Opinion editor's note: The Star Tribune Editorial Board operates separately from the newsroom, and no news editors or reporters were involved in the endorsement process.
Minneapolis' peculiar form of weak mayor/strong City Council governance is not found in other cities in Minnesota. In fact, it cannot be found in any comparable city anywhere in the country.
There is good reason for that. It doesn't work — at least not well. And this year, voters have an opportunity to fix a broken City Hall.
For nearly a century, Minneapolis has lurched along under an antiquated system of government by committee that actually dates back to the late 1800s, codified into a city charter in 1920. Under it, lines of authority are blurred and the mayor and council members can wind up competing with one another on day-to-day operations.
That has been true for years now, but the stress test of the last year and a half has exposed the real failings of this archaic system. Sharon Sayles Belton, a former council president and the city's first Black and female mayor, knows the workings of this city as well as anyone and better than most.
"Right now you have dysfunction," she told an editorial writer. "Citizens are looking for clarity." Sayles Belton added that "we've seen council members treat department heads and staff as if they have individual domain over them. When they didn't go along, their jobs were threatened for not responding to individual requests." The result, she said, has been an unprecedented string of departures by department heads and even interims in a city once known for the stability of its staff.
The Charter Commission, in investigating city structure, found that the current form "is not recognized as a model or best practice. It is not taught in schools of public policy ... it is not found in any other city in Minnesota nor in any comparable city in the nation."
Explicit prohibitions against legislative (council) interference in administrative operations are built into Minnesota's other first-class cities: St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester. The National Civic League, in developing a model city charter, features such a prohibition as a "core principle."
This is one of those slightly wonky, good government proposals that has no clear constituency. But it also is a foundational principle that fosters clearer, more effective governance.
At its heart, the change being requested in City Question 1 is simple: Give the mayor clear authority over day-to-day operations of the city's departments. The council would retain the power of the purse —which is formidable — and would develop policy and deliver constituent services in their wards.But, and this is crucial, council members would be prohibited from "publicly or privately, directly or indirectly" attempting to direct or supervise city employees.
Jay Kiedrowski, a former Minneapolis budget director and former state finance commissioner, noted in a Star Tribune Opinion commentary that during 2020's civil unrest, some council members gave direct orders to police and, as others have noted, said council members "routinely give orders to department heads and staff that conflict with city policy." That kind of disorder is unacceptable.
The amendment adds another important safeguard: creation of an independent auditor's office by the council that could investigate waste and abuse, assess risk and monitor compliance across city departments. Such oversight would provide a checks and balances approach that has been missing from city government.
These are sensible changes that would move the city forward. They are not, as some opponents have suggested, a power grab. The ballot question was proposed by the Charter Commission after thorough research. It is, quite simply, the way most larger cities govern themselves, and a change that has been advocated for decades — including by the Star Tribune Editorial Board.
Should this proposal fail and a separate ballot question that would expand the "14 bosses" approach to public safety pass, an unhealthy amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the council. The mayor would be reduced to a virtual figurehead.
Peter Hutchinson started in the mayor's office in 1975, served as deputy mayor and went on to serve as state finance commissioner, superintendent of Minneapolis schools and now is a national management consultant specializing in the public sector. And he is is supporting the ballot question. "Every big city in America has a chief executive and a city council that functions as a legislative body — except Minneapolis," he told an editorial writer.
Hutchinson, Sayles Belton and scores of others have come together in "Charter for Change," an organization promoting City Question 1. "As we all talk to voters," Hutchinson said, "the one thing that comes through loud and clear is that people can't believe this is actually how things are run. There is a persistent chaos here. When you make it impossible for, say, the public works director to do what's right because they're trying to meet the expectations of an individual council member, you have really undermined the power of the city to be effective."
Kathy O'Brien, a former City Council member, city coordinator and a former vice president at the University of Minnesota, also supports the measure. "Everything takes longer, is more costly under the current system," she told an editorial writer. "Sometimes, nothing happens."
Sayles Belton noted that the mayor is the only official who runs citywide, elected by and answerable to all Minneapolis voters. "That is the person who must develop a vision that reflects all the different parts of the city," she said.
Minneapolis needs to join the rest of the nation with a more modern, effective form of government that provides clear lines of responsibility and authority.
"Maybe after a hundred years," Sayles Belton said, "we can finally get this right."
CITY QUESTION 1
Government Structure: Executive Mayor – Legislative Council
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to adopt a change in its form of government to an Executive Mayor-Legislative Council structure to shift certain powers to the Mayor, consolidating administrative authority over all operating departments under the Mayor, and eliminating the Executive Committee?