The political committee behind a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department sued the city Friday in hopes of changing the language that will appear on the November ballot.
Terrance Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, argued that the city doesn't have legal standing to include an explanatory note that lists some portions of the group's proposal.
"There is no authority for cities to add explanatory notes to a ballot," Moore said. Adding such a note, he argued, creates a slippery slope that would allow those in power to share their opinions on the very document on which people cast their votes.
Others, including some city officials, have argued that the note is necessary to ensure that voters have key information about the proposal and to eliminate confusion at the polls, where workers are limited by law in answering voters' questions.
City Attorney Jim Rowader in a statement Friday defended the ballot language, saying the city "accurately and fairly fulfilled its duties" and that the language mirrored the wording activists included in their proposal.
This is the first time in memory that Minneapolis officials are including an explanatory note with a ballot question, and city officials have said they believe opinions from the state Attorney General's Office justify their decision to include one.
The proposal written by Yes 4 Minneapolis has become a central issue in the November election and in debates about how to change policing and public safety in the wake of George Floyd's murder by a city police officer. The election is drawing national attention and money, and groups are organizing to rally both for and against the proposal seeking to replace the Police Department.
This year, the newly created Yes 4 Minneapolis political committee circulated petitions aiming to get a proposal to replace the Police Department on the fall ballot.
When a group gathers enough signatures to place a question before voters, the mayor and City Council determine the wording that appears on the ballot. They're required to present the question in an accurate, nonpartisan way.
The proposal written by Yes 4 Minneapolis would remove language in the city charter that requires the city to keep a Police Department with a minimum number of officers based on population. The city would then create an agency responsible for "integrating" public safety functions "into a comprehensive public health approach to safety." The new agency could have police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."
The proposal also would strike language from the charter that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers.
If voters approve the plan, the mayor and City Council would decide how to design the new agency, which public safety operations to include and whether to include officers.
The City Attorney's Office drafted ballot language, which council members approved by a 12-1 vote July 23.
The question asks voters if they want to amend the charter "to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety." It refers voters to an explanatory note providing more detail.
The explanatory note says the new department would: combine public safety functions "with the specific public safety functions to be determined"; include police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department," and be led by a commissioner. It says the mayor would "not have complete power over the establishment, maintenance and command of the Department of Public Safety."
Moore, the attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, asked a Hennepin County judge to strike that explanatory note but leave most of the question intact.
"The 'Explanatory Note,' and future ones like it, inevitably omits important contextual information and would reflect an author's inherent bias," Moore wrote in filings.
Note called misleading
Moore wrote that he believes the explanatory note "misleads voters by suggesting that the proposed charter amendment would eliminate certain public safety functions" and doesn't note that the mayor's powers to nominate the public safety commissioner would be similar to the powers for currently nominating a police chief.
He took issue with a line saying the proposal would remove the council's authorization "to impose additional taxation" to fund a police force. Moore wrote that note "falsely implies" the plan would "eliminate the ability of the City Council to provide funding for peace officers."
Others have supported the ballot language, saying it sticks closely to the wording in the group's proposal, and voters should know key elements of the plan before them.
Mayor Jacob Frey declined to approve the ballot language, but also didn't veto it — allowing it to be "deemed approved" without his action and move forward.
The mayor said Friday that he opposed the proposal itself — and particularly language that would grant the council more sway over officers — but believes the city's proposed ballot wording is accurate and fair.
"Nobody should be trying to hide the ball from voters as to what this amendment would actually do," Frey said. "Minneapolis voters deserve to know what they're voting on."
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994
Proposed ballot question language
Ballot question wording proposed by Yes 4 Minneapolis:
Department of Public Safety
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?
Ballot question wording approved by Minneapolis City Council:
Department of Public Safety
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would 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?
Explanatory Note: This amendment would create a new Department of Public Safety, which would:
(1) Combine public safety functions of the City of Minneapolis into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, with the specific public safety functions to be determined.
(2) Include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the Department of Public Safety.
(3) Be led by a Commissioner of Public Safety. The appointment process for the Commissioner would include a Mayor nomination and a City Council appointment. The Mayor would not have complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Department of Public Safety.
This amendment would also do the following:
(1) Remove from the Charter a Police Department, which includes the removal of its Police Chief, and the removal of the Mayor's complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Police Department.
2) Remove the City Council requirement to fund a police force of at least 1.7 employees per 1,000 residents.
(3) Remove City Council authorization to impose additional taxation on taxable property in the City of Minneapolis of up to 0.3 percent of its value annually to fund the compensation of employees of the police force.