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Noting matters: a much too detailed look at the Minneapolis City Council’s charter amendment ‘explanatory language’ saga

With the city finally, maybe, probably, finalizing what Minneapolis voters will encounter on their ballots this fall, here’s a look at what the questions will say — and how the city got there.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson
The Minneapolis City Council approved language for the public safety ballot question after overriding a veto from Mayor Jacob Frey.
Last year, two charter questions appeared on Minneapolis voters’ ballots. This year, there are three. 

Among the many differences between the two sets of ballot measures: Explanatory notes.

Explanatory notes were meant to be relatively short blurbs accompanying the three ballot questions. Ostensibly designed to clarify what voting for (or against) each question would mean for the city, the inclusion of the notes was — as far as anybody can remember — a new thing for the city.

And now they’re out. After a lawsuit, a judge’s ruling, multiple drafts, a mayoral veto threat, two actual vetos, and a veto override and many, many meetings, the Minneapolis City Council voted on Friday to move ahead on the most controversial ballot question — creating a Department of Public Safety under the control of city council in place of a Minneapolis Police Department overseen by the mayor — with new ballot language but without an explanatory note. The council also decided to kill off the explanatory note from another one of the questions, about further defining the mayor’s role as the “chief executive” of the city.

 Now, with the city finally finalizing what Minneapolis voters will encounter on their ballots this fall, here’s a much-to-detailed look at what the questions will say — and how the city got there.

Three questions, three ‘explanatory notes’

Three ballot questions will be up for a vote in November in Minneapolis: one allowing the city to implement rent control; one changing city government structure to give the mayor more executive power; and one creating a new public safety department under the supervision of the council. 

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The rent control proposal addresses an exception in Minnesota’s rent control law, which says that charter cities in the state can engage in “controlling rent on private residential property” only if “the ordinance, charter amendment, or law that controls rents is approved in a general election.” If the measure is approved, rent stabilization measures wouldn’t automatically be imposed in Minneapolis, but the City Council would have the power to enact a rent control policy — and to come up with an initiative for voters to weigh in on during a future election.

On Aug. 6, the City Council approved by an 11-1 vote, ballot language “Authorizing City Council To Enact Rent Control Ordinance,” which reads: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to authorize the City Council to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis, with the general nature of the amendments being indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?”

As part of the resolution, the Council also approved an explanatory note for the measure, which read: 

1. Authorize the City Council to regulate rents on private residential property in the City of Minneapolis by ordinance.
2. Provide that an ordinance regulating rents on private residential property could be enacted in two different and independent ways:

a. The City Council may enact the ordinance.
b. The City Council may refer the ordinance as a ballot question to be decided by the
voters for approval at an election. If more than half of the votes cast on the ballot
question are in favor of its adoption, the ordinance would take effect 30 days after the
election, or at such other time as provided in the ordinance.”

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A week later, on Aug. 13, the Council approved language for the second charter amendment proposal, this one having to do with the structure of city government, which asked: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to make the Mayor the City’s chief executive officer and administrative authority, and to make the City Council the legislative body with general legislative, policymaking, and oversight authority in the City, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?”

That question too came with an explanatory note approved by Council, saying the amendment would:

1. Divide municipal powers and functions between an elected chief executive, the Mayor, and an elected legislative body, the City Council.

2. Define the City Council as being the City’s legislative body with all legislative, policymaking, and oversight authority and remove reference to governing body. The City Council would continue to appoint and discharge the City Clerk. The City Council would be required to fund nonpartisan administrative staff and could also choose to fund their own aides as they do now. Require the City Council to establish an independent City Auditor’s Office in charge of audit services for the City’s finances and operations and an Audit Committee to oversee the City Auditor’s Office. The Audit Committee would appoint the Auditor for a term of at least four years and the City Council may remove the Auditor for cause.

3. Eliminate the Executive Committee and its role in appointments, suspensions, and discharges of officers.

4. Define the Mayor as being the City’s chief executive officer and administrative authority. The Mayor would appoint, with City Council’s consent, the heads of charter departments and other appointed officers, unless the charter or any applicable law provides otherwise. All employees appointed by the Mayor would have a four-year term that coincides with the Mayor’s term and could be disciplined and discharged by the Mayor.

5. Define the City’s administration under the authority of the Mayor as being all administrative and operating departments not under the City Council or a board or commission created by the charter, or as otherwise provided by any applicable law. The City Council, its committees, and members would not be allowed to issue orders to, to direct, or to supervise those departments and employees under the City’s administration, nor request information not classified as public data. The City Council may seek information or assistance from the City’s administration and the Mayor must furnish any information that the City Council requests to carry out its legislative function.

But the biggest, most controversial measure has always been the public safety amendment. Earlier this year, Yes 4 Minneapolis — a coalition of activist organizations like ACLU Minnesota and Reclaim the Block — gathered more than 20,000 signatures to get a measure on the ballot, with the City Council charged with signing off on the wording for the amendment. 

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If approved, the proposal would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety and take away the responsibility of overseeing public safety from the mayor. The amendment also meant a police chief would no longer be required that there would be no minimum officer staffing requirements.

By July 23, the council had approved language for the question, which read: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?”

But this measure also came with an explanatory note, which read:

This amendment would create a new Department of Public Safety, which would:

  1. Combine public safety functions of the City of Minneapolis into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, with the specific public safety functions to be determined.
  2. Include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the Department of Public Safety.
  3. Be led by a Commissioner of Public Safety. The appointment process for the Commissioner would include a Mayor nomination and a City Council appointment. The Mayor would not have complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Department of Public Safety.

