A group of City Council members clashed Thursday with Mayor Jacob Frey for giving a community group $359,000 to prevent violence and help reopen George Floyd Square, the semi-autonomous zone at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

The Agape Movement, a Central neighborhood organization that hires ex-gang members to interrupt gang violence, stood at the ready to guard city workers as they removed street barricades from the square in early June.

Invoking his COVID-19 emergency powers, Frey authorized a $359,000 contract with the group to monitor security concerns and "address the compounding impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in this area while preserving spaces for healing and the remembrance of George Floyd."

In normal times, a city expenditure of more than $175,000 would require City Council approval. In this case, most City Council members did not know the details of the Agape contract and did not have a chance to discuss it in public.

"I think it is a scandal. … This is a misuse of the COVID-19 authorization. It is not appropriate," Council Member Steve Fletcher said at a council meeting Thursday. "That the initial breakup of 38th and Chicago had to happen at 4 in the morning was evidence that it was not something that could stand up in the light of day."

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham called the Agape contract an "abusive use" of community groups working in conjunction with the Office of Violence Prevention. These types of street outreach organizations should not be used for "protest strike teams," crowd management or funeral security, he said.

"We are not looking to have civilians do exactly what police officers do," Cunningham said. "It's hurting their credibility. They're being seen as cops because the city is asking them to behave as cops."

Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said it was a "stretch" to connect Agape's security services to COVID-19.

When asked to weigh in at Thursday's meeting, City Attorney Jim Rowader disagreed.

"The scope of the Agape contract language regarding pandemic response, and responding to conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic," he said. "This route was taken primarily based on the timing exigency, logistical efficiency and the need and desire for some operational secrecy also."

A group of protesters occupied 38th and Chicago for more than a year, demanding the city meet a list of 24 stipulations before ceding the street. One of those demands was to "provide Agape a space for their operations within the George Floyd Square Zone," because "Agape has provided safety for the community in George Floyd Square in absence of MPD presence."

Cunningham, Fletcher, Schroeder and Council President Lisa Bender, who also criticized the mayor's "abuse of his COVID-19 procurement authority" in a joint news release on Thursday, have been prominent advocates of reducing funding for the Minneapolis Police Department and greater investment in violence prevention alternatives.

Frey dismissed the council members' concerns as "political theater."

"The same council members making these allegations are the ones that entirely excused themselves from doing any work on some of the most difficult issues that we've been experiencing," he said Thursday. "You could cut the hypocrisy with a knife."

The mayor, Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and Council Member Alondra Cano, who represent the wards encompassing George Floyd Square, negotiated with the occupiers and collected feedback from residents, business and established community organizations.

"The City Council has approved the mayor's emergency declaration, and that provides some authority to the mayor," Jenkins said. "Agape was a part of the request from the community. So to now vilify them as some entity that is unfamiliar with the community or somehow working on behalf of the city of Minneapolis, I mean … they were specifically requested in the 24 demands."

Cano noted a January e-mail from Bender stating that the city's response to 38th and Chicago "does not need to come through the City Council for approval."

"The reality is that myself, Jenkins, the mayor, dozens of African American leaders and city staff including the entire Health Department have been working together since late last summer to develop a plan to reconnect the area and to provide a phased reconnection with a memorial and a long-term vision for sustainability and revitalization," she said.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028