Minneapolis voters will decide this fall on whether to change the balance of power in City Hall, granting the mayor more authority over daily operations and restricting the council's role.
The Minneapolis Charter Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to place the question before voters in November, when the ballot will include the races for mayor and all 13 City Council members. The ballot also could have a separate proposal to replace the Police Department.
"I think it's probably the most important charter amendment that's come before the city in 100 years," said Barry Clegg, chairman of the commission. "If somebody has 14 bosses, things don't get done, conflicts don't get resolved and that's what we learned when we talked to our department heads. Hopefully, this will make a difference."
The decision comes eight months after the commission temporarily blocked a City Council proposal that would have replaced the Police Department in the wake of George Floyd's death and given council members more sway over officers. Later this spring, it will review another similar proposal.
Minneapolis leaders have debated for at least a century how to best govern the city. Many current elected officials acknowledge city government isn't functioning as efficiently as it could, but some doubt the commission's proposal will actually lead to improvements.
The Charter Commission is made up of volunteers chosen by a judge to oversee the city's charter, essentially its constitution. "Ultimately, we should seek to have a system where people have a voice in their government," said City Council President Lisa Bender, who is not running for re-election. "I am very skeptical that the Charter Commission's proposal will achieve that."
She, like some others on the council, has argued that the city's ward system is crucial for ensuring that people who live in areas with lower voter turnout have representation in City Hall.
Eight people running for city offices this year, including mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad, wrote an open letter raising similar concerns.
Other elected officials appeared to welcome the change.
While he stopped shy of a full endorsement, Mayor Jacob Frey told commissioners in a public meeting earlier this year that he thought the city would benefit from clarifying 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 at the time.
The Charter Commission's work to change the city's power structure gained new traction last year after it reviewed — and ultimately blocked — a City Council proposal that would have replaced the Police Department and given council members more sway over officers.
The city's department heads told commissioners in private interviews that they struggled to respond effectively to crises like the coronavirus pandemic and the rioting that followed George Floyd's death because it was difficult to manage conflicts between the city's 14 elected officials.
When the elected leaders disagreed, it often was hard to determine whose opinion prevailed, the department heads said.
Under the new proposal, the council would focus primarily on legislative duties like writing ordinances and vetting city budgets. It would retain sway over the clerk's office and auditor to support its legislative and oversight functions.
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 commission jettisoned a controversial, earlier provision that would have made it a crime to violate that clause.
The proposal also changes the terms of many city department heads to align them with the mayor's and it raises the number of votes required to remove an elected official from office to a two-thirds majority.
"I would say that under the current system, we have a mayor who has the responsibility but no authority, and a council that has the authority but no responsibility," Clegg said. "We're trying to resolve that quandary."
The commissioners plan to spend the next month wrapping up work drafting the ordinance that must accompany their proposal.
It then will head to the City Council and to Frey. The elected officials can determine what wording appears on the ballot but they can't change the underlying proposal itself.
As the commissioners are wrapping up work on this proposal, a smaller subset of them will be reviewing a separate plan, written by three City Council members, to replace the city's Police Department. In its place, the city would have a public safety department that includes police officers, though the city would no longer be required to keep a minimum number of them.
The Charter Commission will provide a recommendation on the plan, which requires approval from voters, but the mayor and council will make the final decision about whether it appears on the ballot.
Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein, who is leading the commission's efforts to review the proposal, said they could provide a recommendation as early as next month.
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994