A coalition of police reform groups on Wednesday chastised elected officials for allowing the Minneapolis police union to conduct closed-door contract talks through the state Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), instead of continuing to bargain in the open.

Shifting the negotiations to private mediation was "a pretext for shutting out the public," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, of MPLS for a Better Police Contract, a watchdog group that won a lawsuit permitting citizens to observe labor negotiations for the first time in the city's history.

Gurian-Sherman and about 20 supporters held a news conference on the sidewalk outside the BMS office Wednesday to highlight concerns that contract discussions without public scrutiny will focus solely on raising wages without ensuring necessary reforms.

They criticized Mayor Jacob Frey and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis for denying public access.

Under state law, either party — public employers or labor unions — can request that negotiations be moved to mediation, a generally closed process that bars public observers and shields any documents from potential data requests. The police federation on Dec. 1 asked a state mediator to intervene, arguing that the five public meetings to date had been "ineffective" in addressing the key issues.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Johnny Villarreal, the mediation bureau's commissioner, defended the closed-door policy. "We think it's best for the process and the parties to reach a mutual agreement with the assistance of a trained professional mediator," he said.

He has stood firm in that opinion, even after receiving a letter in February from Minneapolis City Council President Elliott Payne and Vice President Aisha Chughtai urging Villarreal to make the negotiations public.

"Closed mediation may indeed lead to a resolution, but it risks producing outcomes that lack the public accountability and reforms fervently sought by both the community and the City Council," they wrote.

In his response, Villarreal noted that any agreement would be subject to "transparent public scrutiny during the ratification process of the public employer."

A city spokeswoman echoed comments by Villarreal, citing state statute that mediation remains closed unless the BMS commissioner determines that it would not facilitate a resolution.

Minneapolis' current police labor agreement was adopted in March 2022 after state mediation, and it expired Dec. 31 of that year.

The police union has long sought double-digit pay raises for its rank-and-file officers. It argued last fall that wages have not kept pace with many suburban law enforcement agencies, which are competing for the same limited pool of candidates.

But city leaders balked at the union's request for a one-year 13.25% raise, saying it could not manage the $11 million price tag.

Last month, federation officials pointed out that City Council members proudly joined the picket lines for Minneapolis Public Works employees, who secured a historic a wage increase of nearly 30% over the next three years.

"This is a stark contrast to the Minneapolis Police contract negotiations," Sgt. Sherral Schmidt, union president, said in a statement at the time. "Our contract has been expired for nearly 15 months and we have made little progress towards resolving the issues, nor have we been given a wage package anywhere close to what other bargaining units have received."

She called on Frey to take a proactive stance in advocating for his police force.

As of January, the Minneapolis Police Department employed 565 officers with 25 on long-term leave, down from about 900 in 2020. Frey and Chief Brian O'Hara say replenishing the ranks is critical to maintaining the downward trends in violent crime the city saw last year, a respite from a sharp rise in homicides and record gun violence over the past three years.

City Council members have previously criticized the police contract for lacking many of the disciplinary changes reformers demanded in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. The reform coalition has urged that a new contract include language that would enhance police accountability and rein in misconduct.