It’s the League of Women Voters and former mayors on one side lobbying to modernize the 93-year-old Minneapolis city charter, but some top City Hall leaders and scattered activists are raising concerns that adopting the document will lead to unintended consequences.
Voters will decide the matter next month when they vote on a proposed total revamp of the city’s foundational document for governing that’s been in the works for 11 years.
The proposal tries to accomplish several things. It shortens and modernizes language, dropping “doths.” It drops obsolete provisions regulating the cleaning of stables and the sale of coal for home heating. It reconciles conflicting sections of the current charter in simpler language. And most controversially, it shifts some matters judged more legislative out of the charter for potential adoption as ordinances, reserving the charter for the basic rules of governing a city.
The document voters are being asked to consider represents the most thorough revision of the charter since 1920, when the city ended a deadlock over adopting a charter by approving one that merely compiled state laws that governed the city. Framers say the proposal is not intended to alter the complex balance of power at City Hall, but rather to make the charter easier to use. Charter proposals dealing with distribution of power often have been opposed and defeated by organized labor, but the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation has taken no position on this proposal.
Charter proponents have raised more than $6,500 to mail a letter to likely voters from former mayors Al Hofstede, Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton supporting the changes. The League of Women Voters also endorsed the proposal, and the eight mayoral candidates running the most visible campaigns all have endorsed it.
But Mayor R.T. Rybak hasn’t endorsed the change, and Council President Barbara Johnson said she’ll probably vote against it. Spokesman John Stiles said Rybak favors plain English but’s concerned about unintended consequences, as is Johnson. Others sharing that view are former school board Chairman David Tilsen and Board of Estimate and Taxation member Carol Becker, who successfully organized a campaign that defeated a 2009 charter proposal to abolish that board.
Tilsen said he’s uncomfortable about the lack of information from charter revisers about why specific provisions in the existing charter were dropped in the rewrite. Barry Clegg, chairman of the city’s Charter Commission, said that besides obsolete provisions, some provisions were dropped because they’re regulatory in nature and more appropriate in the city’s code of ordinances than its governing document, and some were dropped because the subject now is governed by state law.
For example, a charter requirement for an annual list of receipts and disbursements was dropped because state law now requires monthly statements, Clegg said. Overall, the proposal is one-fifth the wordiness of the current charter.
Some safeguards lost?
Some worry about deletion of charter provisions governing the removal of public officials who break the law, defraud the city, grossly neglect duties, or use public property for private purposes. It’s up to the council to replace those with ordinances, Clegg said.
That worries people who distrust City Hall, and argue that having charter safeguards dependent on a majority of the council is less reassuring than having them in a charter that typically is amended only if the electorate consents.
“The charter is a very important document. Basically we’re being asked to buy a pig in a poke,” Tilsen said. He and others worry about upsetting established precedents, even by simplifying language. For example, Tilsen was part of the group of activists who engineered the passage of a carefully worded charter provision that requires a referendum on any spending greater than $10 million for an athletic facility. The rewrite condenses the current 160-word proviso to 90 words. That bothers Tilsen, who argues that the change could have unintended consequences if loopholes are inadvertently introduced.
“Lawyers put those words in documents because they matter,” he said.
Supporters of the proposal point to St. Paul, which enacted with 59 percent support a 1970 charter reform that went far beyond the Minneapolis proposal by shifting power between that city’s mayor and council. They say that proves that a city can safely transition through a major rewrite.
The Minneapolis proposal must win 51 percent from those voting on it in order to pass, with the exception of liquor-related provisions posed in a separate ballot question, which require 55 percent support.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438