The Minneapolis Charter Commission is considering a set of proposals that could radically change the term limits for all local elected offices.
On Wednesday, the commission discussed three possible scenarios for municipal elections in light of the so-called Kahn rule, which requires Minneapolis to hold City Council elections soon after officials redraw ward boundaries to reflect population changes recorded in the census.
Named after its author, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the rule aims to give voters fairer representation on the City Council, though no census count has tested the provision until now.
Under two of the proposals, presented to the commission by City Clerk Casey Carl, Minneapolis’ 13 council seats would be on the ballot for two-year terms in 2021, while voters would simultaneously be picking a mayor and other local offices for four-year terms. After that, the schedule could go in one of several directions, depending on whether the City Council or charter commission decides to pursue changes to the city charter governing term limits or an amendment to the state law.
Maintaining a fundamental aspect of Minneapolis politics, a “unified ballot” with all 22 offices up for election at the same time is a priority for some officials, however. To make that happen, one idea is to have all city candidates — whether running for mayor, City Council, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board or the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation — run for a two-year term and two four-year terms every decade.
That proposal, which was developed by Council Member Steve Fletcher, would establish a pattern similar to the schedule of electing Minnesota state senators for all city offices, even though the Kahn rule only applies to the City Council.
That provision would require a change to the city’s charter, which is possible only via a ballot question or ordinance sponsored by the council or commission. In other words, there’s a chance that voters in Minneapolis will be asked to decide the matter amid the 2020 presidential election.
The City Council has not yet publicly discussed the idea, and Carl said “some political conversations and discussions” with the mayor and boards will be key for deciding if Fletcher’s idea is doable. “There would be some considerations in terms of that kind of significant, drastic action to change the terms for all of those elections,” Carl said.
Commissioners on Wednesday also considered a plan that would require a change to the state law, which would need the council’s support since the council determines the city’s legislative agenda. Under that proposal, voters would wait until 2023 to elect council members to two-year terms representing new wards based on 2020 census-driven redistricting; that plan would mean the 2025 ballot would then sync back to include all 22 of the city’s elected offices.
Or the council could also return to four-year terms in 2023, though that option would essentially add an election to Minneapolis’ four-year election cycle, which would mean additional costs to taxpayers, Carl said. According to early estimates, adding an election that only had the 13 council seats on the ballot would cost about $2.6 million each time, raising the city’s four-year total for elections to about $13 million.
“From a voter’s perspective, in my opinion, that’s not very predictable; it’s confusing, and certainly from the taxpayer’s perspective, added costs,” Carl said.
Speeding up the timeline for redistricting
No matter what happens to the city’s political calendar, the commission is preparing to quicken its pace for redrawing ward maps to reflect population changes that come out of the 2020 Census.
Originally, the commission intended to finish drawing the new map in March 2022, which is roughly a year after the census count happens. But after pleas from City Council members for an expedited timeline, the commission in December considered an updated schedule that would complete the redistricting almost one year earlier — by the end of June 2021 — in time for the city elections in November of that year. That faster track would require the commission to complete new ward maps within 90 days or less.
Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg said that no matter where the city lands on term limits, the commission should be ready to complete the faster timeline for drawing wards. “Whichever option we end up with, whether it’s four-year terms or one two-year term, we still have to have the 90-day plan in our back pocket,” he said.
The commission is preparing to make at least some sort of change to the city’s charter governing council elections, even if it’s just for logistics’ sake, Clegg said. The current wording states that voters elect council members by wards for four-year terms, “in each year following a year whose number is evenly divisible by four.” But that means if voters elect council members in 2023, it’s unclear whether they should run again in 2025 or 2027, the earliest of which is the year after one that’s divisible by four. “Whichever solution we prefer, we should add clarity to our charter,” he said.
With Wednesday’s set of proposals, the commission is delaying any type of decision on its timeline for redistricting or on any changes to the city’s charter, Clegg said. In December, Clegg said that the commission would have a definitive calendar for ward-drawing in place by February.
“I’m guessing whatever solution we propose is going to involve putting something on the ballot or seeking approval of an amendment by ordinance, so it may end up taking longer,” Clegg said.
Much of the city’s uncertainty hinges on whether the state Legislature can redistrict the state on its own instead of throwing the map-making into the courts. Under Minnesota law, the city can’t start redistricting until state and congressional political lines are drawn, and it’s been more than four decades since the state has been able to come up with a redistricting plan without the involvement of the courts.
Charter Commissioner Andrew Kozak, a veteran of redistricting debates in Minneapolis, said there’s a chance of less political fighting over redistricting — if the DFL manages to gain majorities in both the state House and Senate in the 2020 election. “It’s realistic to think that they might get reapportionment done,” he said. “We need to be prepared for that 2021 [redistricting scenario] because that could, in fact, happen.”
Carl cautioned that sentiment, though. Even if the line-drawing didn’t go to the courts, lawmakers may move cautiously: Minnesota is likely to lose one of its seats in the U.S. House, which could make redrawing congressional boundaries complicated. “My gut tells me if that scenario plays out, that could affect their timing, as well, and so that would also come into play for the local level to some degree,” he said.
In the meantime, the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee is preparing a proposal that would ask the state Legislature to change the law, which could include the scenario that would put all offices on the ballot in 2025. And Carl said city staff is beginning to use existing population data via the American Community Survey and the Minnesota State Demographer Center to predict where the new ward boundaries will be after 2020 Census count. Those rough models, he said, will provide a framework for the redistricting in anticipation of the official data.