Charter Commission skeptical of proposal to strip Minneapolis Police Department from city charter

Minneapolis Police guard the third precinct on May 27, before it was taken over by rioters. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Of the 15 members of the Minneapolis Charter Commission — which will ultimately decide whether residents will get to vote on a measure to dismantle the Police Department — nine of them are publicly cool to the idea.

The Minneapolis City Council wants the Charter Commission to let voters delete the Police Department from the city charter, which is like the city’s constitution. But the Charter Commission  — 15 unelected, mostly older white members appointed by a judge to oversee the city’s charter — seems poised to put forward its own idea for altering the city charter in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. 

The big question is whether the Charter Commissioner will take action in time for the City Council to get either of the proposals on the November ballot. 

The answer will become more clear this week, when the commission has scheduled three meetings on the topic before making its decision Aug. 5.

The City Council unanimously voted June 26 to send a charter amendment to the commission to review for a citywide vote in November, saying the measure would give them more flexibility to create a new kind of public safety agency after a year of engaging the public.

But nine of the 15 members of the Charter Commission have been publicly skeptical of the council process and proposal, suggesting the council moved too quickly. Here’s a rundown of where they stand, based on their public statements:

Commissioner Lyall Schwarzkopf — who served in the state House from 1963 to 1972 was city coordinator, chief lobbyist and city clerk for Minneapolis, and was GOP Gov. Arne Carlson’s chief of staff before resigning in 1991 — has been particularly  outspoken in his opposition to the council proposal, saying the Charter Commission should take its time and get more input.

“I’m not worried about getting it on the ballot this year, I’m worried about doing it right,” he said recently.

Commissioner Gregory Abbott, an attorney, said the council rushed a proposal that wouldn’t necessarily improve the city’s situation. He’s suggested doing a two-year pilot program before a public vote.

Commissioner Dan Cohen, who served on the City Council from 1965 to 1969, which is before the Beatles broke up, said the Charter Commission has a “legal and a moral obligation to uphold the strong Minneapolis police force.”  He has been quoted saying, “I believe these proposals punish the many brave and law-abiding police for the sins of the few, such as the horrible crime against George Floyd.”

Peter Ginder, former deputy city attorney in Minneapolis, has said the council already has the power to cut up to $20 million — or about 180 officers — based on the minimum staffing level dictated in the charter now.

Commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson recently authored an alternative to the council’s amendment that would strip the minimum staffing threshold out of the charter. A public hearing on his proposal was set for Monday afternoon.

Andrew Kozak, a well known State Capitol lobbyist whose clients include Koch Industries owned Flint Hill Resources, has been critical of the council proposal, saying during a meeting last week, “We’re giving them a license to do something but don’t know what in fact they’re going to do. We don’t even have a hint.”

Commissioner Barbara Lickness has also criticized the City Council  for fast-tracking such a major decision, saying earlier this month, “All the comments I have received say this is moving too fast.”

Commissioner Jana Metge has questioned why the charter needs to be amended at all.

“I keep hearing the reason for changing the charter,” she said July 1. “And the reasons that I am hearing — it can still happen, with the charter as is.”

Early in the process, Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein suggested the council moved too quickly. She proposed her own amendment to Giraud-Isaacson’s proposal last week that would add the council’s proposed new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention to the city charter. She said that would allow the council time to restructure public safety and give people something to vote for without being inflexible.

“”The City Council certainly hasn’t done enough study,” she said. She also threw her support to Giraud-Isaacson’s amendment to eliminate the provision requiring a minimum number of officers, because, she said, it’s simple and addresses one of the main concerns she’s heard about making the charter more flexible. She said if the commission decides to reject the council amendment, that opens the door to move its own amendment after doing more study.

Commissioner Matt Perry, who lost the DFL Party endorsement to Linea Palmisano in 2013 and then unsuccessfully ran for the seat in the general election anyway, said last week he thinks more time and study are needed. Keeping people safe is the top priority, and it’s “incredibly important we do the level of research we did two years ago,” he said. 

That’s a telling goal, however: In 2018, the commission took too long before acting on a charter amendment to get it on the ballot that year.

Perry said he has “grave concerns” about having two proposals on the ballot, which he thinks would be confusing for voters.

Commissioner Jan Sandberg —  former program evaluator with the Office of the Legislative Auditor — hasn’t said much publicly, but early in the deliberations, she worried neighborhood associations wouldn’t have time to meet and participate in the process.

The commission chair, Barry Clegg, has also been critical of the city’s rushed process.

“As I understand it, they are saying, ‘We are going to have this new department. We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. We won’t implement this for a year, we’ll figure it out,’” Clegg said. “For myself anyway, I would prefer that we figured it out first, and then voted on it.”

He has also defended the commission’s authority to thoroughly review the proposal, saying last week “I don’t think the Legislature would’ve given 150 days to review if our only job was to make sure the council was using the right forms.”

Commissioners Jill Garcia, Toni Newborn — chief equity officer for the city of St. Paul — and Christopher Smith have not publicly expressed opinions about the proposed charter amendment.

The commission could keep any amendment off the ballot this year if it decides to exercise its right to take another 90 days to deliberate, as it did in 2019.

That has prompted some residents to accuse the commission of overstepping its authority. Council allies have threatened to dethrone commissioners and change state law so commissioners are elected, not appointed by the Hennepin chief judge.

Several testifiers at the commission’s public hearings have bashed the commission as an older, predominantly white panel that’s not in touch with constituents.  

Online critics aren’t the only ones who are uncomfortable with the way the commission is set up.  Former Hennepin Chief Judge James T. Swenson said in 2010 after appointing six new commissioners he received little information on the candidates, and questioned whether one judge should be making all the appointments. 

“I get a bunch of applications, no letters of support, no explanation of whether someone has been a good or a bad Charter Commission member,” Swenson said.

City Council member Steve Fletcher said in an interview the Charter Commission is a volunteer body with a well-intentioned role in civic life. Because they’re not always as public as other bodies, their decision-making is not always transparent. Still, he said the commission had good intentions to create “positive civic participation.