After months operating in the dark, campaign groups hustle to register after Reformer inquiries

Groups finally coming out of shadows in high-profile Minneapolis ballot elections

By: - October 7, 2021 1:10 pm

Minneapolis City Hall. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Campaign groups advocating for and against Minneapolis ballot questions hustled to get registered after the Reformer began asking why they were raising and spending campaign money without registering with Hennepin County Elections, which effectively allowed some of them to campaign without any financial transparency for months.

Operation Safety Now and Minneapolis Together have been actively promoting the first ballot question — which would give more authority to the mayor over city departments — for months, but just registered with the county on Monday, county records show. 

That’s allowed them to raise money from unknown contributors and spend it on unknown vendors, even as city voters have begun going to the polls. 

Another group that has been promoting the strong-mayor charter amendment and is part of Minneapolis Together, Charter for Change, registered with Hennepin County Elections Thursday morning after first erroneously telling the Reformer they registered with the state campaign finance board. 

State law requires local political committees to register with Hennepin County within 14 days of spending or receiving more than $100.

Operation Safety Now is a pro-police group founded by marketing consultant Bill Rodriguez. Previous Reformer reporting showed the group coordinating closely with city officials last year to support the Minneapolis Police Department and oppose cutting funding to the department. Though Rodriguez repeatedly claimed to be a Minneapolis resident, he later acknowledged to the Star Tribune that he doesn’t live in the city. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Minneapolis Together launched in May, putting up lawn signs and endorsing a slate of candidates for mayor and City Council and positions on two ballot questions. On its registration form, filed Monday, its chair is listed as “TBD” and treasurer as Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a former longtime Minneapolis City Council member who is likely familiar with campaign finance rules.

Reached by phone, Cramer said he would call back, but did not.

Under state law, the county can collect late fees from scofflaws, but Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said the office instead typically tries to work with committees to get delinquent reports.

Charter for Change has a website dated June 23, featuring videos of former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and former City Council Member Don Samuels explaining why they support the first ballot question, which would give the mayor more power.

Complaints about groups that fail to register and report are filed with the Hennepin County attorney’s office, which has not responded to an inquiry as to whether complaints have been filed.

Betty Tisel of Minneapolis alerted Hennepin County Elections about Together Minneapolis not registering on Sept. 29, and her complaint was forwarded to the county attorney. She said the county complaint system is broken, with concerned citizens trying to discern when a group may have spent $100. Meanwhile campaigns “do whatever the hell they want, as far as I can tell,” she charged. 

Some political committees whose scope extends beyond Minneapolis can register with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board instead of the county. The problem is, during odd-numbered election years, the state board doesn’t disclose expenditures until the end-of-year report. So there’s no pre-primary or pre-general election reports because there are no state elections this year. 

That means those committees could be spending money to influence the Minneapolis election, but that spending won’t be disclosed until Jan. 31, 2022.

Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the state campaign finance board, said that will change next year because of legislation passed earlier this year. In future years, charter amendment or ballot question groups in Minneapolis will be required to register with the state and will be required to provide more reporting before the primary and general elections.

“Frankly, there’s a gap there, and that’s what they’re trying to close,” he said. “Unfortunately, this year there may still be some expenditures by committees registered with us that no one’s going to know about.”

The state Office of Administrative Hearings handles complaints, such as when a committee to promote or defeat a ballot question fails to file a report. Spokeswoman Kendra Schmit said as of Wednesday, they hadn’t received any complaints regarding the Minneapolis election.

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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.