The death of George Floyd and unrest in Minneapolis has led to discussions of police reform and restructuring. That discussion is now prompting our Charter Commission to consider whether changes also are needed to the city's overall structure of government.
The commission's recent interviews with city department heads and former elected officials reveal an existing system that can work well when there is consensus, but which often breaks down into chaos, confusion and personal power posturing in day-to-day operations or when there is a serious difference of opinion.
Iric Nathanson's Jan. 4 commentary, "Reformers should study history of St. Paul," asserts that the capital city's failed attempt to adopt the council-manager plan in 1929 should serve as a cautionary tale for today's would-be reformers. He implies that pursuing the same reform in today's Minneapolis may only delay moving to the system more likely to be adopted and successful — the strong-mayor form.
Nathanson raises legitimate lessons from St. Paul's experience of nearly a century ago, but not ones that need be compelling. The time and context are just too different.
The council-manager plan ("the Plan") was devised in 1913 as an antidote to municipal corruption. The new system, based in professionalism and applied knowledge, would replace the bosses and machines that ruled urban America at the time. It was part of the broader turn-of-the-century progressive reform movement that also birthed other professions like social work and public health.
In the 90 years since the St. Paul vote, the council-manager plan has grown and evolved considerably. It has now been adopted by over 4,400 American cities and counties of all sizes.
Early advocates sold the plan on its promises of honesty and efficiency. By the 1970s the profession was also developing a social conscience and leaning more heavily into its democratic ideals.
Today's manager and her staff are as likely to be working on strategies of community engagement and racial equity as they are on getting the best bid for street reconstruction.
Structuring a responsive and effective local government is an art, requiring a careful balance of a three-legged stool — focused political leadership by the mayor; representation, policymaking and broad oversight by the council; and efficient administration by empowered staff. The council-manager plan encourages the mayor and council to work collaboratively more than competitively and to speak with a unified (majority) voice to and through their primary employee, the city manager.
The manager is expected to implement that direction faithfully and efficiently. He or she leads the city department heads, including the police chief, as a management team collaborating to achieve citywide priorities.
The manager does not usurp the political leadership or policymaking roles of elected officials but does offer professional advice based on years of experience. She acts as the bridge that enables elected officials and staff to understand, respect and support one another.
Democratic accountability is maintained by the manager serving as an "at will" employee who can be replaced by majority vote of the mayor and council at any time.
Many believe that the council-manager plan works fine for rural or suburban cities but not for central cities like Minneapolis. It is simply not true. Take a trip down Interstate 35 from Minnesota to the Mexican border. Every central city through which you pass operates with a council-manager system — Des Moines, Kansas City, Wichita, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio.
Other large cities with the council-manager plan include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Tucson, Sacramento and San Jose. The council-manager plan has proved its efficiency and responsiveness in cities and counties of all sizes over an exceptionally long period.
During the 20th century our region grew into an economically and culturally sophisticated metropolis with Minneapolis at its core. Our world-class city deserves a world-class government.
Minneapolis already does representation well. Structural changes have enhanced the mayor's political leadership, although more might be done. Perhaps it is time to lengthen the third leg of that stool by elevating the role of professionalism at City Hall.
Twenty-first century reformers would do well, extremely well, to consider a council-manager plan as the best approach to balancing and strengthening all three legs in Minneapolis while undermining the important contributions of none.
Kevin Frazell is recently retired from a career in local government management and on staff with the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota City/County Management Association. The views expressed here are solely his own.