Dear Chief Judge Barnette,
By now your office should have been buried under a flood of applications. That so many in our city have discovered the existence of the Charter Commission application process should speak volumes.
Of the commission’s 15 seats, 11 are up for appointment in 2022. Having this many seats up in a single year is itself a legacy of a lack of appropriate attention and care by your predecessors. I commend your recent steps to rebalance vacancies and reset term lengths.
But there’s a bigger problem with the Minneapolis Charter Commission. It’s deeply out of touch with the people of Minneapolis. This body has long suffered from a lack diversity of race, age, experience and perspective. It’s probably not entirely the fault of your predecessors. It’s also a failure of recruiting applicants and raising awareness. We’ve all been sleeping on the Charter Commission.
A past chief judge described the commission’s application process to the Star Tribune in 2010:
“I get a bunch of applications, no letters of support, no explanation of whether someone has been a good or a bad charter commission member,” Swenson said. He also said he questions whether having one judge make the appointments is the best way.
I’m sure you haven’t had time to watch all the meetings. So, as someone who’s watched far too many, here’s my feedback on the Minneapolis Charter Commission. A few key highlights:
- It is significantly older than Minneapolis, and significantly older than the people we typically elect to represent us.
- It is significantly more conservative in its politics than Minneapolis.
- Its most energetic and vocal members — its leaders — are older, white lawyers.
- This is speculative: the least vocal (sometimes least present) members might be convinced to support another point of view, if that point of view had a few strong leaders to advocate for it.
What are the consequences of this political imbalance? Last year’s ballot question 1, a charter amendment restructuring city government and granting significantly more power to the mayor, originated with the commission. While the commission put question 1 on the ballot by unanimous vote (14-0), nearly 48% of Minneapolis voters rejected the idea. Of the three questions on last year’s ballot it was the one that divided voters the most — but I can’t recall even a moment of skepticism about it from a single commissioner.
Some might say politics shouldn’t play a part in the Charter Commission appointment process. But we can’t pretend it isn’t already deeply political. Despite all the lawyers, this commission is not a panel of judges. These are individuals pursuing their political preferences. There’s no shame in it. People who care deeply about this city often have political opinions about it. In my darker moments during last year’s election, I would occasionally open a local crime-themed Facebook page to find Commissioners Garcia and Metge in the comments playing politics. I didn’t like it, but you don’t give up your right to have opinions when you’re appointed to the commission. I just wish it wasn’t so one-sided. The decisions of this appointed body made up of political people have real consequences for the rest of us.
A few examples. Among the commissioners is Andrew Kozak, a lobbyist who’s represented an array of monied interests, including the conservative Downtown Council. There’s also Matt Perry, the chair of a PAC that spent $270,000 trying to swing the 2017 election towards City Council candidates preferred by downtown business interests. Perry’s effort failed, and a progressive council majority was elected. But four years later we have a new form of government with a significantly weakened City Council, thanks to the Charter Commission’s question 1, boosted by a campaign (Charter for Change) funded exclusively by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce for $243,000. Commission chair Barry Clegg even appeared in a campaign video for that Chamber-funded organization. To help draft the amendment, Clegg brought in former state DFL party chair, former commissioner, and current lawyer defending mega-corporations, Brian Melendez.
This is all to emphasize: Everything is political.
I’ll admit this is not a simple thing to fix. But this year presents a unique opportunity: 11 vacancies and a pile of applications to choose from. Like never before, a new generation is eager to serve. The political orientation of the Minneapolis Charter Commission needs serious rebalancing. We want government that represents all of us, and inspires a sense of legitimacy and faith in process. Failing that, we can usually vote for the alternative. But in the case of our unelected Charter Commission, there is no other accountability mechanism but you, Chief Judge Barnette.
Editor, Publisher, Cat Tour Operator, Pillar of the Community
Note to readers: You can still apply for a seat on the Minneapolis Charter Commission. There’s is currently one seat on the commission open for applications, with three more seats soon to open. If you submitted for the application period that closed on April 4, but aren’t chosen for one of those seven seats, there is no need to resubmit your application. You will automatically be considered for the next four seats.