Tensions building inside Minneapolis City Hall spilled into the open Wednesday as council members debated proposals asking voters to determine the fate of the police department, rent control and who should wield certain powers in city government.
During a 4 ½-hour-long meeting Wednesday afternoon, council members and city staffers at times accused each other of spreading "misinformation" or attempting to tip the scale inappropriately.
City Clerk Casey Carl said multiple times that he wanted to correct inaccurate statements that elected officials made. Some council members, meanwhile, accused the clerk's or city attorney's offices of introducing their own biases into draft ballot language outlining how the issues would be presented to voters.
The debate prompted Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins to ask people to give each other the benefit of the doubt. "The accusations are beyond what I think is normal and productive debate," she said.
The controversial proposals have become focal points in the first municipal election since George Floyd's death — when the mayor's office and all 13 City Council seats are up for grabs. New political organizations are forming and fundraising in order to sway the elections, and they're making conflicting demands.
The city's elected leaders, meanwhile, face a looming Aug. 20 deadline to nail down how questions will appear on the ballot. In past years, that process has often been viewed as a formality. This year, it is the subject of intense debate.
Policing and public safety
The city's charter, which serves as its constitution, has become a focal point in conversations about how to transform public safety in the wake of Floyd's death under the knee of a police officer.
Earlier this year, a new political committee called Yes 4 Minneapolis gathered petition signatures to place a question about policing and public safety on the ballot.
Their proposal asks voters to approve a plan that would create a new public safety department that would include police officers "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."
It would eliminate requirements to keep a minimum number of officers based on the city's population and remove the mayor's "complete power" over police operations, likely granting the council more sway.
The council's role is limited when a group collects signatures to place an item on the ballot, as Yes 4 Minneapolis did; the council and mayor will determine the wording that appears on the ballot but can't change the substance of the proposal and are required to present it in a nonpartisan way.
For the first time in memory, city staffers suggested attaching an explanatory note to the ballot question, a move they said they hoped would minimize confusion at the polls. Other cities have taken similar steps in the past.
Some council members said they feared the wording could inappropriately tip voters in one direction or the other.
Some wanted it to note that state law says only officers can perform some tasks, so there likely would still be police. (That final determination would be made by city leaders.) Others wanted to note that police had in the past pushed for the minimum staffing requirement that would be eliminated under the proposal.
"The explanatory note seems to be adding a lot of editorializing," Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said.
Despite fierce debate, the council gave a preliminary vote to approve the city attorney's recommended language. A final vote is expected Friday.
Rent control, stabilization
The City Council gave preliminary approval Wednesday to two measures that would allow for rent control policies to pass in Minneapolis, going against advice from the city attorney's office.
If those receive final approval next month, they head to Mayor Jacob Frey, who has veto power.
Both proposals were written by Council President Lisa Bender and Council Members Cam Gordon and Jeremiah Ellison.
One version would give residents the ability to write a rent stabilization ordinance.
If they collect enough signatures supporting that effort, the city would be able to "enact the ordinance without change," or instruct the clerk to put a question about the ordinance on the ballot, if it passes a legal analysis.
The Charter Commission, during its required review process, recommended rejecting that proposal.
It argued that state law would prohibit the city from enacting the new ordinance without an additional vote by residents.
While state law largely limits rent control for private properties, it has a provision allowing cities such as Minneapolis to enact such measures "to the extent that the power or authority is otherwise provided for by law, and if the ordinance or charter amendment is approved in a general election."
A second proposal would allow the City Council to write a rent control or rent stabilization ordinance and says they "may" put it before voters.
The Charter Commission, citing state law, suggested adding a provision saying that voters must approve the new measure "before the ordinance can take effect." The city attorney's office took a similar stance on Wednesday.
"There are conflicts with state law on the face of the language on both provisions," said Erik Nilsson, an attorney for the city. Noting that the state's rent control law hasn't been fully tested in court, Nilsson said there's no way to tell for sure how a court would rule in a legal dispute.
"But the idea of intentionally creating a conflict or moving forward with a conflict that we know exists currently, I don't know, there is no legal advantage to doing that," Nilsson said.
Bender noted that there are multiple ways to interpret the law. "The legal risk involved here is not clear," she said.
Adding that she respected the attorneys' opinions, Bender said: "I also respect the experience and wisdom of my constituents who know what it is like to live in a city where the rules are not written for them. We have the power and responsibility as the elected body of this city to take action using every lever available to us."
Council members voted to advance their colleagues' original ballot wording.
Power balance in City Hall
A separate proposal written by the Charter Commission asks voters to decide whether to refine the power balance inside City Hall, likely restricting some of the council's role and giving the mayor more influence over departments' daily operations.
Under that proposal, the council would focus primarily on legislative duties such as writing ordinances and vetting city budgets.
It would retain sway over the clerk's office and auditor.
The mayor would serve as the "chief executive" for most of the largest departments, including police, fire and public works, among others. Council members would not be permitted to "usurp, invade, or interfere with the mayor's direction or supervision."
The council cannot change the substance of the commission's proposal but will vote on the wording that will appear on ballots. On Wednesday, council members asked city attorneys to do some tweaks to an explanatory note, saying they worried some of that wording wasn't as neutral as it could be, and to provide another draft early next month.
As they proceed, charter commissioners will be closely watching. In a meeting last month, commissioners authorized their leaders to retain an attorney and "take any steps necessary ... to ensure that accurate and impartial ballot question language is forwarded to the ballot on a timely basis."
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994