'Strong mayor' charter amendment would restrain power of the Minneapolis City Council

The wedge issue of the Minneapolis election is a proposal to take public safety out of the mayor's hands in favor of expanding the City Council's power. But the first question Minneapolis voters will see on the ballot would do the opposite: strengthen the mayor's authority over all city government.

Question 1 asks voters to change the charter to prevent council members from giving individual directions to city staff, including department heads. The coalition supporting it is largely the same as the one opposing Question 2, the policing amendment, including Mayor Jacob Frey.

Critics of the strong mayor amendment, including sitting council members and some of Frey's main challengers, call it a power grab and a blow to local democracy.

"When we are talking about starting to have real balance and a real voice for the people of Minneapolis — across races, and region and income, and especially race — that has to mean that people get to have a direct say, and that's through City Council members," said spokeswoman JaNaé Bates of Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group best known for its campaign to replace the Police Department. "Unfortunately, this effort to really silo all of that info [in] just the mayor's office is just not good for the city of Minneapolis."

Meanwhile, the political committee All of Mpls is sending Minneapolis residents a barrage of mailers promoting the strong mayor charter change, which was first recommended by the city's Charter Commission.

"The charter change around Question 1 is not specific to any particular City Council or any particular mayor," said the group's campaign manager, Leili Fatehi, who worked on Frey's 2017 mayoral campaign. "It's about fixing our government structure so that in perpetuity it is able to operate better and better serve the residents of the city."

The company Fatehi runs also provided consulting for Frey's campaign this year, but she said they are no longer working for him.

The city's professional staff described Minneapolis' system of dividing power between the mayor and City Council as "highly inefficient" and "significantly influenced by personalities of individual elected officials," according to the Charter Commission, the body in charge of the city's constitution.

Members of the commission interviewed most of the city's 22 department heads last year. They collectively painted a portrait of government waste and a lack of central purpose as a result of conflicting orders from Minneapolis' mayor and 13 council members. Staff risk retaliation from policymakers if they fail to champion their causes, according to the commission's report. At least 12 department heads have left the city in the past two years.

Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg said department heads' feedback was the main reason the commission proposed this year's ballot Question 1. If it passes, it would cement the mayor's authority to run most city departments and carry out policies without "interference" from council members. The City Council would be limited to crafting ordinances as well as wielding the "power of the purse."

"With the dysfunction in our current system, things either don't get done, or they take twice as long and after a lot more fiddling around than it otherwise takes," Clegg said.

While Minneapolis is often characterized as a "weak mayor" city, the mayor's veto can override a majority of the City Council. The mayor also commands the Police Department. In case of civil unrest, the mayor can declare an emergency and take temporary control of all departments.

Aside from controlling lawmaking and spending, council members have certain powers over policing as well, according to a 2018 memo from the City Attorney's Office. The council passed the ordinance establishing the Police Civilian Oversight Commission, which mandates the Police Department participate in internal investigations and provide unrestricted access to records. Another ordinance prohibits police from questioning anyone about immigration status unless it's an element of some other crime. They also have the authority to legalize certain conduct, such as when the council repealed "spitting" and "lurking" ordinances in 2015.

Council members also have individual power. No version of the City Charter over the past 125 years has established the mayor as "chief executive" of the city. An unwritten tradition of "aldermanic privilege" has pressured staff to defer to council members on issues in their districts.

"Even though that was clarified years and years ago that you're not in charge of your ward, you don't have individual power, the traditions and the deference and the protocols [remain,]" said City Clerk Casey Carl.

The charter change would eliminate the Executive Committee. Established in a 1984 ballot referendum, the committee gives the mayor and four council members the ability to hire and discipline leaders of the 10 departments required by the charter, including police, fire, health and public works. These department heads would instead answer to the mayor if the amendment passes.

Council Member Cam Gordon said he would lament the loss of the Executive Committee, a collaborative space for the mayor and council leadership to bounce ideas off one another and discuss staff performance. He said he found it disturbing that the charter amendment would allow the mayor to appoint department heads to serve for four-year terms that align with the mayor's own.

"Once they've hired the department heads, they're going to think, 'Well, really all I have to worry about is keeping the mayor satisfied and happy and not the council necessarily,' " Gordon said.

Council Member Andrew Johnson is concerned about the loss of transparency. City Council staff directions follow public discussions, whereas orders from the mayor's office come from behind closed doors, he said.

One example of flawed policymaking was when former Mayor Betsy Hodges implemented a police body camera policy that failed to ensure they were actually used, Johnson said.

"I believe that policy resulted in cameras being off when Justine Damond was shot," he said. "And I do not believe we would have had those gaps had that policy gone through a public process with a public hearing, presentation, debates, differences of opinion and diversity of perspective and a more thorough kind of vetting."

One of Frey's challengers, AJ Awed, supports the charter change. Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, he says, while St. Paul has an executive mayor system and works fine.

"We have a system currently where we keep pushing the buck," he said. "We don't know if City Council is to blame, if the mayor is to blame. … This is just not good and it's definitely not good for communities of color."

Community organizer Sheila Nezhad opposes the amendment on principle, because it would concentrate power with a single elected official. Voter turnout is far higher in wealthy, white-majority wards, she reasoned, so the mayor is more likely to be chosen by those wards.

"What it comes down to basically is that I believe in democracy, and democracy means representation," she said. "In our current state of voter turnout in the city, the most equitable representation is done through the ward."

Mayoral challenger Kate Knuth said she's undecided.

Charter for Change, which began as a nonprofit and registered last week as a political committee, is another group pushing for a strong mayor. Its supporters include a slew of former city officials and Charter Commission members. Charter for Change is not taking a stance on individual candidates or other ballot questions, said co-founder Catherine Shreves.

"Even among our volunteers there is not agreement among the other charter ballot measures," Shreves said. "We're certainly not touching any candidate. We're feeling like we've got a rare opportunity to get our city government operation fixed."

In a September poll of Minneapolis voters sponsored by the Star Tribune, KARE, MPR and FRONTLINE, 47% of respondents supported giving the mayor of Minneapolis more authority over the city's daily operations and focusing the City Council on legislative work. Just 28% were opposed, and 25% were undecided, according to the poll.

To pass, the amendment needs approval from 51% of people voting on the question.

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028