Member of Minneapolis mayor’s police reform work group quits over transparency concerns

Former mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad resigned after just two meetings

By: - January 31, 2022 3:41 pm

A Minneapolis police squad car in front of the burned out Third Precinct police station blocks off Minneahaha Avenue for a street festival in October 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A member of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s policing and public safety work group has resigned because the group plans to keep its meetings private.

The Community Safety Workgroup met in December and January, and after a “robust discussion,” decided not to open its meetings to the public.

That prompted member Sheila Nezhad — a policy analyst for the police abolitionist group Reclaim the Block — to resign after just two meetings.

Soon after winning a second term as mayor in an election where voters rejected a proposal to replace the police department with a new public safety department, Frey announced the public safety group to examine policing and public safety. 

He has described the group as “a team of rivals” because it’s a diverse group of community leaders. They include Sondra Samuels, who sued the city to try to get the proposed police charter amendment thrown out, and frequent, vocal Frey critics such as Nezhad, who ran against Frey last year, and co-chair Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist who ran against Frey in 2017.

Nezhad said the mayor’s office proposed keeping the group’s work confidential, and much of the first meeting was spent debating that question, with concern that open meetings could bring sensational headlines about “not fully formed ideas.”

The group was told by a city staffer that the meetings didn’t have to be open because members weren’t nominated by the City Council and there aren’t elected officials on it, Nezhad said.

The group also discussed how to handle “breaches” of confidentiality by members of the group, and was told the mayor would handle such leaks, according to notes of the meeting the Reformer obtained. The group decided to instead release some general progress reports to the public.

“The primary reason I was given was that the media would be disruptive to the work of this group,” Nezhad said. “I told them the best way to not be misquoted is to record meetings.”  

The mayor’s office released a statement saying the ground rules for meetings and public engagement were set by consensus of the group, not by Frey or his office, and the co-chairs are working with the group to determine how best to “meaningfully engage the community in this important work.”

“Mayor Frey is supportive of this choice and is grateful to the co-chairs, workgroup members, and city staff for their continued focus on delivering real change for Minneapolis residents,” the statement said.

During the January meeting, Nezhad was unable to persuade the group to be transparent and open the meetings to the public. She was told the closed-meeting rule was being used by two other mayoral work groups, on government restructuring and economic development.

One of the original rules was to abstain from including any details of the group’s work in emails with city staffers because they would be subject to open records requests, Nezhad said.

“That’s concerning to me,” she said.

The rule was changed to make the group aware that any email with a city staffer could be requested by the public, she said.

“I kept saying freedom of the press is a good thing,” she said. “Transparency is a good thing.”

The work group is being facilitated by Antonio Oftelie, executive director of Leadership for a Networked World at Harvard University. Oftelie approached the city offering his team’s free assistance in transforming public safety. Now the city is funding the Harvard work through about $400,000 in donations from the Pohlad Family Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis Foundation and Joyce Foundation.

“I think a lot of city work groups unfortunately become in the business of manufacturing consent for the plans that elected officials already have,” Nezhad said. “It’s difficult to trust any recommendations that come out of closed-door meetings, and that’s why I chose to leave.”

She noted that St. Paul’s Community-First Public Safety Commission live-streamed all of its meetings.

Another member of the work group who raised concerns was Michelle Gross, president of the local advocacy group Communities United Against Police Brutality. Gross said she also advocated for open meetings, and there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in down the road.

“I can live with that,” Gross said. “I think (Nezhad’s) resignation was premature.”

The group is scheduled to meet every other week, with a goal of finishing its work by mid-April — which Gross thinks is too soon. However, she said the work group won’t just rubber-stamp Oftelie’s work.

So far, Oftelie has played a minimal role, after an appearance at the first meeting in December, during which Gross pushed back when he made a comment about legitimizing the police department, and she pushed back.

“I was like, ‘Nope.’ … I said ‘I’m not here to do that.’ I’m not interested in legitimizing the police department. That is their own job.”

“This ain’t a shy group,” Gross said. “We (will) denounce things that we (don’t) think are right. … but I don’t think it’s time for that yet.”

Updated at 6:10 p.m. to include comment from the mayor’s office.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.