Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman is a conservative. I’m a liberal. But on this issue (“Defund and disband City Hall leadership,” June 17) our views align. The Minneapolis City Council and mayor have failed in their essential purpose of protecting all of our citizens and providing leadership.
Where we differ is the reason for that failure.
The old axiom proved true in watching Minneapolis’ leaders confront the challenges of recent events. There are 13 City Council members and a mayor who are “in charge” of Minneapolis government.
When 14 people are in charge — no one is in charge.
Minneapolis has a “weak mayor” system. Other than superficial control over the Police Department, the mayor of Minneapolis is a relative figurehead, a cheerleader without a portfolio. The 13 council members have the “power.” The power of the purse. The power to legislate. The power to veto virtually anything the mayor does. The City Council and its president run Minneapolis.
The tension between the mayor and the City Council could not have been more palpable than it was following the mayor’s recent request to increase the number of police officers in the city. No, said the council of 13. The 13 knew better than the mayor. Thus, no additional officers.
The same City Council further distinguished itself when nine of its members declared their support for defunding the Police Department 13 days after the death of George Floyd. What study, or thought, could have occurred within that short window to have caused the knees of nine council members to jerk so reactively? Of course, when nine members agree, no single one of them can be expected to “explain” what was meant by the announcement.
There was no study, no contemplation, no plan, no meaningful explanation to a nervous public. As a result, the wisdom of the nine council oracles brought national embarrassment to our city. Now the oracles want to amend the city charter to give themselves even greater control over the Police Department. What evidence suggests the Minneapolis City Council will do better with more power?
Minneapolis has approximately 426,000 residents, of whom 340,000 are over the age of 18. The most powerful politician in Minneapolis is the president of the City Council, Lisa Bender. She received a total of 4,883 votes in the last election.
How undemocratic is it that a politician who received votes from slightly more than 1% of those over the age of 18 is the most powerful politician in the city? Bender wasn’t elected by the people to be council president. She was elected by her fellow council members.
I have lived in Minneapolis for 46 years. During that time what has the City Council done to clean up Block E and Hennepin Avenue? Nothing. Witness the fear of people who stand on Hennepin waiting to take a bus. Witness the shootings. Witness the absence of any meaningful restaurant or entertainment venues on Hennepin Avenue. Who takes responsibility for cleaning up Hennepin Avenue?
When there are 14 in charge ... no one takes responsibility.
Take Nicollet Mall, please. The City Council spent $50 million in taxpayer money to revitalize the mall. What did the city get? Nicollet Mall is the Midwest equivalent of Death Valley. Walk down the mall on a spring or summer evening. The only noise in the evening comes from buses or an occasional gunshot. The opportunity to create outdoor dining in the summer, a meeting place at noon or revitalized retail space has vanished. Dayton’s, Donaldson’s, J.C. Penney’s, Sports Authority, take your pick, all are gone. Retail has blossomed in the North Loop, despite the City Council, not because of it.
The failed rehabilitation of Nicollet Mall is a testament to the City Council’s incompetence.
Bender likes to bike to and from work. Good for her and those who like to bike. No coincidence that her passion has caused Minneapolis to become one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. Too bad Bender doesn’t like to create jobs as much as she likes to bike. Then perhaps she and the other council members would spend more time making the city business-friendly.
A vibrant city depends upon jobs. Eradicating poverty requires jobs. Jobs are created by businesses. Job creators, customers and clients need to be able to get in and out of the city. This council has made getting in and out of the city, other than on a bicycle, a nightmare. Try getting in or out of downtown during a non-pandemic rush hour.
Minneapolis is a great city. It’s my favorite city in the country. The challenge to straightening it out is twofold. First, the city charter structure depends on 13 people coming to agreement where their respective provincial interests don’t always align. That is a structural flaw in the city’s governing document. It’s arguably possible to overcome that flaw if there are highly qualified, competent City Council members.
But that’s the second problem. The membership of this City Council has demonstrated by its performance that it lacks the competence and vision to lead.
As citizens we can continue to hope that the council members will become better equipped to lead. History, however, teaches us that relying on hope is not a plan. Minneapolis needs to change its city charter. It needs to adopt a form of government in which one person with a vision, with a dream for Minneapolis can rise to the surface and lead. It needs a strong mayor with a vision and the power to implement it.
It is impossible to change the Minneapolis Police Department, to become business-friendly, to revitalize Block E and Nicollet Mall when doing so depends on aligning the views of 13 council members and a mayor. The Minneapolis city charter needs to be amended to limit the 13 City Council members’ influence to issues that are unique to their particular district. The charter also needs to be amended to make someone responsible and accountable in making the changes that need to be made.
If we want meaningful change, we need to address the structural source of the problem, which is leadership by committee.
Joseph W. Anthony is a Minneapolis attorney.