Minneapolis officials must change the wording that will appear on the ballot this fall when voters decide the future of the city's Police Department, a judge ruled Friday.

Hennepin County District Judge Jamie Anderson instructed the city to remove an "explanatory note" outlining details of the proposal before voters.

"The proper function of the ballot is to assist the voter in easily and accurately identifying what they are voting on," Anderson wrote. "Even in service of this principle, attempts to enlighten voters on good faith issues may create an unfair advantage one way or the other if extraneous information is allowed."

The proposal has become a central issue in the November elections, which are drawing national attention and money as people wait to see how Minneapolis will fulfill a promise to transform public safety after George Floyd's murder by a police officer.

Earlier this year, a new political committee called Yes 4 Minneapolis circulated petitions gathering signatures to place a proposal before voters. The mayor and City Council were to determine the wording that will appear on the ballot.

The proposal would remove language in the city charter that requires Minneapolis to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers based on population.

The city then would be required to create an agency responsible for "integrating" public safety functions "into a comprehensive public health approach to safety." The new agency could have police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."

The proposal also would strike language from the charter that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers.

The mayor and council would decide how to design the new department and whether — and how — to employ police.

City officials approved ballot language asking voters if they want "to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety." It referred voters to an attached explanatory note providing more detail.

Yes 4 Minneapolis sued the city, arguing it didn't have authority to include such notes on the ballot and that the language was "misleading." City officials countered that they have that power, and argued that they had mirrored the language used in Yes 4 Minneapolis' proposal.

Anderson said the city does have the ability to include explanatory notes, but the wording for this particular proposal was "problematic."

"[The city] may be correct that the Explanatory Note accurately informs voters about the proposed charter amendment, and it is important to note that they have not taken a position either in-favor-of or against the proposed amendment, but the Ballot Question addresses a highly-relevant public policy issue and a voter could very well construe such a lengthy and detailed explanation as either an endorsement or a warning," Anderson wrote.

She added that she was "uncertain whether the Explanatory Note would tend to 'help' or 'hurt' one side or the other, but that is irrelevant."

The judge wrote that she "cannot and will not" dictate the new wording, and "will not clarify what might constitute proper explanatory note language."

"While the Court has authority on matters regarding the legality of ballot language, it is longstanding policy that the judiciary's role is not to advise policymakers how to word bills or ballots."

The matter now heads back to city officials, who face an Aug. 20 deadline for submitting ballot language to the county. City Attorney Jim Rowader said in a statement that the city was "still reviewing the Court's order to determine next steps."

Yes 4 Minneapolis on Friday welcomed the judge's order, saying she "upheld the law and democracy." The group said in a statement that it was "elated that the voters of Minneapolis will get to confidently cast their ballot without subjective, interpretive language that places a thumb on the scale, hindering them from exercising their democracy."

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994