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Minneapolis council split on how to deal with possibility of two-year terms

Wednesday’s committee meeting will be the first public meeting for council members to address the so-called Kahn rule, the state law that aims to give voters fairer representation on the Minneapolis City Council following a census.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
In interviews last week, several council members said they support the faster timeline to sidestep running for two-year terms in council-only elections.
Minneapolis City Council members are figuring out how to address — and possibly avoid — having to run for two-year terms in 2021.

The council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Wednesday will consider an accelerated timeline for the redrawing of council wards to reflect population changes coming out of the 2020 census a schedule that would maintain four-year terms for council members and comply with a state law that requires the city to hold council elections soon after census-driven redistricting.

Wednesday’s meeting comes after a series of hearings by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which is ultimately responsible for creating the new ward maps. 

Originally, the commission intended to finish the new maps in March 2022, or roughly a year after federal authorities release census data. But now, the commission is preparing a plan for completing redistricting almost one year earlier — by the end of June 2021. 

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That faster timeline would put new wards in place before the 2021 springtime deadline for filing for Minneapolis municipal offices and maintain the current schedule and terms for elections.

“We’ve been asking and trying to get clarity about what’s the right way to go; what’s the best option that does the most to encourage people to vote and also encourages … people to be able to run,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said. “That [faster schedule] might be an option that’s more worth putting on the table than I originally thought.”

A desired to preserve ‘unified ballot’

In interviews last week, several council members said they support the faster timeline to sidestep running for two-year terms in council-only elections a possible effect of the so-called Kahn rule.  

Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Named after its author, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the state law aims to give voters fairer representation on the City Council, though no census count has tested the provision until now. 

Some Minneapolis officials are concerned the law in its current form would change a fundamental aspect of Minneapolis politics: a “unified ballot” with all 25 offices — mayor, city council, board of estimate and taxation and park and recreation board — up for election at the same time. “Our collective turnout efforts contribute to each other’s elections,” Fletcher said. “That was the big worry, was that the Kahn rule would get out of alignment for some number of elections.”

Much of the city’s uncertainty on how to proceed with ward drawing hinges on whether the state Legislature can redistrict the state on its own instead of throwing the map-making to the courts. Under Minnesota law, the city must complete redistricting within 60 days after lawmakers draw state and congressional political lines, but it’s been more than four decades since the state has been able to come up with a redistricting plan without judicial involvement. 

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But some council members wonder if the city can prepare its maps, without finalizing them, during the months the state hashes out its plan. That would start the ward redrawing process earlier than the city had thought it could and depends on when the city receives federal census data.

“There are people doing research right now to say, ‘Do we actually have to wait for the Legislature to do its work or do we get the Census Data on April 1, just like the state does? Can we go ahead and draw the ward boundaries?” Fletcher said.

Already, City Clerk Casey Carl has 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.

No consensus 

The council does not have a unified stance for how the city should take steps to schedule elections should the commission fail to complete the ward redistricting by mid-2021. Wednesday’s committee meeting will be the first public meeting for council members on the issue.

Council member Lisa Goodman
Council member Lisa Goodman
Council member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), who was first elected in 1997 and is experiencing her third ward redistricting, said there’s no consensus among the full council on how to proceed under the Kahn rule.

“[The ideas] have not been with the full weight of the body,” she said. “I’m not convinced that the full weight of the body is going to be unanimous on what the solution should be.”

As someone who represents a ward with significant population changes, Goodman has known about the Kahn rule for years, she said, adding that her colleagues’ efforts to try to change rules as the 2021 election nears “seems a little bit self-serving.” 

Without new ward maps by June 2021, Minneapolis’ 13 council seats would have to run for two-year terms, while voters would simultaneously pick 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.

To maintain a unified ballot, one idea is for the city to amend its charter so that 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 originated in Fletcher’s office, would establish an election schedule for all city offices similar to the one for electing Minnesota state senators, even though the Kahn rule only applies to the City Council. But a change to the city’s charter 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.

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Besides Fletcher (Ward 3), Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) and Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) said they support that idea to have a 2-4-4 election cycle and put all municipal offices on the same schedule.

While council members opinions on the matter vary, Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said they generally share the same concerns for how the potential changes could affect voter turnout and public engagement. “We’ve heard so many different options,” she said.“I think we all share some urgency here to make sure that the public knows what’s happening and gives people a chance to weigh in.”

Lobbying the Legislature? 

Council members could also try to lobby state lawmakers to change — or completely repeal — the Kahn rule.

But according to DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn, the likelihood of a law change is slim. A former Minneapolis mayoral candidate, he said city officials have run a “soft lobby” for his office to try and amend the rule on Minneapolis elections, and they spoke with senators last year. 

State Rep. Ray Dehn
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Ray Dehn
“They haven’t been receptive,” Dehn said of his counterparts in the upper chamber. “We’ll consider what [Minneapolis officials] bring forward; We may not be part of that conversation. If they make some changes through charter, that’s within their ability as long as they’re not overriding state statutes.”

The council could also do nothing and allow the Kahn rule to go into effect. That would mean, after a 2021 council election for two-year terms, council candidates would run again in 2023 for two-year terms, while other city offices remain in office. In the end, that option would require one special election every 20 years, though opponents worry it could lead to low turnout, “voter fatigue” and a constant cycle of campaigning for council members.

“There’s a lot of pros and cons to weigh about how disruptive something is for governing for staff,” Bender added.

The council could also try to change the city charter or state law to return to four-year terms in 2023. But that option would essentially add an election to Minneapolis’ four-year election cycle, which would mean additional costs to taxpayers. 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. 

Opponents of that option, including Cunningham, cite that cost in their argument against that option, as well as the fact that the mayor and the council would run in alternate elections. “The cost like that is very expensive for my North Side supporters,” he said. “They expect their council member to be in office for four years.”

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Wednesday’s meeting comes after a series of hearings by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which is ultimately responsible for creating the new ward maps.
No matter what the council decides, the city’s charter commission will continue its work, said Chair Barry Clegg. The commission is preparing to make some changes 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. 

Also, while state law requires the city to finish ward drawing within 60 days of the state’s redistricting, he said lawmakers are not likely to act until the end of session, which is 30 days after federal demographers release the 2020 census data. He said the commission should be prepared to complete the faster, 90-day timeline since the DFL could gain majorities in both the state House and Senate in the 2020 election. 

“It could happen this time,” he said in an email. “So even if we fix the charter conflict, we still have to follow state law if the legislature gets its act together.