Return of the Mayoral Power Grab

In addition to all the other stuff scheduled to be on your 2024 ballot, Minneapolis voters may get to weigh in on another amendment to restructure city government. The Minneapolis Charter Commission (the authors of our new strong mayor form of government adopted in 2021) is currently discussing a proposal to strip the City Council of their power to confirm certain mayoral appointees. This could include the directors of departments like Public Works, CPED (planning), Civil Rights, Regulatory Services, Emergency Management, Health, and Tax Assessor. The number of council-confirmed roles could go from the current 12 to as few as five.

There’s no agreed upon proposal, nothing has been voted on, but this commission has a preference for concentrating power in the mayor’s office so let’s sound the alarm. This could be bad and you should pay attention.

Josh Martin and I discuss the issue in detail for this week’s episode of the Wedge LIVE Podcast, available wherever you listen. Or watch on YouTube:

Finishing the Job They Started in 2021

Here are some of the arguments (made at a December 18 work group meeting) for stripping the city council of their power to confirm these mayoral appointees. Commissioner Peter Ginder (who took a hiatus from the Charter Commission in 2022 to serve as Mayor Frey’s interim city attorney) says the public hearings are “long,” “uncomfortable,” “distasteful,” and “unpleasant.” This might dissuade candidates from seeking these jobs.

Commissioner Matt Perry Perry (whose past political activity includes running a PAC in 2017 that spent $270,000 trying to defeat progressive candidates for city council) recycled an argument from the 2021 strong mayor debate — that this was about eliminating a supposed “14 bosses” problem. Public hearings and confirmation votes gives the city council too much sway over department heads, which goes against the city’s 2021 shift to a strong mayor system. According to Perry, “once you are making statements to the council [at a public hearing], you’re basically making commitments to them.”

Commissioner Doherty, a lone voice of skepticism during this discussion, said she thought there was a distinction between being a “boss” and subjecting the mayor’s appointments to council “input” every four years.

And here’s a weird tangent that might give you an idea how politically slanted the Charter Commission is: Commissioner Garcia suggested the way the city council council wields their budget authority (given to them by the city charter) is somehow wrong and inappropriate.

Taking Department Heads “Out of the Political Realm”

City Clerk Casey Carl argued that the proposal would take jobs like Public Works director “out of the political realm” and that the change was “also a loss by the mayor” because he would lose the power to appoint certain department heads.

Doherty pushed back on Carl’s argument. Because these jobs would be filled by the mayor’s other political appointees, like the Community Safety Commissioner and the City Operations Officer, the mayor wouldn’t be losing any influence. Doherty told Carl he was “assuming that the mayor is not going to have as much input and control over naming these folks as I tend to think. He will, given the fact that it’s his appointments who are the people who” will fill all those department head jobs.

The St. Paul Model

In 2021, the argument from this Charter Commission and from the Chamber of Commerce funded political campaign “Charter for Change” was that St. Paul was the model to emulate. Let us be like St. Paul. You know what St Paul does with their department heads? Their city council votes to confirm those roles, as required by city charter. This appointment confirmation process — “advice and consent” — is part of the checks and balances we recognize in state legislatures and in the federal government. What is uniquely cumbersome or problematic about the way Minneapolis does it?

The St. Paul charter says all of the city’s executive department heads are subject to the “advice and consent” of the city council.

The City Council Asked for This?

One last argument from Clerk Casey Carl and Commissioner Garcia: They claim the city council asked for this in an ordinance passed in 2022 by an 8-5 vote. If taken literally, that ordinance actually went further than the current draft proposal from the city attorney’s office, by excluding police and fire chiefs from requiring public hearings and confirmation votes.

I’m dubious about Carl’s reading of the City Council’s intent with their 2022 vote. I don’t actually think a majority of the city council voted to say they shouldn’t get to vote on who the police chief is. My recollection from 2022 is that council members were told not to worry about the details, because their vote would have no effect to change the appointment process. It was nothing to worry about — the city charter supersedes ordinance. The other parts of the restructuring ordinance were urgent, they should just vote for it, and work out the details later.

Josh Martin’s recollection was similar to mine (listen to our conversation on this week’s episode). Josh also pointed out that we have sworn in two new progressive council members who certainly would not have voted to remove their own power to vote on the police chief, or all these other department heads.

It’s also worth pointing out that the intent of the city council (then or now) is meaningless, because you can’t change the charter with an 8-5 vote of the city council — it would need to be unanimous. That’s why this charter amendment, if pursued, is likely headed to the ballot as a question put to voters, where the threshold of support is a more manageable 51%.

In Conclusion, This is a Joke

The joke about the stakes of the 2021 campaign was that George Floyd died so that Mayor Frey, who already had exclusive authority over the police department, could be given that same exclusive power over the rest of the city’s departments. The joke in 2024 is that the city government that so badly bungled the post-Floyd, city-on-fire crisis during the summer of 2020 should change their process so that department heads like their emergency management director won’t be subjected to “uncomfortable” questions at public hearings.

If you want to do the difficult, politically fraught job of leading a city department, an “unpleasant” public hearing is the easy part. Public Works has a massive scope — from snow plowing to potholes to parking to bike lanes to whether the city has clean drinking water. It has twice the budget of MPD. Other department heads that might be hired without a public hearing or council vote deal with everything from city planning, housing inspections, encampments, public health, emergency response, public safety and more.

Just stop. Don’t do this. Forget whatever bias you have for or against the current mayor or city council. Eliminating important checks and balances while beefing up mayoral power isn’t good government and it will make the city vulnerable to incompetence and corruption far into the future.