Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Response from Megan Green, Candidate for 15th Ward Alderman

1. What do you view as the key role(s) and/or attributes needed for this position?

As the legislative branch of government for the City of St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen is responsible for passing ordinances geared towards improving the economic and social outcomes in neighborhoods and advancing the quality of life for all residents. To be effective in this capacity, the role of an Alderman must go beyond the day-to-day administrative duties. Our families deserve visionary leaders that views policy from various levels: the ward, the City, and the region. Although an Alderman is elected to represent the people of a specific community, absolutely no Ward exists in a vacuum. It is critical for an Alderman to work with others at the Board to make policies that will not only benefit families across the City and throughout the region. Moreover, an Alderman must be a quick learner and problem solver who can think strategically, provide timely response to constituent concerns, and make the best use of limited discretionary funds to meet the needs of the community.

2. What education (schools attended, degrees attained), experience, and attributes do you have that qualify you for this position?

I earned a BA in Political Science from Penn State University and was selected as a St. Louis Coro Fellow in Public Affairs shortly after graduation. As a Coro Fellow, I gained a wealth of experience working in different sectors and learning how each helps move a community forward. Moreover, I was able to find ways to improve collaboration between each sector. After Coro, I taught in the St. Louis Public Schools and worked for a variety of education and social service based non-profits. During my tenure, I was able to see how non-profits depend on government to exist, yet government oftentimes does not support these organizations in ways that best serve the St. Louis community. This perspective was one of the initial reasons that I ran for office.

I have a MA in Educational Leadership from St. Louis University and am currently a PhD Candidate in Education Policy at St. Louis University. I received both the Hershel Walker Peace and Justice Award and the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Award for my work on advancing racial and social justice issues. In 2016, I was elected to represent Missouri on the Democratic National Committee for the next four years and serve as an ex-offico member of the Executive Committee for the Missouri Democratic Party. And I was recently named one of St. Louis Magazine’s 100 People Shaping St. Louis for my work on racial justice issues.

3. Why do you think you are the best choice for 15th Ward Alderman? What differentiates you from your opponent(s)?

#NotMeUs was a popular hashtag during the Bernie Sander’s campaign and a phrase that truly describes my leadership as 15th Ward Alderman. Before I was elected, most of the ward lacked the representation of a neighborhood organization. Many residents, especially in Tower Grove South, felt their voices and concerns were going ignored. So when I was elected in 2014, I partnered with the Tower Grove Neighborhoods Community Development Corporation and SLACO to engage residents in creating a Tower Grove South Neighborhood Association. This effort was truly resident driven, providing a sounding board for me to bring to Board meetings. Additionally, to ensure residents who are unable to attend neighborhood meetings still feel engaged, I have implemented a weekly e-newsletter to keep constituents informed about all that I am working on both in the ward and at City Hall.

I brought this same energy into bringing Participatory Budgeting into the 15th Ward to give residents a real say in how their ward capital tax dollars are spent. Participatory budgeting is only successful if residents are empowered to drive the process. Through my leadership, we have successfully implemented Participatory Budgeting twice. And in the most current voting cycle, the 15th Ward had one of the best percentage of turnouts in the Country.

As 15th Ward Alderman, I have made a conscious effort to revolutionize my role to better serve people in the community. We talk a lot about fragmentation in St. Louis, however this is often examined through the lens of the city-county divide. What we fail to highlight is that the City of St. Louis is just as fragmented as St. Louis County if we only make policy on a ward by ward basis. Traffic planning, crime fighting strategies, and development decisions impact the entire city, not just the wards in which they occur.

In efforts to look at the bigger picture, I have also been successful in helping St. Louis replicate good public policy decisions taking place in other cities. I have partnered with organizations like Local Progress and various non-profit organizations to introduce legislation to provide greater protections to victims of domestic violence, protect private reproductive health decisions of women, and change the conversation around how we review and approve tax incentives.

