without speaking out while this was happening. The neighborhood might actually be better off if the association supposedly representing it did not exist.

The board members seemed confused. What now? A member named Babette introduced a resolution calling upon McGaughey to resign. After the implications of that proposal were discussed for a few minutes, McGaughey told the board members that he had no intention of resigning. The pastor proposed that he might redeem himself by recanting his statements. How about writing letters to the two funders retracting what was previously written? McGaughey said that he was unwilling to do that either.

The board’s hand was being forced. Babette changed her resolution calling upon the board to remove McGaughey involuntarily. A vote was taken. Most members voted to remove McGaughey from the board. There were two abstentions, both men.

After the vote was taken, Jim Swartwood muttered across the table, “Well, Bill, why don’t you make a farewell statement.” So, for about three minutes, McGaughey gave a speech. He said that there was, in fact, another option, which was that Harrison Neighborhood Association might change. Instead of being an obstacle to business development, it could actively promote such activity. Glenwood Avenue might become a vibrant commercial corridor if neighborhood attitudes toward small business changed. The neighborhood association should strive to be a center of creative energies rather than a choke point stifling progress.

Some board members looked nervously at their watches. The board vice president interrupted McGaughey’s speech saying that the members needed now to attend to other business. Bill McGaughey and the Watchdog publisher, Jim Swartwood, left the room together, agreeing that the outcome could have been worse.

The board packet for January, 2011, had contained a complete list of the Association’s funders. McGaughey wrote letters to three other foundations on the following morning, urging them to reconsider their financial support for Harrison Neighborhood Association.

Two days later, McGaughey received a phone call from a friend with legal expertise. Having examined HNA’s bylaws, he expressed the opinion that the Harrison board had no authority to remove McGaughey from his position as area representative. The provision in Article VIII, Section F, which mentioned removal “by the Board with good cause”, referred to officers of the board, not board members themselves - that is to say, the President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. McGaughey was not one of those officers. Therefore, the vote taken at Monday’s meeting was invalid, and McGaughey was legally still on the board.

This posed a problem. There was now bad blood between McGaughey and the other board members, and it would serve no constructive purpose to perpetuate a quarrel for the remaining five months of McGaughey’s term. Was there a solution that would produce a good outcome? McGaughey’s first impulse was to propose a deal to the Harrison board: Take another vote on Uruhl’s variance proposal and, if it is in Uruhl’s favor this time, I will promptly resign from the board.

There was a problem. McGaughey did not know much about Thomas Uruhl. He had never met the man before and had no contact information. Uruhl’s name was not in the Minneapolis phone book. It did not turn up in several People Finder web sites that McGaughey tried for the state of Minnesota. (The minutes of HNA’s December board meeting showed that a “Tom Uhuruh” attended. That name does not appear in the phone book or People Finder websites either.) Was he using a pseudonym? Was his business what Uruhl represented it to be? On the surface, there appeared to be a problem.

The HNA board packet for December had stated that Uruhl’s acoustics-installation operation “is currently warehoused out of 46th and Lyndale, Minneapolis.” McGaughey had other business in south Minneapolis that day, so he drove over to the intersection of 46th Street and Lyndale Avenue South to have a look. It was a residential area with a nearby school. McGaughey asked a maintenance person with that school if he knew of any warehousing operations in that area, specifically ones relating to acoustics-installation materials. He did not. Perhaps the warehouse was at 46th and Lyndale Avenue North?

Why not? Although it was approaching rush hour, McGaughey drove up to the intersection in north Minneapolis. At first, this site seemed promising. There was a warehouse with trucks parked in front. McGaughey inquired in the office if anyone knew Thomas Uruhl or someone else who ran an acoustics-installation business and warehoused in the area? No, the man was unaware of such a man or business. The warehouse belonged to his own company. McGaughey next put the question to the bar tender at the bar on the corner of 46th and Lyndale Avenue North. He, too, was unaware of Uruhl or the acoustics-installation business. There was a scooter store next door which had recently opened for business. However, its door was locked.

There were now two stubborn facts standing in the way of McGaughey’s recommendation that the HNA board vote to approve Uruhl’s project. (1) Thomas Uruhl might not be the man’s real name. (2) The man, whoever he was, did not appear to be warehousing acoustics-installation materials near 46th and Lyndale, either in south or north Minneapolis. While it may have been all right to vote for the project given the facts that appeared in the board packet, it would be irresponsible now to push the board into such a decision if, as now suspected, key facts of the proposed business operation were inaccurate.

McGaughey’s immediate response was to write a letter to Maren McDonell informing her that (1) he was still a member of the board and, in that capacity, would be attending February’s board meeting, and (2) certain facts were in doubt regarding the business proposal brought before the board in December which had precipitated the argument between McGaughey and other board members at this meeting.

In the final analysis, it seemed that McGaughey’s letters to the foundations, at least in one instance, had no impact. The McKnight program director responded in a letter that “we’ve supported HNA because its work and operating values are consistent with what we are trying to accomplish ... we have seen good results and successful improvements to the neighborhood ... on balance we feel the work of HNA is very solid.” Who was a neighborhood resident to argue with that?

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