The city of Minneapolis is right to appeal a District Court decision that would force it to put a $15 minimum wage on the ballot this November, and the Court of Appeals should provide a speedy decision. Time is running short.
When a proposed charter amendment for a $15 minimum wage arose, City Attorney Susan Segal rightly told City Council members that such a far-reaching proposal was well beyond the scope of the city charter, which was created to guide city government and which functions as the city’s constitution. A wage mandate, she wrote, “does not in any way relate to the form, structure or distribution of powers within the municipal enterprise.” That did not rule out the council taking up the issue as a city ordinance. Council members have said they would consider an ordinance next year, even though such a high minimum would make Minneapolis an outlier, paying far more than surrounding cities and setting one of the highest minimums in the country. But those are the complex issues council members are elected to make.
Unsatisfied, supporters of the amendment decided they didn’t want to go through what could be a prolonged process. Instead, they petitioned the court, and Hennepin County District Judge Susan Robiner decided the city’s interpretation of its own charter language was too narrow.
In her ruling, Robiner acknowledged that unlike in some cities, the Minneapolis charter does not provide for citizens to propose ordinances through initiative or referendum. That power is vested solely in the City Council. Robiner also noted that in a previous case seeking a charter amendment to require the city to create medical marijuana distribution centers, a district court held that the proposal was an improper use of the charter amendment — a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
Yet Robiner now says the city has no choice but to put the minimum wage amendment on the ballot. If the measure is approved, every employer in the city would be required to begin raising its minimum wage to $15 — far above the $9.50 statewide minimum.
In siding with supporters’ assertion that the charter provides for the broadest possible exercise of the city’s general welfare legislative powers, Robiner’s decision would open the door to any number of other ballot amendments, robbing the council of its ability to make deliberative decisions and morphing the charter itself into a vehicle for initiative and referendum that was never intended. The city also is seeking an accelerated review of the case from the Minnesota Supreme Court, which should consider weighing in on the charter’s limits.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has gone on record opposing the $15 minimum wage. But there is a larger issue here. Initiative and referendum is a style of government designed to allow groups to bypass representative government and put ideas to a popular vote. It is a process that invites big money into the political process and discourages thoughtful discourse. It is not one Minneapolis has chosen for itself, and if such a change were to come, it should not be initiated by a single judge’s decision.