The first Minneapolis election campaign since the death of George Floyd is dominated by questions over the future of public safety in the city. Activists on both sides of the debate are working behind the scenes to influence the message and the policy coming out of City Hall.

A global group whose lobbying arm is funding a campaign to replace the Minneapolis Police Department reached out in recent months to City Council members who pledged to fulfill that same goal. It later thanked them for sharing "fresh strategies to win."

A pro-police group headed by a Richfield resident coordinated with Mayor Jacob Frey's office and produced a video featuring Police Chief Medaria Arradondo arguing against budget cuts.

More than 2,000 pages of e-mails stored on the city's servers and obtained by a records request provide a window into the extent to which outside groups are seeking to influence policing proposals — and their perceptions in the community.

The exchanges highlight the fine line elected officials must walk as they vote on public safety policies that also have become the focal point in a fierce election season.

Groups organizing on both sides say they are giving a voice to the unheard and accuse their opponents of using questionable tactics and conspiring to undermine them. Meanwhile, council members and Frey were warned by the city's top ethics officer to avoid crossing the line between policy­making and campaigning.

With Minneapolis politics under national scrutiny, and many politicians in tough re-election fights, that line is increasingly hazy.

Strategy on ballot questions

Years before Floyd's death, many council members joined Local Progress, a national group formed in 2012 to help progressive politicians share ideas.

Minneapolis earned a reputation for leading efforts to move police funding to violence prevention programs, and Local Progress invited city leaders to speak at events. Council Member Phillipe Cunningham serves on its board.

One of Local Progress' donors is the Open Society Foundations, a group founded by billionaire George Soros that funds organizations "working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights."

The Open Society Foundations has a Washington-based lobbying arm called the Open Society Policy Center, which on Nov. 19 donated $500,000 to a new political committee called Yes 4 Minneapolis.

Yes 4 Minneapolis gathered signatures this year to get a proposal on the ballot asking voters to replace the Police Department with a new public safety agency.

On Nov. 5, the executive director of Local Progress e-mailed Council President Lisa Bender, introducing her to Gretchen Rohr, who was leading a team at the Open Society Foundations working on justice-related programs in Minneapolis.

Bender recalled three conversations with Rohr. The first, in November, was talking "at a very high level" about what had happened in Minneapolis. Bender said the foundations told her they had contacted city staff about "potentially funding technical assistance for the city" but instead decided to fund community groups.

Rohr sent another e-mail to Bender in January, saying that she had shared the "highlights" of their discussion with partners and that organizers wanted to meet "to find the best ways to integrate and better leverage the various public efforts to redesign policing in the city." She specified her interest in "community engagement and the ballot initiative."

"It seems like time is of the essence to bring folks together if we believe there is a way to avoid two conflicting charter proposals," she wrote.

Bender said she told Rohr that three council members — Cunningham, Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder — were writing their own charter proposal asking voters to create a new public safety department.

A virtual meeting for "introductions" was scheduled in early February. Invitees included the council members, people from the Open Society Foundations, Black Visions Collective co-executive director Kandace Montgomery and Sheila Nezhad, an activist with Reclaim the Block who is running for mayor. Black Visions and Reclaim the Block are coalition members of Yes 4 Minneapolis.

A few days after the meeting, Rohr contacted the council members, thanking them "for sharing your time, vision and fresh strategies to win."

She asked for thoughts on "the proposal to gather a cross-section of leaders involved in the two distinct charter campaigns to share best practices and align messaging and community participation in the new public safety design."

In an interview, Montgomery said they discussed "the ways that community members can have voice in the public safety process," and wanted to get "a better understanding of where council members are at on these issues."

Fletcher and Schroeder said the group asked questions about their proposal and whether they would withdraw it if a citizen petition made the ballot.

"Maybe they thought it was a strategy," but it was actually a discussion about government processes, Schroeder said.

The council members and Yes 4 Minneapolis advanced separate proposals asking voters to replace the Police Department with a new safety department. The council proposal says the new department must include police. Yes 4 Minneapolis' version says it may employ police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."

The City Clerk's Office said in May that Yes 4 Minneapolis gathered enough signatures for its ballot question. If all goes as anticipated, council members and the mayor will determine the wording on the ballot.

Council members then will decide whether to continue with their proposal or withdraw it.

