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Talk of overhauling Minneapolis city government recalls a 120-year history of debate

If the Charter Commission moves ahead with a plan to revamp the city’s “creaky” municipal structure, the plan could come before the voters at next November’s city election.

An illustration of 1900 depicting enemies of the strong mayor plan.
An illustration of 1900 depicting enemies of the strong mayor plan.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minneapolis Charter Commission has reignited an issue that has roiled City Hall for 120 years now that the commission has signaled its interest in overhauling Minneapolis city government. The commission is considering charter changes that could substantially enhance the powers of the mayor while redefining the role of the 13-member City Council.

“I think politics has changed, and our creaky old structure … is not up to the age of social media and hyperpolarization,” Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott told the Star Tribune.

If the commission does move ahead with a plan to revamp the city’s “creaky” municipal structure, the plan could come before the Minneapolis voters at next November’s city election.

As far back as 1900, a group of civic reformers drafted an ambitious plan to shift the balance of power in City Hall from the City Council to the mayor. But the so-called strong mayor plan was soundly defeated by the voters after council members mobilized their supporters to oppose it. The 1900 plan was intended to give Minneapolis home rule, which would have enabled to city to revise its municipal structure without seeking approval from the state Legislature. Over the next 15 years, charter reformers kept proposing new plans which would have given Minneapolis home rule and a strong mayor, but none of the plans survived a citywide vote.

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Home rule — but a disjointed, unreformed structure

Finally, in 1920, voters approved a charter plan that granted Minneapolis home rule. However, in order to generate political support, the plan merely codified the city’s existing disjointed structure without reforming it. Minneapolis would retain its “weak mayor-strong council” system for more than 60 years.

An illustration of Mayor Don Fraser as Napoleon.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
An illustration of Mayor Don Fraser as Napoleon.
Finally, in the 1980s, Don Fraser revived the issue of charter reform when he was mayor.  Fraser, a former Minnesota congressman, had chafed under the restrictions imposed on him by the municipal structure, which granted the council the authority to oversee most functions of city government. Fraser was able to win approval for a nuanced plan that strengthened the role of the mayor, but only indirectly. His plan established a new decision-making body in City Hall known as the Executive Committee. The committee, composed of the mayor and City Council leaders, was intended to review and recommend the appointment of key city department heads before forwarded those recommendations on to the council for its ratification.

Even this modest change ran into a buzz saw of opposition from City Council leaders, including Council President Alice Rainville and the First Ward’s Walt Dziedzic, when Fraser tried to make the Executive Committee something more than a consultative body.

A small but significant enhancement

Under the original Executive Committee system, the mayor was able to propose departmental appointments to the committee, but he was often outvoted by the council’s representatives who ignored his recommendations. Fraser proposed a small but significant enhancement of the mayor’s role on the committee. Under his plan, the mayor would continue to recommend departmental appointments, including the appointment of a police chief, but the committee could only vote the mayor’s recommendation up or down. It could not substitute its own choice for that of the mayor. Dziedzic and Rainville were outraged by Fraser’s proposal. At one council meeting, the flamboyant Dziedzic thundered that Fraser was trying to impose a “Napolean-style” of government on Minneapolis. Rainville added her own calmer words, saying that “a strong council close to the people was a great strength. To dilute that would be a great loss.”

Faced with opposition from the Charter Commission, Fraser was unable to get his proposal adopted in 1988, but he tried again the next year when he was running for reelection as mayor. Still rebuffed by the commission, Fraser was forced to petition to get his charter revision plan on the municipal ballot in 1989. That year, six of the council’s 13 members came together to campaign against the Fraser plan. In a joint statement, the six maintained that the plan would give the mayor effective hiring and firing authority over city department heads. “If the mayor disagreed with the priorities of the City Council, than those department heads might be unresponsive to our constituents,” the council group declared.

Despite opposition from the Charter Commission and the council, Fraser was able to get his plan approved by Minneapolis voters when he was re-elected to his fourth and final term as mayor on Nov. 7, 1989.

More mayoral authority than on paper?

Fast forwarding to 2020, the Fraser plan is still in effect in City Hall. While Minneapolis may appear to have a “weak mayor, strong council” system, some observers maintain that the mayor  has more authority than the charter may provide on paper. Former 12th Ward Council Member Dennis Schulstad has noted that “every department head in City Hall knows that the mayor controls their fate, so they are going to pay attention to what he says. It may not look that way, but we really have a strong mayor system.”

If charter reform does, in fact, move to the front burner in City Hall in 2021, any effort to redress the balance of power between the mayor and the council will play out again the furious controversies now swirling around the future of public safety in Minneapolis. The current council has already signaled its desire to cut back Mayor Jacob Frey’s authority over the Minneapolis Police Department while enhancing its own MPD oversight role. Any move by the Charter Commission to undercut that proposed power shift is likely to generate strong pushback from the 13 people who now constitute the Minneapolis City Council.