“Strong Mayor” Label Won’t Fix Weak Mayor Problem

I have tweeted a variation of this sentiment countless times over the last several months:

Because this sad/confusing/hilarious joke occupies space in my brain at all times, it’s becoming my own personal conventional wisdom. But 2021 is more complicated than your average city election year. I’m a little concerned that people don’t get it. I’m worried a “strong mayor” charter amendment will end up on the ballot with some bland, inoffensive title like “government structure amendment” and people might vote for it.

In Minneapolis, the mayor has authority over the police department. As candidate, and soon-to-be Mayor, Jacob Frey explains in the above video from 2017: “That’s the mayor’s job. The police report exclusively to the chief, and the chief reports exclusively to the mayor.”

So let’s be clear: in 2020, Mayor Frey was not hampered, limited, or impaired by some restriction imposed on him by the city charter. He was as strong as any document could ever have made him.

There were times in 2020 we wondered if the Mayor was actually in charge of his police. We may still wonder. But as far as the actual letter of the city charter is concerned, the mayor is in control. Maybe you’re horrified by the police-caused disaster of 2020, the murder of George Floyd, the escalation, Lake Street on fire, shooting people in the face with less-lethal projectiles, the indiscriminate spraying of chemical irritants, the endless millions in settlements for victims of our city’s corrupt and abusive police department (or as it says on their t-shirts, the “Cops for Trump”). MPD hasn’t been up to the job of keeping us safe.

Mayor Frey is responsible. Giving the mayor more authority over the city’s non-police departments doesn’t address what happened in 2020 or a long history of problems with our police department. By having this issue placed against the backdrop of public safety discussions and the question of “what went wrong in 2020?” — many people might be led to believe that this is targeted at solving the city’s biggest challenges. It’s not. It’s a bizarre non-sequitur.

A “strong mayor” form of government won’t address our public safety problems. It’s not trying to. It’s an idea that Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg was kicking around on a local internet forum as early as 2009. This is just a convenient moment to resurface an item on the wishlist.

To sum up how misguided this is, let me respond to this quote from Clegg: “Minneapolis has been a very successful city, but in times where the personalities don’t mesh or where the city is under stress or a crisis, it doesn’t work.”

  1. You can remove personality conflicts from politics by shrinking the number of personalities down to a single boss, but that won’t necessarily produce better results.
  2. The crisis of 2020 happened in spite of Mayor Frey’s single-boss status at the top of MPD.

The key talking point in favor of the strong mayor proposal — the plague of the “14 bosses” — originated less than a month after George Floyd’s murder, as a line against the Council’s idea to take some policymaking authority away from the Mayor when it comes to police. MPD doesn’t operate like the Fire Department or Public Works, or any of the others. The Council wanted to assert control over police, like they have over the rest of the departments. The Charter Commission killed the Council’s idea, keeping it off the ballot (though it may be on the ballot in 2021). After this episode, the Commission immediately started work on a plan to remove the City Council’s power over the city’s non-police departments.

After never hearing the phrase “14 bosses” before, I can’t escape it. Everywhere I turn there’s someone aspiring to a one boss ideal. We need one leader in a time of crisis. We need a strong mayor — which (oops!) unfortunately looks a lot like the power the mayor already had over MPD during our disastrous and traumatic 2020.

The whole line of argument makes me think of Minneapolis as a failed state in need of a strong man. Or Minneapolis as a nation at war, looking to our commander-in-chief. And the classic pro-war refrain “support our troops” has been replaced with the equally vacuous, “support our chief.” Meanwhile, the man who would be our Strong Mayor has to bring out his city attorney to politically badger the City Council to extract a symbolic permission slip to do the thing he already has the power to do.

Let’s reiterate that the Charter Commission has a particular political slant. Mostly, they are a collection of clever, older white lawyers, and some duller types you might see posting comments on a crime-themed Facebook page. There’s also a lobbyist and a guy who ran the big business PAC that spent $270,000 boosting conservative city council candidates in 2017. It’s a faction who wants power but increasingly has trouble winning it by the ballot box.

Perhaps the Charter Commission’s biggest fan is Steve Cramer, President and CEO of the Downtown Council. When the City Council has acted to implement a minimum wage, worker protections, affordable housing mandates, or other progressive ideas, Steve Cramer has consistently been out front to oppose them. And now, as the Charter Commission proposes concentrating power in the Mayor’s office, Steve Cramer is there, at virtual city hall, cheering them on. These things are related. The strong mayor charter amendment has nothing to do with public safety, and a whole lot to do with who has power to set the larger agenda in Minneapolis.

In December, in a series of anonymous interviews summarized by the Charter Commission, the city’s department heads indicated they would prefer to simplify things by cutting the City Council out of the hierarchy.

I understand this impulse. I also don’t like people telling me what to do. I like the way I do things. I hate change. I’m annoyed at the idea of keeping one person happy, let alone a council of 13 elected officials. But I also didn’t apply for a job running a big important city department.

If Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman (just throwing out a random name, for no reason at all) or others are inappropriately meddling with department staff, we could address that by implementing ethical standards with real consequences. I will agree that it is actually a problem for individual council members to order department staff around. But concentrating power in the mayor’s office is not the solution.

One important note about how government works in Minneapolis. When the City Council creates new laws (ordinances), that legislation is written by department staff. And that process can take a really long time. City Council President Lisa Bender (not running for reelection and definitely not running for Strong Mayor) described her frustration with the small ‘c’ conservative disposition of department staff, in an interview with Max Nesterak:

Under a strong mayor system, with department staff answering to the mayor, the City Council would have to hire legislative staff to replace that lost capacity. Somewhat paradoxically, by putting more staff under his authority, Mayor Frey has said he would need additional staff (presumably to staff all that new staff). I guess this is what strong mayor advocates mean by efficiency.

Here’s where this restructuring is potentially stifling. In January, the Charter Commission’s Government Structure Work Group interviewed Trudy Maloney, who described her experience working at both Minneapolis and St. Paul City Hall: “St. Paul is more efficient, but I think for that efficiency you lose some of the innovation and creativity.” Moloney said St. Paul was often decades behind Minneapolis in developing the same programs and policies.

“While I was in [Minneapolis] Mayor Fraser’s office, there wasn’t one day that I didn’t want a strong mayor form of government. It really wasn’t until I came over to St. Paul that I started to respect and better understand the beauty that the Minneapolis government has. There’s value to not having the buck stop with just a mayor.”

Trudy Moloney, St. Paul director of City Council Operations

There’s also the question of equity. Running for mayor is a big, expensive citywide endeavor. It tilts the playing field towards big business, and towards the whitest, wealthiest, votingest parts of the city. A ward-based council system distributes power to the city’s 13 wards, all roughly equal in population. In the last city election in 2017, Ward 13 had 2.8x the rate of voter turnout of Ward 5, but both places still have the same 1/13th representation on the City Council.

I’m content to have the City Council, as a body of 13, representing every corner of the city, set policy for city departments. Council committees, public hearings, deliberation, open disagreement, compromise, majority votes — this is an open and relatively orderly process. It may feel chaotic at times because it’s happening in public, but I think we get far more progressive and responsive government than this “strong mayor” alternative has to offer.