Bet you heard a lot last week about one proposed charter change question on Minneapolis ballots this fall — the one that would subsume the police department within a new Department of Public Safety and let the City Council have its way with it.
I'm here to root for a less conspicuous ballot question — City Question 1. It's one that I think might have averted a lot of trouble, tragedy and wasted tax money if something like it had passed long ago.
I'm convinced that somewhere, Mayors Hubert Humphrey and Don Fraser are rooting for that one too. So are a host of other dear departed city leaders who tried with little success to bring good working order to Mill City municipal government, starting in 1900.
That date is not a typo. The first attempt to create an executive mayor/legislative council form of governance via city charter change occurred 121 years ago, only 42 years after the city's founding. It failed, as did similar attempts that recurred at first every few years, then every few decades.
Humphrey tried in 1948. The fact that he was running for the U.S. Senate and likely would not be the mayor to implement the change likely contributed to the charter question's defeat. (For that insight and a lot more, my hat's tipped to Iric Nathanson's 2010 book "Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City.")
Fraser tried in the 1980s. He wound up with a consolation prize, the beefing up of the executive committee (mayor, council president, plus three other council members) that sputters on to this day.
Paul Ostrow, then a lame-duck City Council Ways and Means Committee chair, tried a variation on the theme in 2009. Ostrow sought to vest executive responsibility in a new city administrator position. The idea didn't make it past the city's charter commission, and its remnant, the dissolution of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, didn't make it past the voters.
"I was told then that it would take a time of crisis to get this done," said Ostrow, whose 12 years on the City Council included a term as its president. "Well, what we've seen in the last 16 months is a crisis."
No disagreement there. The city's embarrassing response to unrest after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 has been followed by an erosion in police ranks, an exodus at the top of too many city departments, a spike in crime, and a muddle over the future of policing.
But disagreement persists about whether giving Minneapolis government a structure akin to that of the federal, state and (dare I mention) St. Paul governments would make things better. The argument that lumber baron T.B. Walker used to defeat charter change in 1900 can still be heard: Consolidating executive authority in the hands of the mayor would give him or her too much power.
But as Nathanson's book points out, it wasn't just fear of a tyrannical mayor that defeated a move to an executive mayor/legislative council structure. It was the unwillingness of special interest groups to give up an ability to get their way at City Hall by swaying just a few council members — some of whom, in 2017, were elected with fewer than 3,000 votes.
Keeping the City Council in charge is sometimes described as a triumph of democracy. It was actually anything but.
"There's been a lot invested in keeping the city the way it is," sighed Ostrow, now an assistant Anoka County attorney.
He's annoyed when he hears opponents of City Question 1 claim that the current power arrangement at City Hall, which gives City Council members executive as well as legislative power, works well other than in times of crisis.
"It doesn't work well, period," he said. "There are things in city government that haven't worked well for years."
That point was affirmed by city department heads, as quoted in a December 2020 report by a Charter Commission working group. They "expressed unanimous belief that the current structure lacks strong accountability, is overly complex and highly inefficient, and is significantly influenced by personalities of individual elected officials," the report said. "The highly diffused governance structure makes it difficult to determine who is in charge."
What that meant during the May 2020 civil unrest is that "at least three council members were on the streets giving orders to individual police officers" and firefighters, said Kathleen O'Brien. "It was the Wild West! It's why the fire department had such trouble getting to the scene" of emergency calls.
A former City Council member, city coordinator and University of Minnesota vice president, O'Brien is a co-chair of Charters for Change, a grassroots group promoting City Question 1. .
The group is chock-full of city "formers," including former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Admirable as these elders' civic commitment is, I'm wishing for a less obvious generational divide on this charter question.
Millennials are now all of working-adult age. Many of them are learning firsthand that clear lines of authority and accountability matter in an enterprise.
Many of them rightly long for more just, equitable and orderly policing. (We boomers want that too.) What they should know is that the current power arrangement in City Hall is a proven formula for disorder. It allows the council to put too little focus on setting policy — its legislative work — and too little effort into holding the city's operational executive to account. Neither legislating nor executing government policy is done well.
I'd submit that's been true even for the police department, over which the mayor has more say than other departments. Would payouts for Minneapolis police misconduct have been more than $70 million in the past two decades if the City Council through those years had been regularly debating and setting clear policies for police conduct and discipline, and insisting via oversight hearings and consistent budgeting that those policies be implemented?
That's what a City Council with clear legislative authority can do. And that's why City Question 1 may be a more powerful tool for police reform than some supporters of City Question 2 now see.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.