The Minneapolis Charter Commission, which blocked a ballot question that could have replaced the police department, is now considering restricting the City Council's influence over the day-to-day operations of city departments.

Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott, who is helping lead the efforts to re-examine city government, said debates about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department — and who should control it — reinvigorated a longstanding discussion about how to share power and responsibilities in the city.

"It's a decadeslong problem with the Minneapolis City Charter," Abbott said in a public meeting this week. "The charter we have was not designed by someone to operate in this way."

The commission, whose volunteer members are appointed by a district judge, is in the early stages of its work, and any changes would need to be approved by voters. If the commission continues on its current trajectory, a question could appear on the November ballot.

People who follow local government issues are hard-pressed to think of another city that has a system like the one in Minneapolis, where the lines between the mayor's authority and the council's are often blurry.

In a recent set of private, scathing interviews, high-ranking city staffers told a trio of commissioners that the city's "diffused" form of government hampered their ability to effectively respond to crises like the corona­virus pandemic and George Floyd's death in police custody. They said they often struggled to determine who was in charge and to manage conflicts between the mayor and 13 City Council members.

Abbott and fellow Commissioner Jill Garcia, who are co-chairing the commission's effort to re-evaluate the structure of city government, told their colleagues they believe the city would benefit from making elected officials' power explicit.

The first draft would amend the city's charter to clarify that the mayor serves as the city's "chief executive officer" and is responsible for directing and supervising the city's departments. It would also change the length of the department heads' terms to align them with those of the mayor.

Council members who "usurp, invade, or interfere" with the mayor's supervision of departments would face a misdemeanor and, if convicted, be required to forfeit their seat. Their focus would be on creating policies, passing ordinances and vetting city budgets.

In public meetings this week, the city's elected leaders shared varying opinions on the proposal.

Mayor Jacob Frey said he too believes the city could benefit from more clarity between the roles of the mayor and council.

"There is no reason that any business or government would voluntarily and independently set themselves up in a way that we presently are," he said, adding: "Our system does not provide for a clear line of accountability — not for constituents, not for our partners, and not for departments."

Council Member Lisa Goodman encouraged the commissioners to "go much further" and also evaluate the role of the city's independent boards and commissions.

Other council members, such as Jeremy Schroeder, said they worried about moving to a "much more strong-mayor system." He said he felt that the council's ward system helps ensure that people who live in areas with lower voter turnout have an advocate in city government.

Multiple council members said they want to ensure there is a clear way for them to pass along constituents' concerns to city staff. Along with the mayor, some of them raised concerns about the misdemeanor penalty for violations.

"The reason why it ... was a major red flag, for me, is because anything that involves the criminal justice system inherently disproportionately negatively impacts people of color," Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said. "So this makes me very nervous as a Black City Council member around, how do I know that my actions won't be skewed by people's bias."

The commission has the authority to place a question before voters, but the City Council would vote on the wording appearing on the ballot.

Three City Council members — Cunningham, Schroeder and Steve Fletcher — have said they are working on a new proposal that could place police and other public safety programs under the umbrella of one new department, if voters approve the change. More details about that plan are expected to be unveiled later this week.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994