The fight over how to phrase a ballot question determining the future of the Minneapolis Police Department entered a dramatic new chapter Tuesday, when a judge struck down the wording for a second time.
As city leaders rushed to approve yet another version ahead of a Tuesday deadline for sending materials to the ballot printer, the threat of legal challenges remained.
"I think we're a little bit in uncharted territory," City Attorney Jim Rowader told council members during an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon.
With a week and a half until early voting begins, the stakes were running high as attorneys and city officials debated which language should appear on the ballot when Minneapolis residents vote on policing for the first time since George Floyd's killing by an officer. The proposal is drawing national attention and money as people wait to see how Minneapolis will fulfill a promise to transform public safety — and as the issue becomes a wedge in next year's state and federal races.
Yes 4 Minneapolis, a new political committee, wrote the proposal that would clear the way for city leaders to replace the Police Department with a new public safety agency. For the past month, Minneapolis leaders have been embroiled in political and legal fights over how much detail to provide in the question that appears on the ballot.
The debate doesn't have any impact on what the proposal does, only on how it appears on the ballot. That could have implications for its chances of passing.
An order in the morning
Just before 8 a.m., County Judge Jamie Anderson issued an order striking down the city's proposed wording for the second time.
The first time, about a month ago, Yes 4 Minneapolis challenged the city's wording, calling it misleading. This time, three others in Minneapolis — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former Council Member Don Samuels — had argued that the question didn't provide voters with enough information to make an informed decision about the proposal.
Anderson sided with them.
In a 17-page order, she wrote that the ballot language "is vague, ambiguous and incapable of implementation, and is insufficient to identify the amendment clearly. It is unreasonable and misleading."
Describing the language as "vague," Anderson said it wasn't clear what would happen if they "strike" the Police Department, as the question mentioned, or who specifically would be responsible for fulfilling public safety duties.
She noted that attorneys arguing on varying sides of the case disagreed on three points: whether the Police Department would cease to exist in early December if this passes, whether the police chief's job would be eliminated and whether there was a mechanism to provide funding for the new department.
Emergency p.m. meeting
Anderson's order set off a frenzy in Minneapolis political circles. The city scrambled to schedule an emergency meeting in hopes the mayor and council could approve new wording ahead of the printer's 5 p.m. deadline.
Activists who support the proposal urged people to contact elected leaders and demand they pass fair language. Some encouraged people to participate in judicial races, noting Anderson's term expires in 2025 and she was appointed by then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. She won in two nonpartisan elections since then.
Behind the scenes, city attorneys worked to draft new ballot language, starting with a version they had presented in prior negotiations. Rowader, the city attorney, said they made revisions based on the two previous orders Anderson had issued. He said they also took into account remarks from Hennepin County officials, who coordinate ballot printing for the city, and said they would be hesitant to place new wording on the ballot if it was "substantially similar" to the language the judge had rejected that morning.
City Council members, including some who had planned to take the day off to mark Rosh Hashana, rushed to convene at 1:30 p.m.
City attorneys presented them with a new ballot question with more details about which parts of the charter would change. Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson urged them to act quickly on the new language.
"At this point, passing updated language, amended language today, is the only real possibility of getting this on the November ballot," Nilsson said. "Any appeal, or even attempted appeal, even in the most expedited manner possible at this point, would most likely go beyond any county auditor statutory deadlines that are in play here."
The council voted 12-1 to approve the city attorneys' recommended language, with Council Member Lisa Goodman casting the lone vote against. Mayor Jacob Frey then allowed the wording to be approved without his signature. The mayor said in a news conference that while he doesn't support the proposal, "It would also be wrong of me to prevent language for a ballot question from ultimately going on the ballot that has met all of the legal requirements."
Legal questions remain
As city leaders vetted the new ballot language, attorneys for Yes 4 Minneapolis prepared documents announcing their intent to appeal Anderson's ruling. They wanted the Minnesota Supreme Court to intervene on an emergency basis.
By day's end, they appeared to abandon those plans.
"The steering committee met, and it looks like we are going to withdraw the appeal," said Terrance W. Moore, the group's attorney. "They just decided to prioritize the ability of people to vote, that the appeal, win or lose, would delay things."
Yet attorneys for Dachis and the Samuels continued to raise concerns about the new wording approved by city officials. In a statement, they argued it failed to adequately address all of the concerns raised in court.
In a statement, one of their attorneys, Joe Anthony, said "there are questions related to whether the City and the County may be held in contempt of Court if the Hennepin County Auditor were to move forward with the newly approved ballot language."
In an interview, another of their attorneys, Norm Pentelovitch, said they were studying the latest language "to determine whether it does meet the legal sufficiency" standards but hadn't yet decided how to proceed.
Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that they had received the city's new ballot wording and passed it along to the printer. She said, "Additional amendments to the ballot may jeopardize the ballot production schedule and the timely opening of absentee voting."
Current ballot language
Department of Public Safety
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?
This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.
Staff writer Susan Du contributed to this report.