4. Please describe your previous involvement in the ward/neighborhood.

I have represented the 15th Ward as its Alderwoman for the over two years. During this time, I have helped to facilitate the development of the Tower Grove South Neighborhood Association and attend all other neighborhood meetings. Prior to running for office, I had been the Vice-President of the 15th Ward Democrats, and spent three years working with parents in our ward to develop a school. I was also the Tower Grove Volunteer/Communications Coordinator for the Obama for America Campaign.

5. What do you feel are the most pressing issues currently facing this office and what plans do you have to address these issues? (please be specific)

The financial stability of the City is the most pressing issue facing the Board of Aldermen. Over the last few years, St. Louis had its credit rating downgraded, making it more expensive for us to borrow money. Additionally, St. Louis was ranked 42 in fiscal solvency out of the 50 largest cities in the country. Our financial situation makes it harder to provide quality services and fund our public schools. A major cause of our financial instability is the cities tax incentive system which does very little to stimulate our local economy. A recent study by Washington University in St. Louis and commissioned by the City of St. Louis shows that the city had $700 million in foregone tax revenue over the last 15 years, and that over 70% of incentives have been allocated in the three wards in the Central corridor which houses three of the most affluent wards. During that same period of time, those three affluent wards saw an over 50% decrease in their African American population. The current system has created greater concentrations of poverty and wealth within the City of St. Louis without actually increasing our population.

When I was elected in 2014, Aldermen were simply presented with a board bill to pass to support a tax abatement or TIF without any financial analysis. Over the past year, I led a coalition of Aldermen in a push for real financial analysis and transparency. Despite our progress, we still tend to see an overwhelming majority of tax incentives allocated in the most stable wards.

I am working tirelessly to ensure that development decisions that we make at the ward level are of the caliber that we would like to see in all development projects. I have worked with a group of 15th Ward residents to develop a system for evaluating development decisions at the Ward level. Additionally, we are working to implement Community Benefit Agreements – an agreement between the neighborhood, the developer, and the City -- to ensure that large development projects produce net benefits for the Ward and City. Even with the establishment of this system, I still believe we need a comprehensive city-wide development plan as these incentives have city-wide implications, especially when it comes to providing daily services such as police and fire fighters.

6. Public safety is a concern for our neighborhood and the entire city. What can you do on day one and what can you hope to achieve on day one plus ten years?

Addressing crime requires both ward level and city-wide strategies. Through Participatory Budgeting, it was identified that over half of the people who voted in the first round wanted increased lighting. As such, we piloted LED lighting in the areas of the Ward with the highest crime rates and the most night-time foot traffic. Research indicates that enhanced lighting generally decreases crime rates from 7-9% and is one of the most cost-effective ways to decrease crime. The pilot was well received, and when I had money left over in my ward capital budget at the end of the year we allocated funds to expand the project. We are now in the process of enhancing the lighting across the entire ward. Additionally, at the ward level, addressing crime requires having strong, inclusive, neighborhood organizations who promote knowing your neighbors, can create neighborhood impact statements, and support victims of crimes.

Crime does not stop and start at ward boundaries. As such we must have a City-wide comprehensive plan for addressing crime that focuses on the root causes of crime, not just policing. The City of St. Louis spending nearly a third of its budget on public safety, has one of the highest per capita rates of police, yet has very little results to show. What St. Louis has largely lacked is a strategy. As a member of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen, I have advocated for using Focus Deterrence. In partnership with the former Circuit Attorney, Probation and Parole, law enforcement, and a variety of social service/community organizations to pilot this program in St. Louis. I am hopeful that under the new Circuit Attorney, this program will be expanded and made a permanent part of how we address crime.

One of the largest drivers of crime in St. Louis is cheap heroin. Unfortunately, our City invests very little in drug treatment. As City we mostly arrest people for drug usage and release them without addressing the addiction. Nearly a third of the people housed in the City Workhouse are drug addicts who would be better served in a treatment facility that focused on stopping the cycle of addiction. Other cities that invested in treatment rather than incarceration have seen decreases in their crime levels.

7. The Ferguson Commission Report asks government to look through a "racial equity lens" in developing policies. Specifically, what does that mean to you?

