A democracy’s foundational documents matter, and not just to the politicians, lawyers and jurists who debate and decide their meaning. Public television recently aired a four-part documentary series highlighting the personal affinity Americans have for the U.S. Constitution. The Minnesota Constitution as reorganized in 1974 has been hailed by legal scholars as a thing of legal beauty that offers better protection for citizens’ rights than does its federal counterpart.
But nobody extols the beauty of the Minneapolis Charter — in essence, the city’s constitution. At 20 chapters and 71,000 words, it’s far from easy reading. It originated in 1920 as little more than a compilation of the Legislature’s special laws that had governed the city since its founding. After 93 years of amendments, today’s charter is a jumble of inconsistent requirements, obsolete references and opaque language. It challenges the city officials who must rely on it, not to mention citizens who seek to understand how city government works.
The Nov. 5 election affords Minneapolis voters a chance to clean up the charter. It’s an opportunity they should seize. We recommend “yes” votes on the two so-called “plain language” charter amendments. (See box, right.)
This page isn’t quick to recommend changes in charters and constitutions. Fortunately, neither is the Minneapolis Charter Commission and the group it directed to revise the charter, headed by former DFL state chair Brian Melendez. They’ve spent 11 years on a painstaking process to produce the change that’s before the voters.
Melendez and Co. took to heart their charge to streamline, update and clarify the charter’s provisions without altering their substance. They excluded ideas for changing the way the city operates. They sought input widely, consulting with dozens of people familiar with the charter.
If they erred, it was on the side of including existing language. The revision is about 50 percent longer than it might have been, Melendez said, because any suggestion from city departments for retaining the old wording was accepted. That includes what has been the most contentious part of the charter in recent years — the language voters added in 1997 concerning city funding of a professional sports stadium. It’s unchanged in the proposed revision.
Still, the version before the voters shrinks the number of words in the charter from a daunting 71,000 to about 14,000. Excised are the archaic word “doth,” which appeared four times; references to an elected Library Board, which was abolished in 2008; rules and regulations pertaining to horse-drawn carriages and the unpaved streets they once trod; and numerous items more suited to city ordinances, which the City Council can change by majority vote, than to the document that establishes city government’s structure. The proposed new charter is reorganized so that, for example, one need only read one chapter, not four, to understand the process for appointing a police chief.
Those advantages are tempered by one unknown — the legal implications of wholesale change in the charter’s language. The revisers of the charter included a provision intended to inoculate the city against legal surprises: “The settled interpretation of any term or provision from a version of the charter before its latest revision … is valid in interpreting the revised charter,” it says.
Reassurance also comes from the experience of St. Paul with its charter revision in 1972 and the state Constitution’s mammoth revision in 1972-73, which won overwhelming voter approval in 1974. In neither instance was existing case law cast aside as a result.
That’s not to say that staffers in the city attorney’s office won’t feel the burden of change and uncertainty. City attorney Susan Segal says she’s officially neutral about the ballot question, but she has fretted publicly about higher costs for her office.
But the long list of prominent supporters of the charter revision — including all of the leading candidates for mayor and the League of Women Voters — suggests that the possibility of higher legal costs is trumped by a widely felt desire to make the charter a clearer and more useful foundation for city government. A city with Minneapolis’ reputation for a high level of citizen participation in government should have no less.