Looking at Mayor Coleman’s e-mails

By Mike Kaszuba

During the course of a single month – October 2015 – the St. Paul mayor’s office was preoccupied with two major issues.  One was a controversial attempt to install parking meters on Grand Avenue, the city’s popular shopping area.  The other was an announcement that St. Paul would be home to a Major League Soccer franchise and an accompanying new stadium.

But in more than 1,300 pages of e-mails and documents that provide insight into the thinking within the mayor’s office there is one voice largely missing:  Mayor Chris Coleman’s.

Public Record Media, a St. Paul non-profit, asked the mayor’s office for correspondence from October 2015 to ascertain how St. Paul’s mayor and his top aides had navigated the two issues politically.  But while the documents – consisting mostly of e-mail messages — outlined scores of exchanges and behind-the-scenes policy discussions among the mayor’s staff, there were few e-mails from the mayor himself.  Many of Coleman’s written comments provided to PRM were only contained in official press releases issued by his office.

Earlier this month, Coleman announced that he is running for governor.

Telephone, personal conversations preferred

In explaining the lack of written correspondence from the mayor, Coleman’s communications director Tonya Tennessen told PRM that the mayor has long preferred to talk to his staff in person, or by telephone.  “The mayor has regular in person/over the phone conversations with his staff,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

Tennessen said that while Coleman also had a personal e-mail account, there had been just one instance when he had used his personal e-mail for official business.  Tennessen noted that the instance related to a conference call regarding the soccer franchise while the mayor was out of in town.  “Official business is conducted on his city e-mail,” she wrote.  “I can confirm that [we have provided] everything,” Tennessen said of the mayor’s official written correspondence.

Parking meter proposal

The mayor’s office provided 734 pages of documents and e-mails for the month of October 2015 related to the parking meter proposal for Grand Avenue.  The document batch contained just eight e-mails from the mayor, and in most cases they contained only brief replies.  In one, Coleman simply forwarded an e-mail to his staff without comment.  In another, after a citizen complained about getting three parking tickets, Coleman wrote in an October 27th e-mail, “can we have someone look at this[?]”

There were also few written replies from the mayor when he was asked questions by his own staff.  On October 21st Kristin Beckmann, Coleman’s deputy mayor, wrote to Coleman and said that, “Mayor, I asked [a senior staff official] to try to find us a path forward on meters.  Below is her idea for a resolution. . .will you let me know if this strikes the balance you were looking for?”

That same day Dana Bailey, the mayor’s chief of staff, asked Coleman and Beckmann her own question related to the parking meters in an e-mail: “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this again before the [City Council] resolution hits?”  In both cases, the correspondence provided to PRM did not list a response from Coleman.

Similarly, Coleman staff member Christine Rider wrote in an October 12th e-mail that the mayor and then-City Council member David Thune had “been chatting via email” regarding the parking meter controversy – but the mayor’s office provided no e-mail exchanges between the two men.

The most detailed e-mail from Coleman about the parking meters came that same day, and consisted of three sentences:  “If we can couch all of this as ‘these are reasons we moved forward.  Mayor is willing to listen but fear of the unknown won’t be the basis for him changing his mind.  Need evidence to counter a lot of research that says this is the right [thing] to do.[‘] We have to be careful of final decision until folks have had a chance to meet with me,” he wrote.

Major League Soccer announcement

The same pattern could be found regarding the announcement – on October 23rd — that a major league soccer franchise would be coming to St. Paul.  PRM was given 577 pages of documents and e-mails related to the soccer issue, but they included only seven e-mails, and one memo, from Coleman.

Many of the mayor’s replies were short.  In one message on October 12th, regarding City Council member Dai Thao’s concerns about the soccer issue, the mayor said to Beckmann, “can you call me and give me background on this?”   In another message on October 27th, concerning a request to meet with the mayor from a man wanting to discuss the stadium and surrounding development, Coleman forwarded it to a staff member with only a question mark – “?”

When WCCO-TV asked for statistics on how many fans would use public transit to go to soccer games, Coleman told his staff to “point [the reporter] to Portland.  I’m sure they are at 50% non-private car use to games.”

And on October 29th, during an exchange over how many changes to state law would be needed to get public subsidies for the soccer stadium, Coleman wrote that “there may only be the one.  [It’s possible] existing law already covers tax exemption for materials.”

In one message, the mayor expressed frustration with critics who compared the lack of transparency regarding the soccer stadium with the new, publicly-subsidized baseball stadium for the St. Paul Saints.  “What really pisses me off is them dragging up the ballpark BS,” Coleman wrote in a October 14th email to his staff.  “That was so f’ing transparent birds keep running into it.”

Documents provide a window on staff activities

Documents provided to PRM – covering both the soccer and parking meter discussions – provide more detail on what Coleman’s staff was saying and doing, as opposed to the mayor himself.

“I made mistakes while moving too quickly and one of those was not getting enough input from [the City] Council,” Beckmann wrote in an October 15th e-mail to Thao and several city officials, outlining what she viewed as missteps in the creation of a stadium advisory committee.

