Minnesota’s highest court is now considering the fate of two high-profile citizen proposals angling to get on the Minneapolis ballot this November.
Supporters of the two charter amendment proposals — one that would boost the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and another that would require police officers to carry professional liability insurance — along with city attorneys and reporters, packed the chambers of the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday morning as justices heard arguments in both cases.
At issue in both matters was a key legal question: Do the proposals meet legal criteria to qualify as an amendment to the city’s charter? In Minneapolis, there is no provision for citizen-generated ballot initiatives. The City Council makes decisions on ordinances, and there’s just one route to get some matters on the ballot: an amendment to the city’s charter, the document that acts as its constitution.
The ruling could have wide-ranging implications around the state, as more than 100 Minnesota cities are governed by local charter. A ruling in favor of minimum wage and police insurance advocates could usher in a new era in which local activists start trying to legislate through popular vote rather than trying to persuade city councils.
Proposals previously blocked
Attorneys representing the city on Tuesday echoed the concerns of a majority of council members, who previously voted to block both proposals from the ballot. Charles Nauen, the city’s attorney on the wage case, told the court that a requirement on minimum wage should only be a matter for the council, because it falls outside the scope of the charter. That document, he said, governs the broad “form, scope and function” of municipal government — things like how powers are distributed among city departments and officials and how the city collects taxes.
Nauen said the city’s residents made it clear when they created the charter nearly a century ago — and again when they voted to revise it in 2014 — that the power to set specific ordinances should reside in the hands of the council.
He said supporters of the minimum wage amendment, which include the groups 15 Now Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, had failed to gain traction by lobbying council members, so they “shifted gears, and are now attempting to legislate minimum wage through a proposed charter amendment.”
Bruce Nestor, the attorney representing the wage-hike supporters, said the advocates are attempting to find a solution to a problem that relates to the “general welfare” of Minneapolis residents — something that does fall within the scope of the charter. He said the high cost of living in Minneapolis makes it a particularly valid issue to be considered in the charter, and noted that the proposal had received the signatures of thousands of residents as supporters looked to get it on the ballot.
Both the wage and insurance plans received enough valid voters’ signatures to warrant review by the council, but both were rejected. Supporters of the two proposals appealed the council’s decision to a Hennepin County judge, who issued a split decision.
‘Don’t want an ordinance’
She said the minimum-wage petition did meet legal requirements for a charter amendment, while the police insurance plan did not. The city of Minneapolis, which had argued that neither plan fit into the narrow category of permissible charter amendments, appealed the minimum-wage decision. Supporters of the police insurance plan, meanwhile, appealed the decision in their case.
Nestor said his clients believe the council won’t approve a wage hike because of “outside influence.” A majority of council members voted to begin drafting a wage ordinance, but Nestor said that’s not the route supporters are looking for.
“My clients don’t seek an ordinance,” he said. “They don’t want an ordinance.”
Justices peppered attorneys on both sides of the matter with questions, seeking more in-depth analysis of both the charter and the state legislation that gives home-rule charter cities power. Officials in other cities with similar municipal structures are following the case with interest; the League of Minnesota Cities filed a legal brief in support of Minneapolis, arguing that allowing the charter amendment to go through could open the door to more legislation by referendum in communities across the state.
The court also had a long list of questions for attorneys in the appeal over the police insurance case, though most were focused more on potential conflicts with state law. Members of the Committee for Professional Policing, which drafted the insurance plan, contend that their proposal would help cut down on cases of officer misconduct. Under the plan, the city could cover a base rate of insurance, but individual officers would be responsible for higher premiums triggered by misconduct lawsuits.
The city has contended that the plan is problematic because state law requires cities to defend employees in legal matters and engage in an open bargaining process with the union representing police.
Jordan Kushner, the attorney representing the committee, argued that the plan wouldn’t trigger any legal issues because it is focused on insurance claims in cases of malfeasance — a subject not dictated by state law.
But Tim Skarda, an assistant city attorney, contended that the proposal covers a broader range of claims and would amount to a change in the conditions of officers’ employment, which would create problems in the collective bargaining process.
To ensure that either proposal could get printed on ballots in time for absentee voting, the court will need to release its decisions this week.