Charter Commission considering amendment that would give mayor more power

By: - December 15, 2020 4:21 am
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks at an event about housing at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in January 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minneapolis Charter Commission is considering sending a city charter amendment to the voters next year that would strengthen the mayor’s office and take away some of the City Council’s power.

The move is sure to create waves in a community where many people were angered when the 15-member, predominantly white, unelected commission thwarted the City Council’s attempt to get a charter amendment on the 2020 November ballot. That proposed amendment to the city charter, which is like a constitution, would have strengthened the City Council as it tries to reform public safety after George Floyd’s death in the hands of police.

Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender has said she expects a citizen-initiated referendum to get something on the 2021 ballot to transform the city’s Police Department. That means Minneapolis voters could face a choice between two widely divergent paths: A move toward a strong mayor system like St. Paul or Chicago, or a stronger City Council with authority over the police department it now lacks. 

The Charter Commission has talked about its idea with 18 of the 22 city department heads, is now soliciting input from former mayors and City Council members and later will invite Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council members to discuss it. A Charter Commission work group will discuss the issue during a meeting Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

“Overall, department heads expressed unanimous belief that the current structure lacks strong accountability, is overly complex and highly inefficient, and is significantly influenced by personalities of individual elected officials,” said a report on commissioners’ interviews with department heads, which will be discussed by the work group. “The highly diffused governance structure makes it difficult to determine who is in charge and who is accountable for any given policy, project, or proposal.”

Council Member Linea Palmisano said she heard the report was “pretty damning and frankly it doesn’t surprise me at all” because she offered some criticism of the current governance structure when she was interviewed by the Charter Commission last summer. 

“If we wanted to look at systemic problems in our government setup we should probably start with ourselves,” she said. “Our current government structure was built on a chassis from the 1800s and is not built for the speed needed to keep up with the needs of our city in modern times.” 

The Charter Commission amendment would have the mayor appoint department heads, subject to confirmation by the City Council, and they would serve at the pleasure of the mayor for longer terms. Currently, department heads serve for two years, except the police chief, who serves three-year terms. The commission is considering bumping those up to four-year terms.

The amendment could also dispense with the executive committee created by referendum in 1984 to share power between the mayor and council, with the mayor serving as chair and up to three council members on the committee that negotiates with unions and approves appointments.

The amendment could also give the mayor a line-item veto, which would have come in handy last week when Frey and the council clashed over a $7.7 million transfer of funds and staffers out of the Police Department and into other city departments. 

“The goal would be to provide for clearer lines of accountability and establish a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches of municipal government,” Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg wrote in an email invitation to Robert Lilligren, a member of the Metropolitan Council who served on the Minneapolis City Council from 2001 to 2014, to discuss the possible charter amendment. 

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said Clegg’s comment about clearer lines of accountability would be “frustrating if it weren’t so humorously transparent.” Ellison said the Charter Commission seems to think certain council members — and thus, the communities they represent — are a problem, and this is its remedy.

“I’m convinced that the Charter Commission’s greatest concern is concentrating power to the wealthiest, highest voting parts of the city,” Ellison said of the commission’s latest work.

Last year, the Charter Commission *considered — and ultimately rejected — a citizen’s request to create multiple council wards and establishing citywide council seats, a practice that ended because it was so deeply inequitable, Ellison said.

“Now, they want to give the mayor a line-item veto right after not having such a tool complicated his ability to dictate the public safety discussion without involving council members,” Ellison said. “They want all department heads to report to the mayor after a year where we spent time debating the merit of only having the chief report to the mayor when every other department head reports to the council.”

Clegg said at this point, the commission isn’t advocating anything.

“Nothing has been drafted yet,” he told the Reformer. “We will also be inviting a conversation with current officeholders soon.” 

Minneapolis uses a mayor-council form of governing, or what some call a strong mayor-strong council system.

Asked whether such an amendment would move Minneapolis into more of a strong-mayor system — where the mayor functions more like a CEO with the power to hire and fire a cabinet and sometimes appoints a city manager — Clegg said, “We try not to use the ‘weak mayor/strong mayor’ terminology.”

“Minneapolis is currently neither,” he said.

A true “weak mayor” system usually doesn’t give the mayor a veto or ability to propose a budget and the mayor is often elected by the council, he said.

Most major U.S. cities use some version of a strong-mayor method, and the weak mayor system is more common in smaller towns.

 “The Minneapolis system is unique,” Clegg said. “I don’t know of any other system like it in the country.”

The Charter Commission, whose members are appointed by the county’s chief judge, have the power to put an amendment directly on the ballot. But the voters will ultimately decide.   

*A previous version of this story incorrectly reported an attempt to reduce the number of Minneapolis wards and replace them with at-large seats. The proposal was made by a citizen. The Charter Commission declined to move it to public hearing, thus killing it.

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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.