In December 2004, a strange diagram filled the front page of the Star Tribune’s Opinion section. It showed what appeared to be a giant mechanical octopus with a mass of entangling tentacles. The illustration was intended to depict the convoluted nature of Minneapolis city government. Above the diagram, the newspaper’s editors asked, “Who is in Charge?”
People have been asking a version of that question for more than 100 years and the answers, and proposed solutions, have rarely been very illuminating or helpful. In 1900, for instance, civic leaders who viewed themselves as municipal reformers decided that Minneapolis’s mayor needed to be in charge. They were rebuffed by the voters, who rejected overhauling the city charter. In later years, numerous attempts to strengthen the role of the mayor were also defeated at the polls.
In the 1980s, Minneapolis leaders finally made some tentative efforts to clarify lines of authority by amending the city charter to enhance the mayor’s appointment powers through the creation of an executive committee. (At the time, certain council members opposed this new arrangement because they were unwilling to cede particular powers to the mayor.)
Now, some in city hall, led by Second Ward City Councilperson Cam Gordon, want to turn back the clock. Gordon is proposing an amendment to the city charter that would shift some mayoral powers back to the 13-member council. His plan is more specific than earlier charter proposals. It deals with the critical issue of police department oversight.
In response to the understandable concern regarding recent police shootings of civilians, Gordon wants to authorize the council to establish policies governing the operation of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Many citizens, particularly those in the city’s communities of color, are deeply distressed by what they see as MPD overreaction when it comes to police interaction with young black men. But those concerns will not be effectively addressed by a charter amendment. They will only be resolved by sensitive and responsive policing, a matter of day-to-day operations, not high-level policy making.
In many respects, the Gordon plan will be counter-productive. It will further complicate the work of the MPD and its effort to improve community relations by entangling the department in yet another turf battle between the mayor and the council.
In the wake of Friday’s council action, deliberations about the police oversight amendment will continue. When those deliberations are finished, let’s not add another tentacle to our municipal octopus. Minneapolis needs to reject this unhelpful plan to amend its city charter.
Iric Nathanson writes about local history for a variety of Twin Cities publications. His most recent book is “Don Fraser: Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader.”
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