The amendment to rewrite the Minneapolis charter, which the Star Tribune Editorial Board supports (“Update and clarify Minneapolis Charter,” Oct. 23), should be defeated. A basic rule: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. The “plain language” amendment would make change for the sake of making change. Proponents argue that they are only deleting obsolete references to things like bread wagons and horse slaughtering, but the proposal rewrites nearly every paragraph of the charter, including those no one has identified as obsolete.
The charter is more than just its words. Courts have interpreted those words, and those court decisions are, by extension, part of the charter, too. The current charter has been litigated in many cases over 147 years. (The charter dates from 1866, although home rule wasn’t passed until 1920.) If the words of the charter are changed, those legal precedents can be relitigated under the new language, and issues settled since the mid-20th century could have another day in court.
An example of how simple doctoring of the charter can give the city headaches, legal bills and uncertainty: In 1979, a dozen pages of legalese about granting utility franchises were replaced with the single line: “The city council is authorized to grant franchises, unrestricted by any other provision of this charter.” Later that year, the city granted such a franchise for cable TV. In 1981, the Minnesota Cable Communications Board ruled that technical corrections had to be made to the 1979 franchise ordinance. The City Council passed these by a 9-4 vote. Mayor Don Fraser vetoed the corrections ordinance on the grounds that technology and the competitive landscape in cable TV had changed, and that the city should start over with a completely new agreement. Two members of the council changed their votes to side with him, and the veto stood.
But the cable company argued that the wording of the 1979 charter amendment, “unrestricted by any other provision of this charter,” meant the mayor didn’t have a veto over franchises, and so the franchise that had been granted was now valid. The intent of the 1979 charter amendment was obviously not to strip the mayor of veto power. (That amendment, much like this year’s misguided effort, meant to get rid of obsolete 19th-century language.) But the city had to expend time and money to oppose the cable company before the state board. The city won, but had the board sided with the cable company, it would have meant that because of a “plain language” revision of the charter, important city policy was being decided not by city officials but by a court or appointed state board. After this, the section in question was amended again.
One particularly compelling case, Van Cleve vs. Wallace, went to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1944. The City Council was tied as a result of the 1943 election and unable to elect a president or other officers. The court had to address questions dealing with many sections of the charter: Is the council president an officer of the city or merely of the council? If the council can’t elect a president, does the current president continue? Does the election of an officer require a majority vote of the council or only of those voting? Is the council a continuous body or only elected for a particular term? May the council president be removed from office at the pleasure of the council? The court based its decision mostly on “the terms of the charter.” If those terms are changed, then the decision in the case can be revisited and those issues, settled since 1944, can be brought up again.
There is no reason to alter the terms of the charter. The current one is working well. The amendment tries to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. If approved, it will doubtless lead to unanticipated nuisance actions involving not only courts but also administrative agencies, who will not necessarily understand the intent behind the rewrite and base their decisions only on the terms of the charter.
Tony Hill, a native of Minneapolis, analyzes elections at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.