A campaign to raise Minneapolis’ minimum wage to $15 per hour appears to have cleared a major hurdle: gathering far more than the required number of signatures to refer the issue to the ballot in November.

In about a month, organizers with the group “15 Now” say they’ve secured more than 10,000 signatures — more than the 6,869 needed to get the question on the ballot. Advocates say they’re continuing to reach out to voters and are confident that a majority of Minneapolis voters would back the wage hike, following the lead of cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They say it’s a logical next step for a city that last week became the first in the Midwest to mandate paid sick leave for most businesses.

But with five months before the general election, two key legal questions remain: does the city have the legal standing to adjust its own minimum wage? And, can it be done through a charter amendment? The city has yet to publicly release a formal legal opinion on either question, though City Attorney Susan Segal says she has reached conclusions on both matters. If they conflict with the views of 15 Now, it’s possible the debate could end up in court.

Segal said she plans to share her opinion on the city’s legal standing to raise the minimum wage soon. Those conclusions are considered private legal communications and won’t be made public unless the council opts to share them. Meanwhile, Segal said she has not received a formal request for an opinion on the legality of putting the issue to voters as a charter amendment.

In Minneapolis, the city charter does not allow for ballot measures that directly create ordinances, instead reserving that right for votes of the City Council. Voters can, however, amend the city’s charter by ballot. That document acts as the city’s constitution, outlining how city government is set up. It is different from the code of ordinances, which outlines the specific laws passed by the City Council.

Ginger Jentzen, an organizer with 15 Now, said her group has reached out to legal experts, including attorneys with the National Employment Law Project. She said 15 Now is confident it has good standing to raise the issue, and to do so on the ballot.

“We haven’t heard compelling legal arguments to say this isn’t possible,” she said.

The group opted for that route after meeting with mixed reaction from the council, which has been discussing the issue for more than a year. Council members voted in September to spend $150,000 on a study analyzing the likely economic impact of a higher minimum wage, but many have indicated they won’t move forward until receiving those findings.

The study is expected to be delivered to the city in August and presented to the council in September, well past the July deadline needed to put the issue on the ballot.

Barry Clegg, an attorney who serves as the chairman of the Minneapolis Charter Commission, said the situation is not clear. The commission does not weigh in on individual charter amendment ballot referrals; it only accepts them and hands them off to the council for review.

But Clegg said he researched legal cases that provide some precedent for the question surrounding the minimum wage petition and doesn’t believe it makes for a proper charter amendment.

Workers organized

The issue was raised most recently in a 2005 lawsuit filed by Donald Haumant, who attempted to get a charter amendment related to the legalization of medical marijuana on the Minneapolis ballot. The city declined to put the issue on the ballot and Haumant sued. A judge ruled in favor of the city, noting that the proposed charter amendment was “an initiative cloaked as a charter amendment.”

“The rule is that it has to deal with the form and structure of government,” Clegg said. “Things that don’t deal with that and are more akin to ordinances are not appropriate for a charter.”

The signatures gathered by 15 Now will still need to be verified by city elections officials. Petitions are due by July 12, and the council will consider the petition language by mid-August.

Jentzen said the city’s move to mandate sick leave shows that Minnesota cities can — and are — making their own rules about the workplace. She said a debate over the legal standing to bring the issue to voters will likely not sit well with workers, labor groups and others who have organized around sick leave and minimum wage efforts.

“We’re very confident that workers will not accept it,” she said. “If there’s all this organizing and it comes down to the city wanting to play politics, I don’t think that’s acceptable.”