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Stronger mayor? Reviving the charter wars in Minneapolis

A new charter plan, scheduled to come before the voters in November, would clarify the mayor’s role as the city’s chief executive and stipulate that City Council members would not be permitted to “usurp, invade or interfere with the mayor’s direction or supervision.”

Minneapolis City Hall
Minneapolis City Hall
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The Minneapolis Charter Commission’s plan to revamp City Hall decision-making, unveiled earlier this month, is “probably the most important charter amendment that has come before the city in 100 years,” according to Commission Chair Barry Clegg. “If somebody has 14 bosses, things don’t get done, conflicts don’t get resolved and that’s what we learned when we talked to our department heads. Hopefully, this will make a difference,” Clegg told the Star Tribune’s Liz Navratil.

The charter plan [PDF], scheduled to come before the voters in November, would clarify the mayor’s role as the city’s chief executive and stipulate that the City Council members would not be permitted to “usurp, invade or interfere with the mayor’s direction or supervision.”

Council president ‘very skeptical’

Clegg may have lauded this “most important charter amendment” but City Council President Lisa Bender was not impressed. “Ultimately, we should seek to have a system where people have a voice in their government,” Bender maintained. “I am very skeptical that the Charter Commission’s proposal will achieve that.”

City Council President Lisa Bender
Bender’s dismissive statement is just the latest in a long series of efforts by City Council members to resist a boost in mayoral powers that would come at their expense. As early 1900, council members lined up with other charter opponents to torpedo a strong-mayor plan backed by that era’s municipal reformers.

In more recent times, Alderman Frank Moulton, a power on the City Council for more than 20 years, maintained that a 1948 strong mayor charter would make the council little more than a rubber stamp for the mayor. That year’s reform plan, backed by a group known as the Citizens Charter Committee (CCC) went down to defeat, winning support from only 42% of Minneapolis residents voting in that year’s Dec. 6 municipal election.

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Twelve years later, in 1960, reformers tried again, drafting another strong-mayor plan backed by a reform group known as CIVIC (Charter Improvement Volunteer Committee). Once again, another reform effort was rejected, when only 44% of the voters supported the CIVIC charter in city-wide referendum. City Council President George Martens lauded that vote, saying, “the people have decided they want to keep the government in their own hands.”

Don Fraser’s efforts

Nearly 30 years would pass until the next major effort was mounted to shift the balance of power in City Hall from the council to the mayor. In 1988, Mayor Don Fraser made charter reform the centerpiece of his annual State of the City address. Fraser proposed two alternative reform plans. One would have given him sole appointive powers over all city department heads, subject to council approval. The other would have made him the chief presiding officer of the council without a vote but with the power to veto council actions. City Council President Alice Rainville, echoing her City Hall predecessors, rejected Fraser’s proposals, saying “a strong council close to the people of Minneapolis is a great strength. To dilute that would be a great loss.”

Don Fraser
Minnesota Historical Society
Don Fraser
In 1988, Fraser was not successful in overhauling the charter, but he returned the next year with a new, more nuanced plan. His new plan gave the mayor indirect authority to appoint department heads, using his role as chair of a City Hall body known as the Executive Committee. In 1989, when he was running for re-election, Fraser was finally able to bring about a charter change. On Election Day, when he was re-elected by a margin of four to one over his little-known opponent, Minneapolis voters approved Fraser’s amendment by a 60% margin.

Now, 30 years later, a new move is under way to revamp City Hall decision-making with the Charter Commission plan known as the Government Structure Amendment. On April 7, the commission unanimously voted to put it on the ballot in November.

In the intervening three decades since the Fraser amendment was adopted, Minneapolis politics has undergone a sea change; that change will provide the political setting in which the struggle over government structure will play out during next six months.

Differences between ’89 and 2021

In 1989, the charter revision was championed by a popular mayor who was running for re-election and faced only token opposition. Fraser was able to use his broad-based political support to overcome opposition to his amendment from the Charter Commission itself, and from a majority of the City Council. In 2021, incumbent mayor Jacob Frey, the beneficiary of the Government Structure Amendment, is facing strong political headwinds as he seeks to win a second term.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
This year, a dominant issue, police reform, is casting a shadow over the 2021 city election. Advocates for a major overhaul of the city’s public safety system, including members of the City Council, are championing other charter changes that would give the council more rather than less authority of this key municipal function.

The City Council has submitted its own proposal to the Charter Commission that would give it, rather than the mayor, authority over a new Department of Public Safety. With Frey’s stated opposition to the council’s amendment, the debate over police reform will become entangled with charter reform. If advocates for police reform continue to view the mayor as an impediment to their efforts, charter reform champions will face an uphill struggle as they attempt to tilt City Hall in the direction of a strong-mayor system.