If you ask folks to describe Minneapolis City Hall as we approach the 2017 elections, several adjectives emerge. Chaotic. Rudderless. Confusing. Reactive. Applied to any one person, these adjectives are incomplete and unfair. Applied to City Hall generally, and to the governance of the city, they are spot on.
The structure of Minneapolis government was perhaps best depicted as a convoluted plumbing system, pipes running everywhere and nowhere, on the front page of the Star Tribune’s opinion section on Dec. 5, 2004. Titled “Minneapolis: Who’s in Charge?,” the section that day was devoted to a single topic. Former editorial writer Steve Berg described city government’s structure as one that “makes no one accountable and puts no one in charge.” With a sense of urgency, he concluded that “the city cannot compete driving a relic.”
John Gunyou, Minnesota finance commissioner under former Gov. Arne Carlson and also a former Minneapolis finance director, said that “Minneapolis needs a management structure designed for the 21st century, not the 19th.” Gunyou predicted great things for Minneapolis, if only energy could be focused on the vision rather than fighting through the bureaucratic maze.
The world is changing fast. The most critical attribute for any individual or institution is the ability to adapt. Yet from body camera policies to park dedication fees to regulatory reform, City Hall seems incapable of acting with clarity and urgency. Staff directions go unheeded based on the whim of department heads or elected officials. Sound financial management suffers in the absence of any management authority to enforce responsible financial practices. Accountability and transparency suffer. Countless hours are wasted navigating, in Gunyou’s words, “the bureaucratic maze.”
In 2008, I led an effort branded as “Update Minneapolis.” Our task was nothing less than to transform Minneapolis City Hall. We sought a more efficient, transparent and accountable institution better able to navigate the accelerating changes in our community. Conventional political wisdom characterized the effort as quixotic or, less charitably, foolhardy. It was neither. Nine years later, the transformation we envisioned is an absolute necessity for the future of our city.
The proposal we brought forward, subsequently refined with the aid of former Mayor Don Fraser, Jay Kiedrowski, the late Martin Sabo and others, would establish a city administrator. Although the mayor and City Council would approve the appointment of department heads, the city administrator would forward recommendations for those appointments. Department heads would report to and serve at the will of the city administrator. The city administrator, in turn, would serve at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council — but department heads would have one boss, not 14.
Ours was not the first effort to modernize the City Charter. To his great credit, Fraser worked hard to reform the city’s structure, which resulted in the establishment of the Executive Committee. Former Mayor Al Hofstede led reform efforts by creating a blue-ribbon Minneapolis Finance Commission, which advocated for a number of critical structural reforms. The League of Women Voters-Minneapolis issued an outstanding report in 2005. The Citizens League chose charter change as its first major issue upon its creation a half-century ago.
In fact, efforts to modernize the charter seem to have occurred every dozen years or so dating back to the dawn of the 20th century.
We are headed for a mayoral race that so far is characterized by the usual scramble for money and endorsements. It appears to be, more than anything, a personality contest. Let’s aim higher. Let’s make this election about how we can transform City Hall into an agile institution that can quickly adapt to an ever-changing world.
Charter change has failed because it is a political orphan. It advances the specific cause of no one while advancing the general welfare of everyone. It is easy to demagogue and can be difficult to describe in a tweet or a sound bite.
The citizens of Minneapolis deserve better than to be burdened with an outdated form of government that was created before their grandparents were born. They deserve a voice in this conversation. In 2009, the Charter Commission voted down our proposal to place the city administrator change on the ballot, following a written commitment in an April 2009 letter signed by Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman. The letter promised a yearlong study of city governance and potential reforms in partnership with other civic organizations such as the Citizens League.
Sadly, once the Johnson/Goodman proposal achieved its desired result — the defeat of our efforts to place the issue on the ballot — the study was quickly forgotten. Once again, meaningful charter change was defeated and business as usual returned. In 2012, Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant asked, “Where’s the Minneapolis management study?”
Five years later the question remains — where indeed?
Minneapolis can continue on its present course of good intentions and uneven results. Let’s aim higher. Let’s demand that a commitment made eight years ago be honored and that a thorough independent review of city governance take place in 2018. And let’s also demand that as citizens we finally have a say in how we are governed in Minneapolis.
Paul Ostrow was a member of the Minneapolis City Council from 1998 to 2009.