By Jerry Freeman
In view of former city council president Jackie Cherryhomes’ return to the political scene with her current mayoral campaign, we are reprinting, with the author’s permission, this story that appeared on MSR’s front page March 7, 2002, five months after Natalie Johnson Lee replaced Cherryhomes as the Fifth Ward’s council member.
When Minneapolis City Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee came to her City Hall office January 3 , newly elected and ready to assume her duties, she expected to find the Fifth Ward’s records there, records she needed to brief and prepare herself. Instead, she found a desk, a blank computer, and a small cardboard box containing eight thin files.
Certain there had to be more, Johnson Lee began opening the banks of file cabinets lined up outside her office. They were all empty. She asked Billy Binder, former aide to former council president Jackie Cherryhomes, where the ward’s files might be. Cherryhomes had previously represented the Fifth Ward, losing by a narrow margin to Johnson Lee in the November election.
“That box is it,” Binder replied. That’s when Johnson Lee began to realize that there might be no records for her to consult. She and other City staff had seen large trash cans in Cherryhomes’ office, two or three at a time, filled with paper, but it hadn’t occurred to her that they could contain virtually all the Fifth Ward’s records.
“No correspondence,” said Johnson Lee. “No record of complaints. No neighborhood files. Nothing on the ward’s community organizations and business associations. Nothing on Block E and other development sites, West Broadway development. Not one file on affordable housing. Nothing on nothing.”
In addition to the missing files, Johnson Lee said she discovered the Ward’s computer file tracking system had been deleted, so she could not access information there. After several weeks, technicians have been able to retrieve much of the database, but Johnson Lee is not certain how complete it is.
According to Johnson Lee, Cherryhomes told her in December that she was archiving old records, and that all current information would be maintained. Johnson Lee later went to the City Clerk’s office to ask if any of the material had been archived. “They’ve repeatedly told me no.”
Without the ward’s records, Johnson Lee finds herself with no history on the issues and concerns her constituents brought to Cherryhomes over the previous eight years. “We have to start all over.
“This is not a personal thing,” she said. “They are the public’s records. Information is power. If you come in with no information, everyone else is at the starting line and you are three blocks behind trying to catch up.”
According to official City Council Records Guidelines, all correspondence is to be maintained in the office for two years. It is then transferred to the Records Center, which maintains it for another two years. The same procedure is specified for records of constituent complaints, except that the Records Center keeps that information permanently.
The Spokesman-Recorder asked two other new city council members, the Sixth Ward’s Dean Zimmerman and the Eighth Ward’s Robert Lilligren, now council vice president, how the loss of their files would have affected their work. Both found complete ward records available to them upon assuming office.
“I probably would have been lost,” said Lilligren. “I don’t know what I’d have done. It would have been impossible. I rely immensely on my files. It would have been crippling.”
“Devastating,” said Zimmerman. “If we have a problem or issue, we pull the file to see the history. So if someone comes in, we don’t have to say, ‘I don’t know.’ There’s a lot of documentation of meetings, records, for institutional memory.
“Those are not my records,” Zimmerman said. “They belong to my ward. I’m only the caretaker for a brief time.” Asked if he agreed with Johnson Lee’s plan for a transition policy, Zimmerman said, “I guess you need a policy when common courtesy no longer applies.”
Johnson Lee said she intends to take preventative action: “This will not happen to another council person. I want it investigated thoroughly. I want to see a transition policy that spells out how it is to happen. And I want to make sure staff is protected, so they don’t feel pressured into participating in unethical, possibly illegal activity.”
According to City Council President Paul Ostrow, “There is not an investigation [on the missing files] at this point, but I have asked that the record retention policy be reviewed and that there be every effort to obtain any records that are needed by the council members. Just so it’s clear, that is really what we are trying to do now, is to resurrect and inventory the information that is there and what’s needed by the council members.”
Cherryhomes did not return Spokesman-Recorder phone calls inquiring about the missing files.
Johnson Lee is determined not to let the ward’s missing records slow her down. “It’s really too bad,” she said. “It was probably very good, thorough information. It’s harder when you have to borrow or track down all your information from other council members. But I’ll do what I have to do.
“As the only African American elected official here, the spotlight is on me to perform at a level higher than my other 12 colleagues. That’s enough of a challenge. But you have to make light of it and move on anyway. That’s one of my strengths as a woman of color.”
Jerry Freeman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.