The police-involved shootings of Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, VonDerrit Myers, and Antonio Martin have indeed focused attention on racial inequality, economic disparity, and policing practices in the St. Louis region. Although national attention to these issues is new, the issues themselves are not. We have learned that there are significant gaps in our community. We have witnessed the effects that 200 years of institutionalized racism disguised as zoning and housing policy has had on creating concentrations of poverty and fragmentation across our region. We have learned that there are segments of our population who do not feel safe and protected by our police. We have learned how a poverty-stricken person’s inability to pay a speeding ticket can land him/her in jail for weeks. We have seen, at times, a militarized use of force against people exercising their First Amendment Rights. We have a new awareness of the long-term effects of unequal access to quality education, jobs, health care, and housing can have on people of color. Now that we have learned and witnessed so much, we have a responsibility to change our ward, our City, and our region in order to ensure equal opportunity and access for all. This means being aware that these disparities exist and continually evaluating our public policy decisions to ensure that we are not making these disparities worse.

Seeing the need to follow the Ferguson Commission’s call to action, last year I attended a conference with several other Aldermen which specifically taught us how to develop and apply a racial equity framework. As a result of the relationships formed at that conference, we were able to bring national experts to St. Louis to train the Board and City Departments on how to implement a racial equity framework. To apply a racial equity lens in making decision it is necessary to ask a series of questions about the policy proposals that are before us at the Board of Aldermen when we are reading, writing, debating, and voting on legislation. These questions include:
  • What is the policy, program, practice or budget decision under consideration? What are the desired results and outcomes? 
  • What’s the data? What does the data tell us? 
  • How have communities been engaged? Are there opportunities to expand engagement? 
  • Who will benefit from or be burdened by your proposal? What are your strategies for advancing racial equity or mitigating unintended consequences? 
  • What is your plan for implementation? 
  • How will you ensure accountability, communicate, and evaluate results?
Using the answers to these questions in decision making helps the Board of Aldermen to see if the policies we are passing hurt or help people of color, immigrants, or low-income families.

8. How would you approach representing a ward as diverse as the 15th Ward?

The 15th Ward is one of the most diverse Wards – socio-economically and racially – in the City of St. Louis. We have renters and homeowners, students and professors, and fast-food workers and corporate executives that live in our neighborhoods. Yet, that diversity is not often represented in our neighborhood institutions. In order to ensure broad participation in our Ward, it is necessary to implement non-traditional ways of engaging and supporting all residents. We must recognize that not all people have the ability to come to monthly neighborhood meetings, yet their voice still matters. To mitigate this, I started Participatory Budgeting in the 15th Ward to engage a diverse cross section of residents as it requires going to the people to discover their needs. Additionally, if a segment of our population is not having their needs met, I work to develop ways to rectify their issues. For example, last year the International Institute approached me with the concern that rising values of the rents in our Ward has made it difficult for them to continue to house immigrants and refugees in the 15th Ward. So I worked with the Institute to assemble a taskforce of property owners and developers to develop short and long-term plans for how we can ensure affordable housing options for such an integral part of our community.

Being accessible as Alderman is also essential to representing the diversity of our Ward. I hand out my personal cell phone on all literature, am available regularly on social media, and routinely work out of various coffee shops in the Ward to make myself available to constituents who want to talk. Making myself available in a myriad of ways assists me in engaging the diverse perspectives of those all across our Ward, while supporting the growth of strong and vibrant neighborhood associations, helps to reach a board cross-section of the ward.

9. Describe how you work with, or will work with, others to address your priorities.

Making decisions to further the priorities of the 15th Ward involves collaboration. Whether it is implementing participatory budgeting to allow residents to vote on how to use their tax dollars at a ward level, or soliciting resident feedback as the groundwork for conducting a traffic study, involving residents in the decision-making process shapes my agenda as a leader.