As the soccer announcement approached – and media speculation increased – Beckmann told Coleman and key staff members not to leak any news before an official release.  “We need to clam up,” she wrote on October 21st, two days before the press conference.

And in an October 26th e-mail Beckmann again gave direction to the staff.  “I need soccer to not get hung up on [city] budget politics,” she wrote.

Beckmann stepped in to speak for the mayor when questions arose over Coleman’s public statements over how many fans might use public transit to get to the stadium.  “Mayor – Were you speaking off the cuff?” Tennessen asked in an October 26th e-mail.

“I am going to answer for him,” Beckmann interjected.  “I think it is aspirational to say 50%.  Metro Transit estimates that 30% of attendees to [Minnesota] Vikings and Twins games ride transit.”

“Tell [the reporter] that is [the mayor’s] hope,” she added.   Coleman was included on the e-mail chain, but there were no messages from him.

At another point Bailey, Coleman’s chief of staff, e-mailed Tennessen on October 21st to share her enthusiasm for the upcoming soccer announcement.  “This is great, and so exciting.  An excellent book-end to a terrible beginning,” wrote Bailey.

Two days earlier, e-mails indicated that it was Bailey who seemed to be at the center of the planning inside the mayor’s office.  “Let’s get our heads together and get ready for soccer announcement on Friday,” she stated in an e-mail to the mayor’s staff.  “We need to reboot quickly and start the planning.  Can everyone plan on meeting at 2 pm in my office?”  Mayor Coleman was not included in the e-mail chain.

Communications with Minnesota United

There were no written exchanges during October between mayor Coleman and those pushing for the stadium, particularly Minnesota United soccer team owner Bill McGuire.  But e-mail messages showed that Coleman’s staff was communicating with McGuire, the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive.

“Bill, you asked the other day for an understanding of the various teams that will be working on the Midway [area] redevelopment and the soccer stadium,” Beckmann wrote to McGuire on October 28th.  “Jonathan Sage-Martinson is the [city’s] Director of Planning and Economic Development.  He will lead you through the Community Advisory Committee and master development process.  He will be in touch with you shortly to schedule a visioning session for you, the Mayor [and another official] since we’ve never had the three of you in one conversation.  We thought it would be good to get on the same page.

“I will keep the Mayor apprised of progress as he is watching this project closely,” she added.  Coleman was copied on the message but offered no comment in response.

Documents provided to PRM revealed how the mayor’s office coordinated the announcement with Minnesota United officials.  One document, which the mayor’s office shared with the team, outlined the precise events leading up to the press conference: “12:56 – Team website goes live, live streaming begins, Mayor’s [Facebook] & Twitter Posts; Newsflash On Stpaul.Gov.”  According to the document, the mayor and McGuire would gather in a “holding suite” 30 minutes prior to the press conference.

Still another document – titled “Talking Points for Mayor Coleman” – suggested that the mayor “give a roaring, [enthusiastic], ecstatic intro:  What an incredible day for Saint Paul!  What an incredible day for Minnesota!  What an incredible day for Soccer!”

The documents also showed that Coleman, following the announcement, was available for media interviews to capitalize on the announcement.  “Would the mayor have a few minutes for [1500 ESPN Radio personality] Patrick Reusse today at 4:05?” a radio station official asked in an Oct. 23 email.  “Yes,” came a quick reply from Ashley Aram, the mayor’s press secretary.

Two days before the soccer announcement – October 21st – Tonya Tennessen suggested a strategy for placing Coleman front-and-center as soon as the news was released.   “Mayor, if you are open to doing so, we could pitch you to the weekend shows – but, at minimum, will pitch you to morning radio on Monday and Tuesday,” she said.

One of the few e-mails from Coleman regarding the announcement came the next day.  In it, Coleman said simply: “Let’s get [City Council member] Dai a quote in the [press] release.”

Reviewing parking meter issue

That same month, the mayor’s staff wrestled with a central issue in the Grand Avenue parking meter debate:  How much money would the meters yield for the city?

“Are you saying you’d like to go in a different direction?” Tonya Tennessen asked in an October 20th e-mail to city staff.  “Please advise – but we had told the mayor to use the net numbers and that’s what he did … The ‘net revenues’ are the revenues AFTER accounting for the cost of installation,” Tennessen wrote the same day.

John McCarthy of the city’s Office of Financial Services replied: “Net is actually only after cost of maintenance and enforcement.  Installation is handled separately.”

Tennessen then replied: “Let’s all stick with yesterday’s agreement and use the [$400,000 in revenue the first year, $600,000 in subsequent years] numbers until [we] agree on a NEW set of numbers and explanations for both.”

Coleman, in one of his few e-mails on the parking meter issue, meanwhile told his staff on October 12th that an airline stewardess had asked him about the controversy as he was boarding a plane.  “I said ‘upgrade me and we can chat,’ ” he wrote.