Attorneys at Hennepin County believe it is legally possible to change the name of Lake Calhoun, but the process must follow specific steps largely involving the county government.
A memo circulated to county commissioners last week indicates that the county would be in the driver’s seat should a renaming petition be formally submitted. That’s in contrast to the earlier discussion by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the entity that owns the land.
The lake’s namesake, former Vice President John C. Calhoun, has garnered extra scrutiny in recent weeks for his ardent support of slavery and racist legacy.
“His name and legacy should not be honored anywhere,” reads a petition with more than 4,300 signatures.
The head of the county attorney’s civil division, Dan Rogan, said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will consider “a name change proposed by a County Board if it follows the statutory process outlined in [state statute].” There was previously concern that a lake name older than 40 years old could not be changed, but the memo said it is possible if the county follows the appropriate steps.
That conflicts with the opinion of Park Board attorney Brian Rice, who says he believes the statute preventing name changes after 40 years applies in this case. He suggests that the Legislature grant explicit authority for the change, in the event of future legal challenges.
“I would say the law is far, far from clear. And if anything, I would say the 40-year rule … would hold,” he said.
The county memo says the renaming process requires at least 15 registered voters to submit a petition, which must also include their proposed new name for the lake. This would be delivered to the County Board, which would hold a hearing and then vote on a resolution. The state commissioner of natural resources must then endorse the resolution.
The process should include “hearing from those individuals most impacted,” including people living near the lake, the city of Minneapolis and the Park Board, according to the memo.
Park Board President Liz Wielinski said the county’s memo is “one piece of what I would call the giant puzzle.” The Park Board has asked for its own overview of the process by September.
Wielinski noted that it appears the DNR has final say over the matter, regardless of the county’s action. “I believe that there’s going to be levels that go … from local all the way up to federal,” she said. “And I’d want to have all the steps [outlined] so people, when they’re making a decision, know exactly what they’re going to be going through to get there. Because it may be long, arduous and expensive, and I think people should know that before they start.”
Wielinski also said that if the petition must include the new name, it’s important that it be a consensus decision made by a public process.
Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn, a supporter of the name change, said the most common suggestion he has heard is the original Dakota title: Bde maka ska (or Mde maka ska). “But I think right now most folks are just kind of building consensus around the fact that naming the lake after John C. Calhoun is not representative of our values in Minneapolis,” Bourn said.
County Commissioner Marion Greene, who is also supportive of the effort, said she has several meetings coming up with interested community members.
“OK, so now what do we do?” said Greene, who represents the area. “Since I feel the DNR really has put it back to the local community.”