The Potluck

Abolish the Minneapolis Charter Commission? That’s harder than the Police Department

By: - August 6, 2020 5:54 pm

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

Many Minneapolis residents are talking about recalling members of the previously low-profile Minneapolis Charter Commission or abolishing the body altogether after it blocked a police reform amendment from reaching the ballot this November.

But getting rid of them wouldn’t be easy. It’d require unprecedented action from the Hennepin County District Court chief judge or an amendment to the state constitution.

The 15-member board has been castigated in public hearings and on social media for being too old, too white, too wealthy and too out of touch for the volunteer job, with some threatening to have them recalled for what they perceive as intentionally delaying a vote on amending the city charter.

The Charter Commission voted 10-5 Wednesday to take 90 more days to study a City Council proposed amendment that would eliminate the Police Department and create a new public safety department. That delay means the council won’t have enough time to get the issue on the ballot this November, which has led to cries for recalls or a citizen-led petition amendment.

But voters can’t recall charter commissioners like they could elected officials because they are appointed by the chief judge of the Hennepin County District Court. You could complain to the chief judge, because state law says “Any member may be removed at any time from office, by written order of the district court, the reason for such removal being stated in the order.”

Toddrick Barnette became chief judge on the Hennepin County District Court on July 1. The odds that he would remove charter commissioners seem slim. Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg, who has been on the commission 17 years, can’t recall a commissioner being removed by a judge.

The only grounds for removal specified in state law is when they’ve failed to perform the duties of office or missed four unexcused consecutive meetings, but Clegg said they could be removed for other reasons, too, as long as the reason is stated in the removal order.

So if the judge won’t remove them, the other option is amending the state constitution, which would be much harder than gathering a few thousand signatures to recall an official. A simple majority of both legislative chambers — both the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate — would have to approve the amendment, to put it to a vote of Minnesotans.

Let’s say Democrats take control of both houses in November and agree to put it on the ballot: The next hurdle is a majority of all the voters casting ballots would have to vote for the amendment, including those who skip the ballot question.

Some testifiers at the Charter Commission derided the fact that commissioners are appointed and not elected, but Clegg said during Wednesday’s commission meeting that’s not a “legislative accident.”

“Charter commissioners are appointed by judges to preserve their independence,” he said. “None of us are running for office and we don’t have to be concerned about mayoral or council politics. It sounds simplistic, but our job is to forward amendments that are appropriate, reject those that are not, and request more time when more time is needed to make the determination.”

But what constitutes an appropriate charter amendment? Clegg said there’s understandably confusion about that because there’s no statutory or case law guidance on evaluating proposed amendments, so “charter commissioners are left to their own devices.”

Left to their own devices, the commission decided to take more time to study the council’s amendment, which is why some people want to recall them now.

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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.