Minneapolis voters will not decide future of police department in November

The Charter Commission voted to take more time to review amendment eliminating police, blocking it from reaching the ballot in the fall

By: - August 5, 2020 6:25 pm

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

In a stunning blow to the Minneapolis City Council and residents who want to dismantle the Police Department, the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted 10-5 Wednesday to take another 90 days to review the council’s proposed charter amendment, effectively preventing it from going on the ballot this November.

The Minneapolis City Council had proposed letting voters decide in November whether to strip the Police Department from the city charter, which is akin to a constitution, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in police hands.

That Charter Commission’s move doesn’t mean the issue won’t be on the ballot in 2021, however. Once the commission makes a recommendation, the City Council can put the issue on the ballot regardless of whether the commission recommends approval, denial or a substitute amendment.

Still, the delay by the Charter Commission is a defeat for the political aims and prestige of the City Council, which has twice tried to wrestle control of the Police Department from Mayor Jacob Frey, and twice been thwarted. 

Several charter commissioners blasted council members for not thoroughly vetting the proposal and rushing it to them without enough public input, especially from the Black community, even though most testifiers at the commission’s three public hearings supported it.

Some members of the charter commission expressed support for major public safety reform, but did not feel the council proposal delivered that.

The amendment would remove from the charter the mayor’s “complete power” to command the Police Department and delete a minimum staffing requirement of .0017 police employees per resident. It would replace it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which would prioritize a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety.

City Council member Steve Fletcher said he was disappointed and surprised by the commission’s decision, and said some of their comments suggest they are more conservative than most residents.

“It certainly doesn’t align with my understanding of the Charter Commission’s role that they would keep an issue that the council’s unanimously forwarded from getting onto the ballot,” he said. “I just think it’s weird to say we haven’t done enough engagement as a way of blocking us from doing what’s really the ultimate form of engagement which is putting something on the ballot so that people get to vote on it.”

Commissioner Jill Garcia, one of three people of color on the commission, made the motion to take another 90 days to continue to study the issue.

“This is an issue that involves the lives, the well-being, the safety of Minneapolis residents. This isn’t a popularity (contest), this isn’t a bumper sticker slogan sound byte debate.”

Toni Newborn, another commissioner of color, opposed Garcia’s motion, but also has concerns about the amendment. But she said delaying the vote would be perceived as stalling. “ I don’t want to play those types of games,” she said. 

Commissioner Matt Perry voted for the 90-day extension, saying he thinks a legal analysis of the proposed charter amendment needs to be done, as with a similar proposal in 2018. That same move two years ago prevented a similar amendment from getting on the ballot that year.

Commissioner Peter Ginder, former deputy city attorney in Minneapolis, also supported the delay, saying while the Police Department has failed the community in many respects, exploring transformational change of the department needs to be done thoughtfully.

“People say we have to do this now. Actually, we don’t because there’s no harm in delaying this amendment,” he said.

He said the current charter would allow the council to lay off 100 employees, freeing up about $12 million for other types of public safety initiatives.

Commissioner Jan Sandberg also opposed taking another 90 days, but ripped into the City Council’s amendment.

 “I don’t think anybody here supports this amendment,” she said. “I certainly do not. I think it’s ill-planned, it’s ill-conceived, no public engagement. Actually there’s no need to change the charter to make the changes they’re talking about and I think we only change the charter when it needs to be changed. And frankly I’m a bit pissed off, sorry about the language, about what appears to be political manipulation by the City Council.”

Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein opposed the delay, saying tabling the vote “feels like sleight of hand” even though she doesn’t think it’s a good amendment and would vote to reject it.

Commissioner Andrew Kozak supported the delay, saying he was conflicted because while the commission has an obligation to honor the council’s wishes, the commission should be a safeguard against amendments that aren’t ready. 

The newest member of the commission, Christopher Smith, voted against the motion, saying being allowed to vote is different from supporting the charter amendment.

“I don’t want to prevent the democratic process from moving forward,” he said. “We have a charter amendment that was unanimously approved by the Minneapolis City Council and I’m concerned about an unelected Charter Commission preventing this from moving forward.”

Commissioner Gregory Abbott supported Garcia’s motion, saying the charter shouldn’t be cluttered with policy disputes of the moment that could tie the city’s hands in the future.

“The council’s proposal even specifies the proposed qualifications for the head of the new department — details more appropriate in my opinion for a ZipRecruiter ad than for a charter revision,” he said.

Abbott said the biggest obstacle to reform is the police union, but the city would still have to negotiate with the Police Officers’ Federation of Minneapolis, and likely have to hire back some officers to staff the new department.

“The City Council’s charter proposal represents the most sweeping and radical charter change in living memory,” Abbott said. “It deserves much more scrutiny and discussion than we can give it in a mere 35 days. Quick action on a flawed charter amendment will not produce immediate benefits, and could have long-term unintended consequences.”

 Commission Chair Barry Clegg voted for the delay, saying a charter change should be discussed for months, “not hours” as it was by the council.

“We are not the City Council. We don’t pretend to be. We are well aware that we are unelected but we have a job to do under state law, and we will do it. That’s why I’m voting to take the extra time.”

Council member Jeremiah Ellison said the amendment will eventually get on the ballot, but he expects “a healthy dose of disappointment” among residents.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.