Vote No on Question 1, Reject Mayoral Power Grab in Minneapolis

If you are inclined to vote yes on Question 1 to change the structure of Minneapolis city government, first consider the problem you’re trying to solve. Is it about a particular example of dysfunction, abuse, corruption, or poor leadership that involves the police department? If it is, you should go read the part of the city charter that has always placed “complete power” over police in the hands of the mayor. As much as he’d like you to forget it right now, Jacob Frey knew this fact very well during his 2017 campaign for mayor.

Our current city charter.

Proponents of a strong mayor system say that today’s “crisis” is an opportunity to pursue the thing they’ve always had on their wish list — shifting power to the mayor’s office. Paul Ostrow, writing in the Star Tribune, says he “was told by many quiet supporters 13 years ago that it would take a crisis for Minneapolis to finally fix its City Charter. That crisis is now upon us.” (Side note: Are “quiet supporters” a related concept to a “silent majority”?)

Let me recount a brief history of 2020.

After running out the clock and denying voters a chance to weigh in on a public safety charter amendment in the months following George Floyd’s murder by MPD, the Charter Commission took up work on a government restructuring proposal that left MPD untouched. The public safety conversation over the summer had highlighted the mayor’s full control over the police; in addition to creating a Department of Public Safety, the council wanted to take some policy authority over the police. At that point, the Charter Commission changed the subject — their big idea was to grant the mayor additional power over the city’s non-police departments (for me it was a giant, frustrating non-sequitur). Note that a strong mayor system was something Commission chair Barry Clegg advocated for back in 2009.

If you’ve lived through the last 18 months you’ll probably recall that much of our present crisis was initiated by our city’s extraordinarily corrupt, abusive and racist police department. It’s also clear that this department has self-destructed (hundreds of officers quitting) despite being provided with all the funding for police staffing, hiring, training, overtime, and outside help that the mayor has requested. What proponents of a strong mayor system don’t tell you is that police are already led by a single boss. MPD is unique among city departments in that the mayor is singularly in charge. This is unlike the fire department or public works. Don’t believe anyone who tells you the police are confused about who is in charge.

I’m not saying you should necessarily believe that the present crisis was induced by a strong mayor system, but we know for certain that a strong mayor didn’t prevent it. We just ran the experiment.

The Star Tribune’s editorial board endorsement of a strong mayor system mentions in the first paragraph that the Minneapolis system isn’t used in other American cities, and goes on to explain it’s not even taught in schools. We shouldn’t take it for granted that all American traditions should be emulated.

You probably received a mailer from the group Charter for Change (whose fiscal sponsor is the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce — and whose parent organization is a PAC called Mpls Together, whose treasurer is Steve Cramer of the Downtown Council) saying that a yes vote would create a “form of government modeled on our state and federal systems.” It’s never explained why Minneapolis should want a city government structured like the state and federal governments. I’m not convinced that a strong executive is a superior system to the models found in other democracies.

I can agree that individual council members should not set department policy. It’s already the case that this shouldn’t be happening. The council should legislate and set policy by majority vote (I really do think that Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman shouldn’t threaten people’s jobs to get what she wants — I’m actually very open-minded on this topic — please, someone rein in Lisa Goodman!). But this amendment doesn’t just attempt to rein in individuals, it strips power from the city council as a body. It hands more power to the mayor.

I like the basic structure of our council system and think we should preserve it. I prefer committee meetings, open debate, public hearings, and transparency over sudden announcements of new policy by the mayor on the TV news. But if you vote to change our system, despite the fact that it doesn’t even address our city’s current big problems, you should know there are unresolved questions about how it would function. By which I mean the city attorney’s office has repeatedly refused to attempt an answer to these questions.

The unresolved questions:

  • Currently, ordinances are written by department staff taking direction from the city council as a body. Does that continue or does the city council now need to fund and hire its own legislative staff?
  • Beyond legislating, departments must follow policies enacted by the city council that govern how they perform their work. For example, the Regulatory Services department must follow a “renter-first policy” that prioritizes an inspections and enforcement regime that keeps renters in their homes. Do policies like this depend on the whim of individual mayors? Do policies go in and out of fashion like presidential executive orders?
  • On the more routine issue of basic constituent service, who can a resident call about garbage pickup or snow plowing? Is it still their council member acting as the go-between to resolve minor issues with city departments, or is it the mayor’s office?

As open as I am to a conversation about good government, this isn’t it. It’s a power grab. Business interests and former officials past their political prime are trying to change the rules of the game. One strong mayor booster conceded in the Star Tribune that she wishes her side wasn’t so “chock-full of city ‘formers.'” Changing the rules in this way makes our local democracy less equitable.

We have 13 wards in Minneapolis with equal population but varying turnout levels that track with demographics of race and poverty. It’s why Ward 13 produced 2.7 times as many voters in our last city election (2017) as Ward 5. Our city council gives every corner of Minneapolis equal representation, but a mayor is elected disproportionately by the whitest, wealthiest parts of the city. It’s also worth mentioning that in a citywide campaign, a mayoral winner is often dependent on the city’s wealthiest donors.

Question 1 on your ballot is, at best, a giant distraction from this city’s real problems. At worst it’s a transfer of power away from those who already have too little, boosted by a campaign funded by those who have too much. Vote no on Question 1.