Commentary

Yes on Question 1 for democratic accountability | Opinion

The “14 bosses” argument is wrong, but there are good reasons to vote yes

October 5, 2021 6:00 am

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

Let’s get this straight. There is no one employed by Minneapolis city government who reports to 14 bosses. No one on the City Council can call a department head and tell them they must do as a boss can tell an employee.

When you or I think of what it would mean to have 14 bosses, this is what we envision: 14 immediate supervisors who may have conflicting ideas and goals and who can each pick up the phone and tell us what to do. Or order us to do our work in a different way. Or hire a particular person. Or fire a particular person. All with the implied threat that a failure to go along is insubordination and just cause for being fired.

This is not how Minneapolis city government is structured. Not now. And not later with the police — even if the public safety charter amendment passes.

In combination with repeated references to a strong mayor or weak mayor that are never accompanied by concrete explanation and remain vague and mysterious, the proponents of ballot Question 1 risk alienating some from what actually would be a good reform with their highly exaggerated and oversimplified campaign rhetoric.

The fact that the identical, deliberately misleading, “14 bosses” rhetoric is being used — and sometimes by the same people to fight hard against Question 2 — the public safety charter amendment — only serves to raise suspicions as to whether the changes addressed by Question 1 reflect some anti-democratic conspiracy to remove power from an ascending younger and more diverse generation, which has found better expression with the City Council than with the mayor.

Whether or not there are anti-democratic tendencies by some proponents, passing Question 1 would better align Minneapolis with how constitutional government in the United States typically works. Similar to what I wrote here a few weeks back about the public safety amendment, passage of Question 1 would remove facets of the status quo in which Minneapolis is an outlier for how a constitutional document (like the charter) divides power between executive and legislative branches.

And it’s not so complicated to explain as one might imagine, given all the coded shorthand. The proposed changes to the charter all have to do with department heads: How they are chosen and how they may be removed. 

The model we are likely most familiar with is at the national level. When a president picks someone to be head of a department, the Senate can vote to allow or not allow the selection. Once confirmed though, only the president can remove that employee. As the department head in the cabinet has all authority over employees below, a chain of command is established within this executive department for which the Senate has no subsequent direct role.

At the state level in Minnesota, the intent is the same. In recent years, however, we have seen dysfunction from a Senate that refuses to confirm or reject some of the governor’s department heads, thereby enabling the opportunity to essentially “fire” them later by voting to reject them at any time. Ironically, this has led to the same problem Minneapolis is trying to correct regarding undue legislative interference, though no one talks about Minnesota having a “weak governor” system.

In Minneapolis, the status quo is that it is not the mayor alone who selects department heads but an Executive Committee, which includes a few members of the City Council along with the mayor. A good argument can be made that this is not democratic because the people do not have a direct voice about which council members will serve on this Executive Committee. Removing the Executive Committee and allowing the mayor to exclusively choose the department heads is one of the reforms in the charter amendment that will move the city to a more typical democratic function.

It is also presently the case that department heads serve set terms —2 or 3 years — and must be reappointed in the same manner as they were originally appointed.  Unlike models which follow the typical division of power between an executive and legislative branches, this allows the City Council cyclical opportunities to remove department heads: First through the Executive Committee’s (re)-selection, for which some (but not all) City Council members have significant input; and second through the City Council as a whole voting whether or not to reappoint.

All of the talk about City Council power – a “strong” council – is nothing more than this. It’s not factual that department heads have 13 City Council members as additional individual bosses as the rhetoric put forward by proponents for this measure implies. Yet it is fair to say that the department head’s job stability (i.e. reappointment) is dependent upon pleasing a majority of 13 additional persons who are not their boss. 

The mayor has always been the true and only boss, the one who sets day to day expectations, and for whom disobeying could be an act of insubordination. But it is reasonable to be concerned that the politics of reappointment can interfere with the mayor’s exclusive supervisory authority, which can in turn blunt mayoral accountability for the performance of city functions. The mayor can further deny accountability for departmental problems if the Executive Committee process had led to the selection of a compromise candidate who was not the mayor’s first choice.

The city’s Charter Commission, which was designed as an elite group selected by a judge and holding considerable knowledge of law, has given us a partly flawed amendment to consider. One of the new clauses seems to indicate that the City Council cannot “advocate” for the removal of a department head, an obvious First Amendment problem in addition to being undemocratic. Certainly, any senator is free to criticize a member of a president’s or governor’s cabinet, and seek public pressure for a change. There is no constitutional language that looks like a gag order.

The City Council should be no less limited. (And likely wouldn’t be if ever challenged, given the right to free speech.) Nor did the commission anticipate Minnesota’s current problem with the Senate, and design language for what to do if the council continuously refuses to vote on an appointment as a means to hold on to unallocated power.

But overall, to improve the function and accountability within Minneapolis government, to remove aspects of our city’s constitution/charter that are outliers, we would be well served by voting for both Question 1, related to government structure; and Question 2 (public safety), and tune out all of the false rhetoric about “14 bosses” from the supporters and opponents of the same.

Minneapolis Question 1: Government Structure: Executive Mayor-Legislative Council

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to adopt a change in its form of government to an Executive Mayor-Legislative Council structure to shift certain powers to the Mayor, consolidating administrative authority over all operating departments under the Mayor, and eliminating the Executive Committee?

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.