Minneapolis City Council and Charter Commission spar over future of Police Department

City Council wants November ballot question on dismantling Police Department; Charter Commission less certain

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis seems headed for a showdown between the City Council and an unelected group of nearly all white people appointed by a judge called the Charter Commission.

If the commission were to stall long enough, it could stop the council from going to the voters this November with a measure to dismantle the Police Department and replace it with something new. 

Hours before the Minneapolis Charter Commission was set to hold its second public hearing on whether to go along with a plan to let voters decide in November whether to scrap the Police Department, commissioners used a “working group” session to scrutinize the measure and debate two of the commission’s own potential proposals. 

The Charter Commission’s hesitancy with dismantling the MPD put them squarely at odds with the City Council, which sent the commission the charter amendment, hoping for a rubber stamp that would send the measure to the voters. After the police killing of George Floyd, the City Council unanimously voted June 26 to send the amendment to the commission to review it for a citywide vote, saying the measure would give them more flexibility to create a new kind of public safety agency.

During a special meeting Monday, the commission floated an alternate proposal that did not go nearly as far as the council’s, though it would still strip the minimum police staffing level from the city charter, which is like the city’s constitution. The charter now requires the city to have .0017 police employees per resident; eliminating the requirement would allow the city to devote funding to other public safety alternatives. The commission scheduled a public hearing on that proposal for Monday at 5 p.m.

The public testimony has frequently featured passionate defenses of the proposed charter amendment and the idea of dismantling the Police Department and putting a new public safety agency in its place. 

But the commissioners appear cool to the council proposal. Several said the City Council rushed the process and didn’t do enough study.

Commissioner Andrew Kozak favorably compared the Charter Commission’s own proposed amendment to the council’s.

“This is certainly a more focused amendment than what we got from the City Council,” said Kozak, a Capitol lobbyist whose clients include American Express, Ameriprise, the University of Minnesota, Koch-owned Flint Hills Resources and tobacco giant RAI.

The powerful Charter Commission can accept the proposal, reject it, substitute its own proposal or ask for more time to review it, which would effectively mean the council wouldn’t be able to get it on the ballot this November because it would not be able to meet filing deadlines.

The commission’s opposition is sure to draw the ire of the council, which is under intense pressure from activists to move on “defunding” the Police Department. 

Race is an important subtext of the conflict between the commission and the council. The council is more represenative of the city’s demographics than the commission. The City Council also faces the political imperative of serving constituents for whom the Floyd killing under the knee of Derek Chauvin capped off what they say is decades of police brutality.

Kessa Andrews, a leader with ISAIAH — a progressive group of chuches, mosques and synagogues — cautioned the board not to stand in the way of democracy.

“Our democratically elected City Council already voted unanimously to put this city charter question on the ballot this November and, respectfully, this commission of 15 volunteers doesn’t reflect the city of Minneapolis geographically, racially or economically,” she said. “I believe that the people of Minneapolis should be allowed to decide about policing and public safety in our own city.”

Although the commission heard two hours of public testimony last week and two hours Tuesday, some of the commissioners already have strong opinions about the charter amendment.

Commissioner Matt Perry said he thinks the commission needs to take more time to get information, just as it did two years ago, when the Charter Commission rejected a charter amendment that would have given the City Council more authority over the Police Department. (The mayor currently has sole authority over the Police Department, though the council sets its budget.) Because the commission exercised its authority to take another 90 days to consider that amendment, the council was prevented from putting the issue on the ballot in 2018.

Commissioner Lyall Schwarzkopf said asking people to vote on something before having the year-long public engagement the council promised is “like putting the cart before the horse. We’re voting for the cart and then the horse is gonna come back later on and pull the cart,” he said. “For me that doesn’t make sense. I think that we need to start doing it ourselves.”

The chairwoman of the commission’s work group, Andrea Rubenstein, said if the commission decides to reject the council’s amendment and present its own, that would allow it to do so after more study.

Rubenstein acknowledged that the commission’s authority is being questioned. But she rejected the challenge. 

“There’s no authority for what they’re saying,” she said of the critics. “What we did in 2018 is what we’re doing now, without challenge.”

But the commission has asked the city attorney to look into the issue, “So that we can have more grounding when we say you’re wrong,” Rubenstein said. 

Rubenstein also proposed adding the council’s proposed new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention to the city charter, saying that would allow the council time to restructure public safety. 

An initial finding of the city attorney said the commission does have the ability to look at the substance of the amendments.

The commission must decide on a course of action by July 29 if the issue is to get on the ballot, Rubenstein said.

Commissioner Alvaro Giraud-Isaacson authored the commission’s alternative proposal, but questioned what would happen if both amendments go forward.

Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg said if the commission were writing a charter from scratch, “We would never put in minimum staffing for any department.”

During the public hearing, the commission ticked through over 100 names of people signed up to testify remotely by phone, but many weren’t on the line after the wrong phone number was sent out in an email. 

Just as with last week’s public hearing, most of the testifiers supported the council’s amendment, and warned the Charter Commission not to overstep its bounds or dither and prevent the issue from getting on the ballot this year.

“Whatever your personal opinions, the community wants a say on this issue. The uprisings are proof of how badly the citizens want an alternative,” Alya Bohr said. “Our city has already voted informally, publicly and forcefully and we’re just now asking you to let us make this vote official in November.” 

Opponents of the charter amendment sometimes were angry with the City Council, saying it had failed to protect citizens before Floyd was killed.

“We don’t need to just do something, we need to do the right thing,” Carleton Crawford said.