Two years ago, Minneapolis voters rattled by civil unrest and conflict in city government voted to reshape the balance of power within City Hall.
The shift made the mayor the "chief executive" of Minneapolis with sole authority over the city's day-to-day operations — a change from the previous system, in which the mayor and 13-member council shared control.
Change wasn't immediate; it took many months for Mayor Jacob Frey and the council to define the details of the mayor's newfound strength and the boundaries of the council's reach.
Last year, remaking the executive side got priority treatment. The mayor pushed through his restructuring plan, added cabinet positions and got his way on major issues like rent control and homeless encampments. The impact of the ballot amendment on the City Council is still coming into focus.
While some council members say a "strong mayor" is making the city more efficient, others bemoan a growing bureaucracy that has made it harder to help solve residents' everyday problems. Now as voters prepare to elect a full City Council for the first time since government reorganization, some council members acknowledge that the goals voters envisioned have not yet been realized.
"We're still in transition. We knew these types of changes would take many years, not months, and it's going to take us longer to understand and really operationalize this structure," said Linea Palmisano, who has represented southwest Minneapolis for 10 years. "We're needing to build new muscles of how we work together."
Executive mayor-legislative council
The change approved in the 2021 ballot question meant Minneapolis would become an "executive mayor-legislative council" city government, like Chicago and New York.
One of the first tests of what that meant in practice came in October 2022. On the very day the council passed the ordinance that formalized the new government restructure, first-term council members Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai and Elliott Payne attempted to issue a series of directions to city staff aimed at temporarily pausing homeless encampment sweeps while gathering information about their effectiveness and cost.
The debate that ensued over whether the council still had this authority over staff was both chaotic and enlightening. A volley of opinions from city attorneys resulted in a significant decision: the council could no longer direct city staff or seek policy-making information from them without the mayor's consent and coordination.
Frey, who backed the so-called "strong mayor ballot amendment," said the new structure is meant to cut through unwieldy power struggles and help city leaders tackle urgent questions more quickly.
"The old system is one that limped along during good times, but during times of difficulty or crisis, it was a total mess," he said. "Clarity was one of the main intentions of the amendment that the voters approved."
Some council members agree that government restructuring has been healthy, despite their own reduced authority, because a clearer division of responsibility makes it easier to tell who gets the credit and the blame.
"I accept that the mayor is the head of the city, and so I might do my best to get along with him," said Michael Rainville, the first-term council member representing parts of downtown and northeast Minneapolis.
Constituent service delays
But others say getting things done for Minneapolis residents has actually become more cumbersome.
Council Member Lisa Goodman, who is preparing to retire after 26 years representing downtown neighborhoods, supported government restructuring overall. But she said it has removed accountability from constituent services at the ground level.
It used to be that if a resident's garbage doesn't get picked up, when street light repairs are inexplicably delayed or when a problem property owner doesn't secure a condemned building, people would call her. Then, Goodman would notify city staff and the resident could hold her to task until the problem got fixed.
Now, people are expected to register their grievances with 311, and, "They don't give the same kind of direct answer that constituents get when they talk to policymakers or their staff, who generally have a bit more knowledge of some of the behind-the-scenes things that have to happen in order to solve problems," Goodman said. "We're really kind of discouraged from doing that."
The issue bubbled up at Thursday's Budget Committee, where 311 Service Center Director Mwende Nzimbi apologized for the frustration that residents, ward offices and city staff have felt with the city's constituent service process. She promised to improve residents' access to timely information and communicate better with city departments.
After Minneapolis voters authorized the City Council to enact rent control in 2021, a workgroup of landlords and tenants spent months developing policy recommendations. But after city staff produced a report discrediting rent regulations in any form, council members aligned with the mayor blocked it from this year's ballot.
Council Member Jamal Osman, whose central Minneapolis constituents include many advocates of rent control, questioned whether the report was biased because the staff who authored it report directly to the mayor, and Frey had already made clear his opposition to rent control.
"As a council member of diverse Native American and large East African communities, this is the only door to local government that my community can enter," Osman said, expressing frustration that while he remains the primary recipient of constituents' complaints about housing and homeless encampments, he has no ability to alleviate their day-to-day problems.
Under government restructure, a new Legislative Department was created to support the City Council's policymaking function with analysts akin to the Legislature's nonpartisan researchers.
That department is the council's "only hope" of making big, positive policy changes, Osman said. But that team has been slow to take shape. So far, just three policy research staff have been added to a department meant to have 12 analysts.
Two more analysts dedicated to oversight and evaluation should be coming next year, according to the city's proposed 2024 budget, along with two new attorneys to help draft ordinances.
Rainville acknowledged a "lingering resentment" among some on the council about the executive side getting its staff first as City Hall transitioned to its new structure. Nevertheless, he's hopeful that the Legislative Department's incoming oversight analysts would help council members scrutinize the effectiveness of the existing city programs they fund — something they don't have the capacity for now.
Power of the purse
The shift of power at City Hall has also emerged in financial discussions, with some council members seeking to hold on to one of their remaining levers of power.
The mayor proposes the city budget but the council approves it, which is why the council's "power of the purse" is thought to be enshrined among its core functions. But even after the council gets its say, the administration tends to move dollars around.
In May, a city staff member revealed to council members that funding for a south Minneapolis crime prevention specialist had been repurposed into a public relations role under the city's new Community Safety Commissioner. In response, council made an official request of the mayor to disclose how many other positions' budgets had been moved without notice.
Previous councils gave department heads more latitude to shuffle funds, but some on the current council are trying to tighten their control over one of their remaining points of leverage, said Payne, who represents northeast Minneapolis.
"When we don't have any say over operational details outside of the budget, then yes, I very much want to have a say in who's moving money around for what purpose," he said.
The council has asked the administration for biennial personnel reports to improve budget transparency, Budget Committee Chair Emily Koski, the first-term council member representing south Minneapolis, said in a written statement. But on the whole, she believes the city has become "a bit more efficient, and effective" with the potential of becoming more so with time.