The chief's video

As crime rates rose and police budgets drew new scrutiny, people who believed the council was headed down the wrong path began organizing.

Bill Rodriguez, a Richfield resident, said a break-in at his ex-wife's home in south Minneapolis spurred his concerns. Seeing people express similar worries on Facebook and Nextdoor, he contacted them and encouraged them to speak at council meetings.

In those early meetings, he identified himself as a south Minneapolis resident — a decision he said he now regrets. Rodriguez said he wanted to advocate for his family and thought only city residents could speak.

Rodriguez's efforts morphed into a group called Operation Safety Now, which mobilized dozens to speak against the council's plans.

Last November and December, as the city neared crucial budget votes, Rodriguez frequently communicated with aides to Frey and Arradondo, according to e-mails first reported by The Minnesota Reformer.

On many occasions, Rodriguez sent examples of graphics or statistics he wanted to include in Operation Safety Now materials to Arradondo's assistant, Natasha Hanson, or the department's finance director, Robin McPherson. Sometimes, they corrected him or offered insights into their staffing projections.

On Nov. 10, Rodriguez asked if the chief would be available for a Zoom interview. He said he wanted "to start putting some short clips of him out there before the hearings addressing some key issues to help shape public opinion."

The end product was a 3 minute, 42 second video that Operation Safety Now posted to its Facebook page, alongside a message encouraging people to sign up to speak at a public hearing.

In the video, an interviewer asks Arradondo to share his thoughts on budget cuts, asking, "How bad is this situation and how does this budget cut make it worse?"

The chief said cuts would "remove resources," force the department to become "one dimensional," and make it harder to keep people safe.

The chief said in an interview that what he expressed in the video were the same thoughts he shared with other groups — including those that want to abolish police.

In the waning days of budget negotiations, Rodriguez sent suggestions of how the mayor and chief could strengthen their cases. Once, Rodriguez asked Heidi Ritchie, an aide to the mayor, to weigh in on the form letter they were asking people to read at a hearing.

She suggested swapping a line calling for "no caps on cops" to one asking council members to support "a both and approach," a phrase the mayor had been using in his own statements.

"I think they asked the question and we answered it," Frey said in an interview. "Clearly a 'both and' approach is something I've said hundreds of times. That was our message, and that would have been our message to any other organization that asked as well."

Dueling accusations

With organizing efforts escalating on both sides, the factions have not been shy about questioning each others' tactics.

Bender, Fletcher and Cunningham raised concerns about the interactions between the chief's office and Operation Safety Now. They said those communications were different from the ones they had with progressive organizations.

"Those two things are not equal, even remotely," Cunningham said, adding later, "I feel like there's a conspiracy being developed here that's not actually here."

Cunningham said he believes the distinction is that Operation Safety Now "is involved with influencing an election itself, and so we have a department head that is connected to an organization that is trying to get people elected into office that will increase that department head's budget. That is highly inappropriate."

The chief said they never discussed candidates and defended his decision.

"I'm not speaking to these groups to endorse certain candidates," Arradondo said. "I'm advocating for a budget that is appropriate, that is appropriately supported, and it's appropriately funded, and I will continue to do that."

Rodriguez said he thought Operation Safety Now's work would end after the budgeting cycle, and they only began discussing the idea of endorsements weeks after the video was filmed. He provided e-mails showing they contacted candidates about endorsements in February.

"They're trying to create this conspiratorial setting here," Rodriguez said. "I wish I could claim credit for some masterful plan ... but that's not at all the case."

Rodriguez said he's being held to a double standard: "How is it OK for defunders and their allies to be getting money and consulting from outsiders two time zones away but not OK for a guy to speak out on behalf of his family and others only because he lives two blocks away from the city border?"

JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said the donations it has received are correcting an imbalance. For too long, Bates said, resources that could have helped "working class people" have gone to police.

"This is an exciting and joyful experience for folks, and it is within the best interest of Operation Safety Now to try to rain on that parade all day now, pumping in fear at any point they can," Bates said. "It's all a distraction from the sheer fact that folks across the city, across the country, across the world came together and unified after George Floyd was murdered."

By the end of the summer, the city will learn which proposals will land on the ballot, touching off a new phase of campaigning before the questions themselves, and the futures of the politicians who champion or oppose them, will be decided by voters.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994