A group of Minneapolis Charter Commission members is wisely reopening discussion about changing the city's overly complicated method of governance. As a result of the ongoing debate about defunding or eliminating the Minneapolis Police Department, the commission is considering limiting the City Council's authority over daily department operations.
Their effort resurrects an issue that has been raised repeatedly during the past two decades — and not only for MPD. The proposed change merits further public discussion; Minneapolis needs a less diffuse, more efficient governance system.
Charter Commissioners Greg Abbott and Jill Garcia are leading the effort. (The commission is made up of volunteers appointed by a district judge.) Last year, Abbott and other commissioners rightly kept the MPD replacement question off the ballot. It is just beginning its work on possible charter changes, and a question for voters could appear on the November ballot.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has previously argued, Minneapolis has an outdated governing structure. It's a strange combination of a mostly weak and sometimes strong mayor system that spreads out responsibility between the administration and the council. That complicates accountability when departments sometimes feel they have 14 bosses — the mayor and 13 council members.
Mayor Jacob Frey agrees that the roles of his office and the council should be more clearly defined. "There is no reason that any business or government would voluntarily and independently set themselves up in a way that we presently are," he told the Star Tribune, adding: "Our system does not provide for a clear line of accountability — not for constituents, not for our partners and not for departments."
As reported recently, several high-ranking city staffers told a trio of commissioners that the "diffused" government structure presented obstacles to responses to crises like the coronavirus pandemic and George Floyd's death in police custody. They said they often struggled with who was in charge and were put in the position of managing conflict between the mayor and 13 City Council members.
The Charter Commission members are working on a plan to amend the charter to clarify that the mayor is the city's "chief executive" and is responsible for directing city departments. It would also change the length of department head terms to align with the mayor.
Commissioners should note that Council Member Lisa Goodman has urged that they also consider the roles of the city's independent boards and commissions. The Editorial Board agrees.
Conflict between the mayor and some City Council members over MPD operations have highlighted the problems with city governance. Yet police management and accountability are only part of the problem. It's time for a broader look at how city government operates in Minneapolis.
Credit Abbott, Garcia and other commissioners for starting the process.