Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Mar-Apr 2018 issue

Ideas in Action: Brooklyn Park Engages Citizens to Create City Vision

By Andrew TellijohnCity of Excellence Award - White Bear Lake

When Jay Stroebel became Brooklyn Park’s city manager in August 2015, he recognized that the city needed a new strategic plan. The existing one was several years old and many of the goals had been achieved.

While previous planning efforts in Brooklyn Park had included some level of engagement with the community, Stroebel saw this as an opportunity to step that up a notch by gathering input from local residents, businesses, colleges, tech schools, youth, and other stakeholders.

He says city leaders could have gotten together one Saturday afternoon and come up with a strategic plan. Instead, the city worked for nine months, seeking feedback in a number of forums, ultimately hearing from nearly 2,500 people before Brooklyn Park 2025 was finalized and approved. The project was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2017 City of Excellence Award.

A group of neighbors discuss the most important issues and challenges a ecting quality of life in their neighborhood, while Brooklyn Park IT Manager Keith Ehrlichman takes notes“We were very intentional about wanting to create a community plan for Brooklyn Park, not a strategic plan for City Hall,” Stroebel says.

Brooklyn Park is one of the state’s most diverse communities and takes community engagement seriously. Working with the community to develop Brooklyn Park 2025 exemplifies that, but is also part of a larger strategy around enhancing civility.

“Brooklyn Park sees the diversity of our community as a strength, but understands differences within a community can also be a source of tension,” Stroebel says. “I believe this commitment to community engagement and intentionally encouraging a greater discourse and understanding of various cultural communities represented in Brooklyn Park has led to greater civility within our community.”

Project overview
The engagement process took place between April and October of 2016. The initial goal was to collect input from 1,000 community members, staff, and city councilmembers reflective of the city’s diverse population.

A steering committee of residents, councilmembers, and staff guided the process. They engaged and collaborated with 17 community groups, hosting an online forum and polls on Facebook, facilitating six community cafe events, and meeting with local business and institutional leaders. Facilitators conducted interviews with young people across various events, held staff workshops, and posted whiteboards seeking feedback at local businesses. They also collaborated with North Hennepin Community College, organizing students to get feedback from their communities.

In the end, 2,481 voices contributed to the plan, representing about 3 percent of the city’s population, almost triple the goal.

“It was exhausting,” quips Josie Shardlow, community engagement coordinator. But it was also rewarding because it seemed to energize the whole community, she says. City staff are more supportive of the plan because so many people were engaged in the process of developing it.

When developing strategic plans in the past, “it was like a little private club,” Shardlow says. “The people in the room bought into it, but it wasn’t as broad a buy-in. Now, city departments are actually actively implementing what the community wanted.”

Through the collaboration, Brooklyn Park established six general goals:

  • To be a unified and welcoming community, strengthened by diversity.
  • To create beautiful spaces and quality infrastructure that make the city a unique destination.
  • To develop a balanced economic environment that empowers businesses and people to thrive.
  • To make sure people of all ages have what they need to feel healthy and safe.
  • To pursue partnerships that increase racial and economic equity, and empower residents and neighborhoods to prosper.
  • To have an effective and engaging government recognized as a leader.

Each goal has several sub-goals. The implementation process for the first year prioritized 11 specific strategic and citywide projects, ranging from becoming a World Health Organization “Age Friendly Community,” to creating a Parks System Plan, to improving the BrookLynk Internship Program for underserved youth.

Unifying the community and city government
Brooklyn Park’s history of community engagement dates back to at least 2009, says Kaela Dickens, management systems coordinator. This effort went further, she says, by reaching out to collaborate with residents, businesses, and youth.

City officials hosted tables at several events and held community cafe meetings. They visited local Lions, Rotary, and moms’ clubs, met with church leaders, and attended business group events. They went to schools and community colleges to visit the young, and senior homes to visit older citizens.

Youth and children did art projects to show their dreams for the future of Brooklyn Park, including lollipop trees and recess all day. Recreation & Parks employee Jen Gillard, center, and City Councilmember Rich Gates, back, joined in the fun.“We tried to go out to where [the people] were regularly meeting,” Stroebel says. “Meet them in a way that was easy to them, that created an opportunity for us to hear from the breadth of the residents in settings that were convenient to them.”

Dickens says these efforts resulted in a more unified community and city staff are more engaged with the plan. Each department has created a plan centered around the goals. Take the Police Department, for example. Deputy Chief Mark Bruley says there are always strategies the department could work to implement, but without a coherent plan endorsed by the city, it’s hard to prioritize.

With feedback from the community and the resulting goals, the department has been able to set priorities, confident its actions are in line with the goals. For example, one sub-goal of the plan’s goal of pursuing partnerships that increase racial and economic equity is providing support and services for community members to overcome life challenges, including mental illness.

Through that lens, the Police Department plans to implement a three-month research study on training, responding, and looking for proactive ways to respond to mental health-related calls so officers can intervene prior to the occurrence of a critical incident.

Another goal involves diversifying the Police Department so it better reflects the community. To achieve that, Bruley says, the department is enhancing its efforts to find strategies that will bring different candidates into its cadet program.

“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed and things we could do better,” he says. “We could look at a million different opportunities. What the 2025 objective did is take these opportunities and prioritize them for us. It is now in the hands of the Police Department to focus on these areas and create strategies to get this work done.”

As departments finalize their plans, Dickens and Shardlow are working on implementation and on building awareness in the community that work is getting done. They are providing updates to and seeking progress reports from stakeholders.

“We want to create accountability so the community can see how the city is trying to implement the goals. We also want to see what they are doing because we have to work in partnership. The city is just one entity,” Shardlow says.

The city will host a community event this spring to share and celebrate successes and seek progress reports on efforts to meet goals. The education process works both ways, Shardlow adds. There are programs already in place related, for example, toward mentoring youth, after-school activities, and culturally specific workforce training that the city historically hasn’t been deeply involved in.

“That’s good for us to know,” she says. “We don’t want to start getting into that work if others in the community already are.”

Seeing results: Accountability for city and community
One upside of involving community members in the planning is that they are also part of the solution, Stroebel and others say.

“We’re trying to create something that is not a plan for what government is going to try to accomplish, but a plan for what our community broadly is going to accomplish,” Stroebel says.

Kimberly Zayzay, a former participant in the BrookLynk Internship Program for underserved youth, speaks to fellow residents at a community visioning event at City Hall.City staff meet monthly to talk about one-third of the 11 priority projects, so every project gets at least a quarterly check-in, he says. And they are developing indicators to help measure progress.

“It’s not just a plan we created as a feelgood story,” Stroebel says. “It very much is how we want to manage our work and form our partnerships.”

City Councilmember Rich Gates was an early supporter of seeking community feedback. He says the city had always done annual goal-setting sessions, but that past efforts have not brought the unity this effort has.

The engagement is noticeable, he says, even in his Council packets. Agenda items are all linked to the six categories established in Brooklyn Park 2025.

“Never in 11 years have I seen anything like this,” Gates says. “This was a big deal. It was nice to see the Council, the staff, and the community had a vision for the future.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.

Read the Mar-Apr 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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