This amendment would also do the following:

  1. Remove from the Charter a Police Department, which includes the removal of its Police Chief, and the removal of the Mayor’s complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Police Department.
  2. Remove the City Council requirement to fund a police force of at least 1.7 employees per 1,000 residents.
  3. Remove City Council authorization to impose additional taxation on taxable property in the City of Minneapolis of up to 0.3 percent of its value annually to fund the compensation of employees of the police force.

A lawsuit, a call for transparency — and a decision

A week after the city rolled out this language, however, Yes 4 Minneapolis sued, arguing the city didn’t have the authority to add the note. The group also said the note was misleading, with a spokesperson calling it “a blatant attempt to sow confusion and mistrust among voters about what this amendment does and does not do.”

Then, on Aug. 13, Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson ordered that the explanatory note on the public safety question be removed, saying the specific language was “problematic.” That said, Anderson also found that the city did have the authority to add explanatory notes to ballot questions. 

And so — rather than move ahead without an explanatory note — City Council chose to rework the language of both the public safety question and the explanatory note, with the question reading: 

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of its functions, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

And the explanatory note reading: 

This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding currently required would be eliminated.

Even stripped down, though, Yes 4 Minneapolis objected to the note, and lawyers for the organization once again asked Judge Anderson to intervene. During an emergency hearing that took place before the council to consider the new language, Anderson essentially reiterated her earlier ruling: that while the language the city had previously proposed shouldn’t be included — that did not mean the city was barred from including any explanatory language. 

As Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney Sarah McLaren told the council during a City Council committee meeting shortly after the judge made her ruling, a ballot question can go without an explanatory note if it “sufficiently identifies the key changes that the proposed amendment would do.” 

But McLaren also noted that the lack of an explanatory note might leave the city open to getting sued by people accusing it of not sufficiently explaining what approving the question would mean. 

At the Wednesday meeting of the Council’s Policy & Government Oversight Committee, Mayor Jacob Frey similarly underlined the need for clarity and said he was open to having explanatory language either in the ballot question or in the form of an accompanying note. “We shouldn’t be afraid to tell the voters what they are voting on,” he said. “We should be transparent.”

But council members in favor of removing the language argued the court decision was clear. “I’d like to just stick to the language here that we are being asked to wrestle with,” said Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, referring to the court order and reading from the ruling during the meeting; “‘The court hereby orders respondents to remove Explanatory Note from the Ballot Question.’”

Council Member Cam Gordon said explanatory notes are “unnecessary” and that the function of a ballot is to only let voters know what amendment they are voting on. “And then we all have the responsibility to educate ourselves about what these changes actually mean and look at the language,” said Gordon. “Just as we did in the previous election with two very confusing and rather obscure amendments that we had to put on the charter to deal with 2-year terms and aligning those.”

Council Members voted 12-1 to include that language, sans explanatory note, on the ballot, with the final version of the measure set to be voted on by the full council two days later. It read: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?”

Not just the public safety question 

But the council wasn’t done killing off explanatory notes. Members then took up the note hitched to the strong mayor question. That too had originally been longer than the question itself, which had prompted city staff to whittle it down, with the edited version reading: “This amendment would divide municipal powers between an elected chief executive, the Mayor, and an elected legislative body, the City Council. The City Council would have legislative, policymaking, and oversight authority. The Mayor would be the City’s chief executive officer and have responsibility for directing the City’s administration. The City’s administration would include all operating departments under the authority of the Mayor.”

Instead of that, Council Member Ellison and Council President Bender proposed a new version of the ballot language itself, and after some debate over the wording, including specific suggestions from Council Member Lisa Goodman, the language was reworked again, with the final version of the question reading: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to adopt a change in its form of government to an Executive Mayor-Legislative Council structure to shift certain powers to the Mayor, consolidating administrative authority over all operating departments under the Mayor, and eliminating the Executive Committee?”

The question would not be accompanied by an explanatory note, and this time it passed, meaning it was set for final approval on Friday. Before that could happen though, Frey held a press conference to say he believed the language for the public safety question did not properly inform voters, and that he would veto the measure language if it was finalized by the council. 

Then, on Friday morning — after rejecting new language offered by Frey — Council signed off on the public safety question language it had approved two days earlier, with Reich, Goodman, and Palmisano voting against. Soon after, the Council also voted to approve the language it had approved for the ​Executive Mayor-Legislative Council ballot measure — without an explanatory note, with only Palmisano voting against.  

Shortly after noon, Frey issued his veto of the public safety ballot language, forcing the City Council to reconvene that afternoon at 3:30 p.m. to try and override. To do so, the Council needed nine votes. 

That didn’t happen. Eight members voted to override the veto, with four (Goodman, Palmisano, Reich, and Cano) voting against and one (Osman) abstaining. 

Since Frey’s veto survived a council overturn, it was up to the council to come up with new language that would be put to a vote and, again, be subject to a mayoral veto. Council Members Jenkins, Johnson, Osman and Council President Bender came prepared for that possibility, and soon after offered the following proposed language: 

“Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety, which could include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, with administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?”

But that proposal didn’t go far enough to address some council members concerns. “This is not sufficient,” said Goodman. “It doesn’t explain what’s coming out, it doesn’t exactly explain what is coming in. What it is is a poor compromise to get the number of votes needed by the deadline. That’s all it is.”

When it came to a vote, the council approved the language 9-4, with Goodman, Palmisano, Cano, and Reich opposed, and Frey quickly vetoed the new language.

The council, inching closer to the midnight deadline to submit ballot language, met again at 6:15 p.m. This time, though, the Council moved quickly to override Frey’s veto by a 9-4 vote, and with Goodman, Palmisano, Cano, and Reich again voting in opposition. With that, the third City Council meeting of the day was adjourned. With the language finalized, the City Clerk will send it to the Hennepin County Elections office by the end of the day.