Voters in Minneapolis won’t be given the opportunity to decide the future of policing in November. That’s because the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted 10-5 recently to stop a controversial policing proposal from advancing onto the ballot.
So what is the Charter Commission, and why does this unelected group of 15 people have the authority to decide what goes before voters?
Activists and some Minneapolis City Council members have been pushing for a referendum to eliminate the city charter’s requirement to maintain the current structure of the police department in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. But the council needs the Charter Commission's input to move forward. Here’s how it works:
The current charter, which serves as the city’s constitution, requires Minneapolis to keep a police department with about one officer for every 588 residents.
Before the City Council can remake policing, they must amend the charter.
The City Council sought a charter amendment that would establish a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which may or may not include law enforcement officers.
Some members of the Charter Commission proposed their own amendment that would preserve the police department, but eliminate the current charter mandate to fund a specific number of officers. The commission rejected its own amendment while also extending their review of the City Council’s proposal.
Charter Commission Chairman Barry Clegg said the commission was not given enough time to study the City Council’s proposal before their deadline to get it on the ballot.
“The council came to us at the very last minute, and in fact, the council suspended its own rules to get in under the timeline,” Clegg said. “We said, ‘No, we're going to do our job. Our job is to review this proposal, our job is to gather public input and that's what we're going to do.’”
Clegg was first appointed to the commission in 2003. Members are not elected, but residents can apply and are appointed by the Hennepin County judge, a process outlined in the Minnesota constitution.
“I think that is to preserve the independence of the charter commission and to help ensure that we are not swayed by the political winds, if you will, but are doing our best with our independent judgment to serve the citizens,” Clegg said.
Clegg said that many people don’t understand the limits of the commission’s power.
“A lot of people think the charter commission can change the charter and they can’t. All the charter commission can do is put things on the ballot for the voters to consider changing the charter,” Clegg said.
If the mayor, City Council, or a citizen petition proposes a change, it must flow through the Charter Commission to get on the ballot and in front of voters.
A third of the commission’s members opposed the delay that kept the measure off the November ballot: Commissioners Andrea Rubenstein, Toni Newborn, Al Giraud-Isaacson, Jan Sandberg, and Christopher Smith.
“This amendment will give the citizens the opportunity to speak and decide, and I’ll put my trust in the voters of Minneapolis. I’ll say that I believe that the citizens of Minneapolis have earned the right to have a say,” Giraud-Isaacson said in an interview.
Commissioners Andrew Kozak, Jill Garcia, Greg Abbott, Peter Ginder, Barbara Lickness, Jana Metge, Lyall Schwarzkopf, Dan Cohen and Matt Perry, along with Clegg, all voted in favor of the delay.
Still, Clegg said he understands the criticism and frustration people are feeling with their decision.
“We're not impeding democracy,” Clegg said. “If the council continues to make this proposal, it's going to be on the ballot next year, we can't keep it off the ballot indefinitely. We can take the time that we have by state law to look at the proposal.”
The City Council members who wrote the policing proposal are likely to push for another version of it to be added to the 2021 ballot.
Watch the latest episodes of our YouTube series, Tomorrow Together, to learn more about what the future of policing in Minneapolis could look like.