The City Council and mayor are on a collision course, and voters could decide who prevails in November

But what if they both win?

By: - February 5, 2021 11:51 am

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

This November, Minneapolis residents may vote on a ballot measure that would empower the office of the mayor and dilute the power of the City Council.

On the same ballot, voters could decide on a separate charter amendment that would take power over the police department from the mayor’s office and give it to the City Council.

But what happens if voters support both measures?

It’s a vexing question, even for the chair of the city Charter Commission, an appointed board that can propose changes to and oversees the city’s charter, which is like a constitution.

“We’d have to see it in writing before we can assess that,” Barry Clegg said of the City Council proposal to take away the mayor’s authority over the police department. “But if two contradictory amendments passed, I imagine a judge would parse through both of them and look for parts that are compatible, and I don’t know what a judge would do if parts were not compatible.”

Robert Scott — an attorney who does not represent Minneapolis but represents numerous other Minnesota cities with home rule charters — said if there are any conflicts between the two amendments, a judge would have to go through the language, with the more specific provisions trumping the more general ones.

“I wouldn’t envy that court,” Scott said.

The Charter Commission’s proposal isn’t final yet, and the council amendment details will be more fleshed out in the coming weeks. The Charter Commission could try to make its proposal compatible with the council’s, but is unlikely to scrap its own.

Council member Jeremy Schroeder is one of the three authors of the City’s Council’s amendment, which would dismantle the police department and create a new public safety agency under the control of the council rather than the mayor. He said council members are being mindful of how the two amendments could interact.

“We’re not far enough along to see if we have differing ideas,” he said. “They could both work together.”

But City Council Member Linea Palmisano said there’s likely to be conflict between the two proposals.

“They’re different philosophies, but I’m not sure that there’s a conflict yet,” she said. “But who knows? Because we don’t even have the language yet.”

The two boards could hardly be more different. The City Council is elected, diverse and markedly progressive. The 15 volunteers on the Charter Commission are appointed by a state judge, less diverse and more conservative than the council.

The Charter Commission’s amendment proposal would change the city’s governing structure from its current “weak mayor” system. If Minneapolis would not quite become a “strong mayor” system like St. Paul, it would at the very least become a stronger mayor system, with an “executive mayor and legislative council.” It would scrap the City Council’s power to approve appointments, allowing the mayor to hire and fire department heads instead.

Mayor Jacob Frey — who has said the City Council proposal would dilute accountability by making the head of public safety report to 14 elected officials — endorsed the Charter Commission proposal last week.

Frey’s intervention into the charter amendment debate has turned the November election into a proxy battle between the mayor and his allies on the Charter Commission against the City Council, furthering a now long-running feud between many on the council and Frey over control of the police department. From the view of some City Council members, the unelected Charter Commission has acted as Frey’s palace guard.

It’s another sign that this will be a momentous election in Minneapolis, the first since the police killing of George Floyd. Frey is up for reelection, and all 13 council seats are also up. Another potential charter amendment would allow the city to enact rent control.

And, anti-police activists are circulating petitions to get their own amendment on the ballot that would go farther than the council to dismantle the police department.

Clegg said the chaotic response to the unrest following Floyd’s killing, and the political upheaval since then, drove the Charter Commission to consider governance alternatives that led to their proposed amendment.

The commission privately interviewed most department heads, who said the city’s “overly complex and highly inefficient” governing structure made it difficult to effectively respond to riots while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a commission report. Conflicting messages from the mayor and council led to “confusion, frustration, and unnecessary negative media coverage,” the Charter Commission said in its Dec. 15 report.

“In the early days and weeks, watching events unfold during these crises, it was difficult to identify who exactly was in charge of the city and the city’s response,” the report said. “The overall public impression was that the city was unraveling, and this was in large part the result of a lack of clear leadership and clarity around roles and responsibilities.”

Frey’s support for an amendment that would expand his power is not surprising, but he said during a Charter Commission meeting last week that his aim is better governance: “There’s no reason that any business or government would voluntarily or independently set themselves up in a way that we presently are,” he said, echoing almost to the word a passage in that Charter Commission report.

The city currently has a quasi-“weak mayor” structure in which the mayor has veto power and nominates department heads, and the council confirms them. The mayor oversees city operations, but council members sometimes offer city staff their own directives.

In traditional weak mayor setups, often there is a city manager to handle administrative duties while the mayor is a voting member of the council and cannot directly hire or fire officials and has no veto power. (Frey can veto.)

Under a typical strong mayor system, the mayor is like the city’s full-time CEO, with veto power and the authority to hire and fire department heads, while the city council is often part time and doesn’t oversee daily city operations.

Clegg said different governing structures have been widely discussed in Minneapolis since before 1920.

The City Council’s charter amendment would take the police department out of the city charter and replace it with a new public safety agency, with a division of peace officers under its umbrella.

The model would be like the state’s Department of Public Safety, with a commissioner nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council. Currently, the mayor appoints a police chief, and the city’s executive committee — created by referendum in 1984 to share power between the mayor and council — votes on the appointment.

The law enforcement division would have a chief appointed by the public safety commissioner and confirmed by the council and mayor. The council would also “maintain additional divisions of the department to provide for a comprehensive approach to public safety beyond law enforcement.”

Representatives of the organizations behind the citizen petition drive to dismantle the police department did not respond to a request for comment. Those citizens would have to gather nearly 12,000 signatures — which means more like 18,000 to ensure there are enough valid signatures of registered Minneapolis voters.

Clegg has been on the commission since 2003, and since then, there have been three citizen petitions, but none of them made the ballot after being opposed by the city and rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The council will have to get its proposal to the commission by March 1 in order to meet deadlines to get on the November ballot, Clegg said, since the Charter Commission has up to 150 days to review it. The Charter Commission has more time to work on its proposal than the council — until about May — and still make the November ballot.

In two previous attempts to take power over the police department from the mayor, the City Council was thwarted by the Charter Commission — and the calendar. In 2018 and 2020, the Charter Commission used extra time allotted to it to review the council’s charter amendments, which didn’t leave enough time to get the measures on the November ballot.

The Charter Commission was criticized during public hearings in 2020 for not being receptive to some residents who sought to replace the police department. Clegg defended his colleagues, arguing it’s the commission’s job to review the charter, make changes and keep the document consistent.

“It’s not like we can change the charter ourselves,” he said. “If the citizens don’t like it they can vote against it.”

Council Member Schroeder said he and his constituents just want better police oversight and accountability, regardless of who is in charge: “I think we’re focused so much on who has power instead of what’s going to produce the best results for Minneapolis,” he said.

In the end, even though ballot measures are designed to let the people have the power and decide matters, they may wind up with a judge deciding.

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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.