A prominent Minneapolis cycling and pedestrian advocacy group has been fined by state regulators for failing to register its employees as lobbyists.
Our Streets Minneapolis, a nonprofit formerly known as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition that puts on Open Streets events, was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $4,000 and file lobbying spending reports for four previous years as part of a settlement agreement approved earlier this week by the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.
In a related issue, the city of Minneapolis is seeking nearly the same amount from Our Streets as reimbursement for ineligible expenses the group claimed, city officials confirmed this week.
Both situations stem from complaints made by Carol Becker, a Minneapolis activist who for years has opposed Our Streets' advocacy for such measures as reducing vehicle traffic lanes to expand cycling lanes.
"It's bothered me that these people take donations and refuse to acknowledge they're lobbyists," Becker said in an interview.
She had strong evidence, based on records cited in her complaints, findings of the campaign board, and ultimately Open Streets' own actions and statements.
After Becker filed her complaint with the state campaign board in July, Our Streets acknowledged that many of its employees do perform lobbying activities, as defined in state law, but maintained that it hadn't realized it had been doing so.
In documents filed by the group, it says that from 2018 to 2021, it spent $340,415 on lobbying. Five of its employees were named in the settlement as failing to register as lobbyists during that period.
In a statement, Our Streets spokeswoman Carly Ellefsen said:
"Our Streets Minneapolis was happy to work with the Campaign Finance Board to ensure compliance with our efforts to bring positive change to the Twin Cities. We are satisfied with the solution and excited to continue working for streets and neighborhoods that are vibrant places for people to live, work, and play."
The organization has a contract with the city of Minneapolis as lead coordinator for the 2023 Open Streets season, which has not been scheduled. The events, which have been held in various forms since 2013 when Our Streets was known as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, generally involve closing down portions of city streets to vehicles to showcase neighborhoods and the vitality that can emerge in an urban setting without vehicle traffic.
In the fall, following a separate complaint made by Becker, the city attorney's office notified Our Streets that it is seeking the reimbursement of $3,850 for what it deemed ineligible expenses stemming from previous Open Streets events.
Becker said she has also lodged complaints with the IRS over Our Streets' tax-exempt status as well as the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.
She also said the entire idea of a lobbying organization receiving a city contract to coordinate an event bothers her.
"The city contracts with them to put on this event, and any money they make (from fund-raising) during the event, they can turn around and spend it to lobby the city," she said. "That doesn't seem ethical."