Lileks: When the city starts taking over, why stop at electricity?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2013 - 9:22 PM

In retrospect, the law may have passed because the ballot wording was confusing. It said:

“Shall the City of Minneapolis give everyone five dollars, and also, in perpetuity, be authorized to create, manage, operate, construct, build, paint, decorate, illuminate, arrange, purchase, and otherwise assume control of all the nutritional endpoint distribution nodes in the city?”

Turns out people stopped reading at the “five dollars,” voted yes, and moved on to the rest of the ballot. Any judges up this time? No? Hey, this is like one of those easy tests where you know all the answers!

And so the measure passed, and the city — five years after taking over the electric and gas industries in 2014 — assumed control of the city’s grocery stores in order to ensure the vital job of providing a basic necessity wasn’t left to people who had been doing it for the last century.

The mayor was pleased with the result:

“Having no experience whatsoever in the field,” he said at a news conference, “we believe we will be unencumbered by preconceptions that have stymied innovation. For example, we have now streamlined the milk choices, eliminating 1 percent milk in favor of an educational outreach effort that advises people to drink half as much 2 percent.”

(Within six weeks, 49 stores offering 2 percent had appeared on the borders of neighboring cities.)

The public was stunned, and wanted to know why there hadn’t been hearings on the matter, aside from the 15 town meetings, seven instructional mailings, billboard campaigns and public service announcements on all TV and radio channels.

As one angry man put it, “The city ought to know that any envelope from the city that doesn’t say SHUT OFF NOTICE or DELINQUENT TAXES on the front goes right in the trash. Anyway, I have to go to a meeting to say the city doesn’t need a Comptroller of Baguettes?”

Within a month, the City Council rolled out the Healthy Choices initiative, which banned the sale of 1,394 items. People who bought broccoli or certain vitamin-laden leafy greens would be eligible for a 0.001 percent reduction in their property taxes, with renters eligible for an annual rebate up to $278.94 if they provided receipts demonstrating they bought non-GMO lettuce washed in a facility that recaptured and recycled up to 87 percent of the water.

The city set up a website where renters could upload receipts and calculate their rebate, and rolled out a smartphone app that let people scan and submit receipts. The groundbreaking program received the “Smart Cities” award from Forbes, and helped Minneapolis snag second place in a BuzzFeed list of “Cities That are Totally About Encouraging Sustainable Salad Practices.”

Of the people who used the program, two were later convicted of fraud, but the other four were cleared.

Around the same time, Maple Grove grocery stores not only advertised that they not only had all the things “Healthy Choices” had banned, but began offering Twinkies stuffed with cigarettes.

The most serious challenge to the Municipal Food-Utility Act came at the end of a long, difficult winter, when potholes appeared in the aisles of dozens of well-trafficked stores. Numerous lawsuits were filed by people whose cars hit the hole, causing trauma to the elbow joints and muscle fatigue in the forearms.

The problem was exacerbated by the mandatory installation of air bags in shopping carts, which the City Council had required after an expensive lawsuit filed by someone who had collided with another cart, suffered whiplash, and blamed the city for not striping the aisles and erecting traffic signals to facilitate safe traffic. (The city settled for $400,000, necessitating a temporary tax on Greek yogurt, set to expire in 2117.)

Airbag-related injuries climbed sharply during the pothole crisis, and impulse purchases declined sharply when the smell of asphalt filled the stores.

The bad publicity was tempered by an award from the online journal that praised the city for adding bike lanes to grocery aisles.

In related news: The Supervalu corporate headquarters, vacated after the city of Hopkins also took over its grocery stores, resulting in a loss of thousands of jobs, has been reopened as a small-business incubator, where entrepreneurs can develop new businesses. Its first tenant was a two-person company developing an app that uses crowdsourcing and social media to alert people when bread is available in a municipal grocery store.

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