Minneapolis Charter Commission acting to stall City Council’s public safety priorities

On Wednesday, the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted 8-6 to reject a ballot question that would have let voters decide whether to remove minimum police staffing requirements from the city charter. The vote against this scaled back compromise — which was put forward by Commissioner Giraud-Isaacson — suggests the Commission will likely reject (by delay tactic at their meeting next Wednesday) a ballot question advanced by the City Council. That proposal would allow voters to remove the Minneapolis Police Department as a required charter department and replace it with a new department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.

(Worth pointing out that MPD could go on existing for an indefinite period of time even if not explicitly required by city charter. Both of the charter amendments simply give the Council varying degrees of flexibility to withdraw funding from MPD in order to fund public safety alternatives.)

Commission majority is explicit about desire to halt City Council agenda

Matt Perry said it was “wise” to preserve the charter language in order to stop the City Council. “The Council has said, and they have acted in backing that up recently with the 2020 budget revisions, they are intent on defunding the police.”

Jana Metge agreed, “From what I observed in the budget actions… I think the only way to slow this down is to ensure that mandatory minimums remain in the charter.”

Perry and Metge are referring to recent cuts that amount to less than 1 percent of MPD’s $193 million budget.

Andrew Kozak: “I do not believe this amendment is going to do anything to alter the culture other than allowing the City Council and the Mayor to virtually wipe out this department.”

Chair Barry Clegg conceded the language doesn’t belong in the charter, but wasn’t ready to let voters have a chance to remove it.

“This provision about minimum funding, we wouldn’t put it in a charter if we were drafting the charter anew. But it’s there now. The fact is it’s become code for ‘defund the police’ so it takes on bigger meaning than just some quirky add-on that was done 60 years ago.”

Clegg was referencing how required staffing levels for police ended up in the charter in the first place: a 1961 political campaign from the police union.

Jill Garcia made an equivalency between the past actions of the police union and the actions of our current City Council:

“60 years ago when this staffing requirement was written into the charter, it was written with pressure from the union. It’s unfair for political expediency on the part of the City Council to assert pressure again.”

Lyall Schwarzkopf said that before they can submit this to the voters, “We need to really work with consultants. We need to find out from them what is the real thinking of the people in the community.”

Dan Cohen painted an apocalyptic vision of what would result if either version were allowed on the ballot.

Dissenting commissioners say majority is overstepping its role

Greg Abbott: “It’s the nature of democracy that political leaders could make mistakes… I think we’re kind of treading perilously into an area where some people think our job is to put up guard rails for political mistakes by the Council or the Mayor. I don’t think that’s our role here.”

Jan Sandberg: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the commission to attempt to delay placing this on the ballot in the name of political expediency. In the words of some of the commenters, I don’t think that’s our job.”

Toni Newborn, speaking as a person of color, called it a “privilege” to delay action. “When we talk about waiting, there are people in our communities who have died and lost their lives.”

What have we learned?

Over the last few weeks, many otherwise very engaged residents have learned that the Charter Commission is a thing that exists. Its 15 members are appointed by a judge; have an average age of 65; are disproportionately white; are more politically conservative than people who win elected office in Minneapolis. Two Commissioners on the majority side of the 8-6 vote are Republican men in their late 80s (Cohen and Schwarzkopf). Andrew Kozak is a lobbyist whose clients and political donations reflect a pro-police perspective. Matt Perry is chair and treasurer of a PAC that spent $275,000 trying to boost the business community’s preferred (and losing) City Council candidates in 2017.

There has been overwhelming feedback in favor of the City Council proposal at four public hearings. The Commission has listened to six hours of phone calls — the vast majority in support. The effect of those hundreds of phone calls was to elicit suspicion from Commissioner Schwarzkopf (“but are they really the real people?”). Chair Clegg said he received anecdotal information about callers originating from outstate. There were so many more people in favor that Commissioner Kozak wanted to reset the rules, and guarantee more time for opponents.

We don’t actually know what a majority of city residents believe. Public hearings are not actual democracy (that would be letting voters vote on a ballot question). But there are clearly a lot of (really real) people and organizations in support of the original charter amendment proposal. The City Council hears from them at every budget meeting, every year. Though it’s taken a long time, and some tragedy, to arrive at this moment, this is not a new debate. These are ideas that already exist in our city’s comprehensive plan. There’s a reason the City Council advanced this ballot question unanimously.

Next Wednesday the Commission will decide the fate of the Council’s more ambitious proposal. It’s clear from their public statements that a majority on the Commission has made up its mind to roadblock the priorities of the city’s elected leaders, to the extent they have the power to do so.

One procedural quirk worth noting: because the Council can ignore any recommendation, the Commission will likely delay the process instead of giving it an up or down vote. This will have the effect of keeping the question off the ballot and away from voters until 2021.