Finding common ground with those of whom you do not agree is also important. For example, it took nearly a year of some really intense and difficult conversations with the Mayor’s Office, the City Counselor’s office, and Domestic Violence Advocates to amend our nuisance property ordinance to exempt victims of Domestic Violence. We all wanted to ensure that the City was doing all it could do to prevent domestic violence victims from being evicted from housing. Through a series of difficult conversations, a commitment to help victims, and an understanding that we could disagree on policy without making it personal, we were able to develop and pass legislation that satisfied all of the different stakeholder views.

I also believe in informed decision making and bringing those to the table with the most expertise to engage in dialogue before making decisions. I formed local, state and national relationships with public policy leaders, non-profit leaders, and Elected Officials, to ensure I am making informed decisions for the 15th Ward and City. For example, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen does not have a financial analyst so we are not able to know the real cost to the City of a lot of tax incentive deals. So during the debate of a new NFL stadium, I had to personally reach out and form relationships with national experts on sports financing. Through collaboration, we were able to analyze the deal and determine that it would have catastrophic consequences on the City budget if it were passed. This information was then disseminated to others at the Board of Aldermen which helped them to make decisions about the proposal as well.

10. What role should the Alderman have in working with the neighborhood business districts? What role should the Alderman have in working with resident organizations? How do/would you balance the needs of the residential and business districts of the ward so both are strong and vibrant?

I believe the interests of businesses and residents complement each other. Residents want to live in a walkable neighborhoods comprised with vibrant businesses, and business districts rely on local residents as patrons. As Alderman, I have been actively involved with resident and business organizations and will continue to do so. I am also working on expanding the historical districts to include all of Tower Grove South in an effort to spur business and residential redevelopment throughout the entire ward.

11. How do/will you use the Alderman position to affect delivery of city services for the Ward?

The Alderman is the citizen’s ambassador to city government. When people have complaints, it is my job to make sure that the complaints are relayed to the executive branch of government that controls the delivery of services. For example, I have been approached with a variety of traffic concerns ranging from the placement of one-way streets, to the need for stop signs, to motorists cutting through the neighborhood at high speeds. I worked with the Streets Department to address these concerns and determine how we could create the safest streets for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Additionally, it is important for Aldermen to be advocates for effectively using tax-dollars so city services can be delivered appropriately. This means reforming our tax incentive system. It is hard to tell residents that we are okay at forgiving $53 million in tax revenue for Ball Park Village, but we cannot afford to purchase the 40 trash trucks we need to ensure trash is collected on time. As Aldermen, we must work on issues focused on the 15th Ward without losing site of the big picture policy making decisions that impact delivery of services. As more needs are brought to my attention, I will continue to work with each City Department to ensure that we are efficiently delivering services to St. Louis residents. I will also continue to push for sound big picture policy that will assist with the service delivery.

12. What process do you believe should be used to reduce the Board of Aldermen to 14 members following the 2020 census?

The reduction in the number of members of the Board of Aldermen is going to bring forth many challenges. Most notably, the level of direct constituent service that residents receive from their Aldermen will likely decrease. With two times the area to represent, Aldermen will be thinly stretched when trying to address the overflowing dumpsters, dead trees, and traffic concerns. These functions are important therefore we must strengthen CSB, add support staff to the Board of Aldermen and find ways to make our city departments more efficient. To this end, there are some functions of the Board of Aldermen that I think should also change. For example, currently an Alderman must pass an ordinance to put in a stop sign. I think that duties such as this should be delegated back to the appropriate City Department whose expertise it is to make those decisions based on good data. I also support having tax abatements delegated to the Executive Branch to make such decisions as part of a City wide strategic development efforts, rather than having development done on a ward-by-ward basis. By transferring these administrative functions to City departments, Aldermen will be free to focus on big picture legislation that moves our city forward.

Additionally, there needs to be a citizen led process for redistricting. I have been working with other Aldermen and the Brennan Center out of New York on analyzing best practices from other cities to redistrict accounting to public needs. A citizen led redistricting commission should be assembled and tasked with surveying the community to provide insight on drawing lines in fair and just ways that will not create concentrations of poverty and wealth.

13. If you could ask your opponent one question, what would it be?

Given your previous record on Aldermanic Courtesy, in what circumstances, if any, do you think this undemocratic tradition should be bucked?

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