The high-stakes debate over how much explanation to include on Minneapolis ballot questions surrounding policing, political power and rent control intensified Wednesday, as a key deadline for finalizing the wording draws near.
A Hennepin County judge scheduled a Monday hearing in a lawsuit challenging whether Minneapolis officials can include an explanatory note alongside the ballot question on replacing the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety agency.
Shortly afterward, the Minneapolis City Council's Policy & Government Oversight Committee voted to take more time to finalize wording on a proposal that could reshape the power dynamics in City Hall after some members said they wanted to see how the lawsuit on the other question proceeded.
The committee then voted to advance the wording for two rent control proposals written by three council members — with explanatory notes attached.
That sequence of events prompted concern among members of the court-appointed Charter Commission, some of whom encouraged their leaders to take legal action as an Aug. 20 deadline looms for submitting November ballot language.
"I would urge the [Charter Commission] officers to move full speed ahead with action as quickly as possible," Commissioner Matt Perry said in a public meeting.
Minneapolis residents will vote this fall on the future of the city's Police Department, whether to grant the mayor more power over the city's daily operations and, possibly, whether to clear the way for rent control ordinances.
National and local organizations are pouring money into the municipal races, the first ones since George Floyd's murder by a police officer, an uptick in violent crime and the arrival of a global pandemic that put economic strain on some of the city's most vulnerable residents.
For the first time in city memory, Minneapolis officials proposed adding explanatory notes to the ballot. City Clerk Casey Carl said they hoped to reduce confusion at the polls, where state law prohibits election workers from answering questions.
Late in July, the city approved ballot language for a proposal brought by Yes 4 Minneapolis, a political committee that wants to replace the Police Department with a public safety agency. That explanatory note mentioned, among other things, that the new department would include police "if necessary," remove requirements to have a minimum number of officers, and "remove from the Charter a Police Department, which includes the removal of its Police Chief."
Yes 4 Minneapolis sued Friday, claiming the city doesn't have authority to add an explanatory note. The group also argued the language is misleading, while opponents have said they believe it accurately describes the proposal being placed before voters.
"We are confident that the city will prevail," Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson told council members Wednesday.
His comments came during a 2 ½-hour meeting during which council members discussed the wording for three other ballot questions.
One was a proposal, written by the Charter Commission, that would have the mayor serve as the city's "chief executive," overseeing many departments' daily operations. The council would focus primarily on writing ordinances and policies and vetting city budgets.
The Charter Commission has the power to place the proposal on the ballot, but the mayor and City Council are tasked with deciding the wording.
After debate from his colleagues, including some who feared the proposed language tipped the scales in one direction, Council Member Steve Fletcher suggested they postpone making a decision.
"I do actually wonder if it might be wise for us to delay a cycle to make sure that the court doesn't raise issues with explanatory notes, so we don't find ourselves in a jam up against a timeline where we passed something that now appears sort of imminently vulnerable to a similar suit," Fletcher said.
The council voted 10-2 to postpone decisions until an Aug. 18 committee meeting. Council Members Lisa Goodman and Linea Palmisano cast the no votes. Council Member Alondra Cano was absent.
Next up for discussion were two rent control proposals written by Council President Lisa Bender and Council Members Cam Gordon and Jeremiah Ellison. One measure would allow residents to cap rents by gathering signatures on a petition; the other would give the council the power to adopt a rent control ordinance or put the question on a future ballot.
Because council members wrote the proposals, the council and mayor have a greater say on whether they land on the ballot. On Wednesday, the council advanced both proposals — with explanatory notes alongside them.
Ellison said he sees a difference in the explanatory notes attached to the rent control measures and those attached to other questions. "I have not heard anyone say that the language in this [rent control] explanatory note is misleading intentionally, unintentionally," he said.
Bender encouraged her colleagues to move ahead, noting that Mayor Jacob Frey opposes at least one of the proposals — one that would allow for rent control by a petition — and that if they delayed, they would lose their ability to try to override a potential veto.
"If we delayed this item, we would be almost certainly running out the clock and therefore these questions wouldn't be on the ballot this year," she said.
The council voted 7-4 to advance the proposal allowing for rent control caps to be put in place by a petition, with Kevin Reich, Goodman, Andrew Johnson, and Palmisano dissenting. They voted 11-1 to advance the proposal allowing council to adopt a rent cap, with Palmisano casting the lone opposing vote. Both measures and ballot questions head to the full council for final approval Friday.
Palmisano said she appreciated that the council included explanatory notes to help educate voters, but she worried about legal concerns raised by the Charter Commission and city attorney's office.
"We cannot ignore the advice constantly of the city attorneys if you want to ignore the advice of the Charter Commission," she said. "I fear that both of these things will be in court for many, many years to come."
In their own meeting Wednesday afternoon, some charter commissioners said they were frustrated and disappointed that language for their proposal on the duties of the mayor and council still hadn't been finalized.
Commission Chairman Barry Clegg noted that many council members supported the proposals that advanced with explanatory notes.
"Explanatory notes are clearly not the issue here," Clegg said.
The Charter Commission had previously authorized him — in conjunction with its other leaders — to retain and consult with an attorney.
"We will certainly do so to determine what our best options are to ensure that there is a fair, accurate and timely question before the voters," he said.