See more of the story

During the five days Phillip Murphy spent at the Hennepin County workhouse last month, he said a handful of people recognized him from two decades of advocacy work in north Minneapolis. Since 2014, Murphy has run a Facebook page called True North Minneapolis where more than 10,000 followers can see his updates about the North Side, mainly related to crime.

Lately, however, the 56-year-old has been more active on his personal Facebook page, posting to friends about the still-unfinished yard projects that landed him in the county workhouse.

According to St. Louis Park city officials, three letters went to Murphy last spring and summer about code violations related to things piled in his yard in the 1800 block of S. Hampshire Avenue, where he’s lived since 1988.

Murphy didn’t respond and said he never saw the letters. In fall 2018, the city attorney’s office sent a final letter asking Murphy to resolve a code violation for improper outdoor storage. According to the city inspector, a disassembled fence lay in his yard along with metal cabinets, coolers, tire rims, plastic crates and old bicycle parts.

“Who else has been put into jail for stuff in their yard? Nobody,” Murphy said. “It’s preposterous.”

Brian Hoffman, St. Louis Park’s director of building and energy, agrees that it is rare. In his 30 years on the job, he said he could think of maybe three people who landed in jail over similar code violations. Of the hundreds of complaints the city receives each year, only a handful ever go to court, he said.

After the letters went to Murphy, the city also imposed a $100 fine.

“Usually there’s no reason to go this far. We find that if we are persistent and explain our reasoning, most people will get things taken care of,” Hoffman said.

Murphy said he was addressing the issues, but that a rainy summer and some ongoing health concerns made meeting the court’s deadlines difficult. In August, a judge gave him until Oct. 30 to resolve the outdoor storage concerns. An inspector found that the problems remained, constituting a violation of Murphy’s probation and requiring him to serve time in the workhouse.

Murphy said court dates and the five days he spent at the workhouse meant he lost valuable time to complete the projects before the weather turned. His redbrick driveway, made of pavers stacked in his yard for 30 years, remains unfinished, and the fence isn’t back up. A snowplow from his now-shuttered north Minneapolis floral shop also sits in the yard, he said.

Friends have helped with the driveway construction, but Murphy said he’s done much of the work himself.

“I said I’d get it done, but [the city] keeps stacking and stacking the issues I’m supposed to address,” he said. “It’s really frustrating, and I just ran out of time.”

If not addressed, what remains in Murphy’s yard could be considered another probation violation and potentially subject him to another stay in the workhouse.

“The issue here is that this has been going on a long time,” Hoffman said, adding that the city offers loans and assistance for residents who are financially or physically unable to address violations.

“We aren’t talking about someone just leaving a shovel outside,” he said. “When things are piled up, it creates what is considered a less than desirable image in the neighborhood. People expect a certain level of cleanliness, appearance and livability.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440