The independent Minneapolis Charter Commission is examining whether the city should change its system of government after a trying year that tested residents' faith in their elected leaders.

Behind the scenes, as city department heads scrambled to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, George Floyd's death and a spike in violent crime, they often struggled to determine who was in charge and how to manage conflicts between 13 council members and a mayor facing intense public scrutiny. The result, they told three commissioners in private interviews, is that the city's disjointed system of government hampered their ability to quickly and effectively serve residents.

"It used to be people were able to make this work, but I think politics has changed and our creaky old structure, I don't think, is up to the age of social media and hyperpolarization," said Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott, who is leading some of the work on the review.

The commission is considering changes that could dramatically transform the structure of city government, potentially handing the mayor new power while better defining the role of the city's council members, who hold considerable sway in their wards and in the daily management of the city. Also under consideration is the hiring of a city manager to shield rank-and-file staffers from political debates between the mayor and the council. Another option is more modest changes to bring better clarity to duties and responsibilities.

If commissioners settle on a proposal, Minneapolis voters would get the final say next year, potentially altering the political dynamics of City Hall for years or even decades to come. At the same time, residents will elect the next mayor and City Council, and possibly decide the fate of the Police Department.

"It's going to be a big municipal year," said Barry Clegg, chairman of the Charter Commission.

A complex system

Few, if any, cities have a system like the one in Minneapolis, where the authority of the council and the mayor are often confusing and overlap.

The mayor nominates the leaders of major city departments, but the council confirms or rejects them. The mayor has executive power over city operations, but the council can order workers to prioritize certain projects over others.

"The system is complex and is not a system that would be deliberately designed by anyone seeking to promote good governance or effective government operations," according to a report issued last week, based on interviews that Abbott, Clegg and Commissioner Jill Garcia did with most of the city's 22 department heads.

Those conflicts are spilling out into the open as the mayor and a divided City Council debate changes to policing after Floyd's death.

The charter, which serves as the city's constitution, says the mayor has "complete power" over the Police Department. It gives the council, though, responsibility for funding it.

Budget negotiations this year tested those boundaries in new ways. The council moved some employees out of the Police Department into other city offices, out of the mayor's direct control. It also placed money for police recruits and overtime into a new fund with council oversight.

Department heads told charter commissioners that some elected leaders go around them when they don't like their advice. At times, department managers found themselves in the awkward position of lobbying against elected leaders' proposals in public meetings.

In the past two months, at least four department leaders have announced they are quitting or retiring.

'A year of reckoning'

City leaders acknowledge the system isn't working how they'd like.

"It's been a year of reckoning in our city, and it's a time where we each have to continue to reflect on our role and the systems that have created the outcomes we have seen this year," Council President Lisa Bender said as she closed out the council's last meeting of the year on Friday.

It's too early to tell precisely what changes the Charter Commission might put before voters next year.

In a meeting last week, some commissioners inquired about more traditional "strong mayor" systems or about cities that hire a manager to oversee daily operations. Others have talked about giving the mayor the ability to strike individual items from the budget or limiting the council's ability to give instructions to city workers.

The Charter Commission, which is court-appointed, hopes to unveil a draft proposal early next year and to conduct public hearings before putting any items on the ballot.

'Further definition'

Mayor Jacob Frey said he's waiting to see a formal proposal before taking a public position.

"We definitely need further definition," he said, adding: "What's really clear is that the current system is disjointed, and I trust there is good reason that almost no cities have this model."

In some ways, the city's recent crises gave residents a preview of what a more traditional, strong-mayor system could look like. Emergency declarations issued over COVID-19 and the unrest gave the mayor wider authority to issue temporary orders, to request outside assistance more easily and to purchase emergency supplies.

The commission's report noted that the mayor's flexing of new power had some advantages but also said in the early days of those crises "it was difficult to identify who exactly was in charge of the City and the City's response; the overall public impression was that the City was unraveling."

Frey noted those circumstances were "unprecedented" and said he hopes people will take seriously the concerns of the department heads, who are seeking more clarity on leadership roles.

Council Member Linea Palmisano also called for more clarity and wonders if they could accomplish that by making small changes to the charter.

"Probably the trauma of 2020 makes us all feel like we need to do radical renovation," she said. "Maybe that's not the answer."

Bender said she hopes any changes will make racial equity a priority. Some council members defend the ward system, saying it is crucial to ensuring that people of color and people living in areas with lower voter turnout have equal representation in city government.

She cautioned against trying to measure the success of city government by the number of proposals they pass unanimously. Vigorous debate between the council and the mayor is healthy, Bender said. Anything less "is very undemocratic and very dangerous in a city that has the worst racial disparities in the country."

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994