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What to know about Minneapolis’ government structure ballot measure, aka the ‘strong mayor’ question

What the amendment says, and what it would mean for the city if approved.

Minneapolis Charter Commission
MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
The Charter Commission, above, proposed the amendment. If passed, the government structure amendment would more clearly establish the City Council’s role as a legislative body while “centralizing executive and administrative responsibilities in the mayor.”
There is no single boss in Minneapolis. Under the current city charter, the responsibility for picking who runs city departments — and thus whom those directors and city staff report to and what they prioritize — is overseen by a committee made up of the mayor and members of the 13-person City Council. The one exception to that is the police department, for which the mayor has sole responsibility.

While some city officials view the system as more democratic, others see it as lacking accountability, and a recipe for confusion among city staff and voters alike, with critics often referring to it as “the 14-boss problem.”

All that would change with a ballot measure Minneapolis voters will be voting on this fall. If passed, the government structure amendment would more clearly establish the council’s role as a legislative body while “centralizing executive and administrative responsibilities in the mayor,” according to the city’s Charter Commission, which proposed the amendment. 

Here’s what the amendment says, and what it would mean for the city if approved.

Let’s back up. Remind me how power is currently split between the City Council and mayor in Minneapolis? 

How much time do you have?

The (very) short version is that Minneapolis has a unique and uniquely complicated structure, one that tends to spread government functions among multiple elected offices and policymaking entities. For example, under the current setup, the last tweaks of which came in the 1980s, Minneapolis’ city departments are overseen by an Executive Committee, which is composed of the mayor, City Council president, and up to three council members elected by the full council. 

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The system was devised to allow both the mayor and council to have a say in determining leadership for city departments, and choosing department heads through the Executive Committee is a multi-step process. The mayor makes a nomination, but the Executive Committee decides whether to forward the nomination to the full City Council, which must confirm or reject the selection. The council cannot appoint a candidate who was not recommended by the Executive Committee. 

Getting rid of a department head also has to go through the Executive Committee. As with appointing department heads, the City Council can only terminate a director if the Executive Committee has recommended it. Again, the exception to all this is the Minneapolis Police Department, which the Minneapolis mayor has complete control over. 

OK, so what does the ballot question say?  

Technically known as the “Government structure: Executive mayor – legislative council charter amendment,” the ballot question asks: “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?

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What does all that mean?

The big thing is that it would explicitly identify the mayor as the city’s chief executive, and more clearly define what that means. As the Charter Commission’s proposal for putting the question on the ballot says, the goal is “to centralize executive and administrative responsibilities through a single chain of command under the Mayor, and to distinguish the Mayor’s executive functions and responsibilities in contrast to the legislative functions and responsibilities of the Council.”

Among other things, the proposal would eliminate the Executive Committee, and hiring and firing department heads would solely be the purview of the mayor. In other words, instead of just overseeing the police department, the mayor would control the fire department, health department, community planning and economic development, public works, emergency management department and more. 

The City Council would then become, as the commission put it, “the primary actor in matters of local legislation and policymaking.” It would keep its direct authority and control over the city clerk, who helps City Council members facilitate their legislative goals, and would also oversee the city auditor, who provides independent evaluations of city departments. 

The City Council would also retain “power of the purse” under the amendment. While the mayor would keep his authority to develop and recommend the budget, the City Council would still finalize and adopt it. Finally, the council would also have the power to “check” the mayor’s executive authority through audits of city department performance, as well as hearings and investigations into departments. 

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Wait, wasn’t there suppose to be an explanatory note attached to the question? 

Yes. Last month, the Council — after two vetoes from the mayor — approved final language for a ballot question asking voters to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety (language that was recently struck down by a Hennepin County judge). As part of that process, the council killed an explanatory note for that question after Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that got the issue on the ballot, sued over the note’s wording. For good measure, the council also decided to get rid of the explanatory note proposed for the government structure amendment, meaning the question will stand alone on the ballot.

If you’re curious, though, here’s what the five-part explanatory note said about what the amendment would do if passed:

  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 this 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.

Why is this question on the ballot now?

Longtime Minneapolis Charter Commission Member Barry Clegg has been part of a contingent of city officials who have pushed to transition Minneapolis to a stronger mayor system since at least the 1980s. “I’ve always had that in the back of my mind, that the city could be a better place if we could have separate legislative and executive functions,” said Clegg. 

When then-Mayor Don Fraser put forward the charter change that established the Executive Committee back in the 1980s, said Clegg, Fraser was trying to find a way to give more executive authority to the mayor. “That was clearly what he wanted to do,” said Clegg of Fraser, who died in 2019, “but he didn’t think he could get it done politically.” 

Over the intervening years, the power of the mayor — or lack thereof — has periodically become an issue. But recent efforts to reduce the mayor’s role in overseeing the police department prompted Clegg and other Charter Commission members to try again. “For me, it’s about clarity,” said Charter Commission Member Andrea Rubenstein. “Nobody knows who is supposed to do what from the view of department heads, who can get conflicting directions.” 

After conducting a study, the Charter Commission submitted its proposal for the ballot measure in April. Last week, the council voted to adopt draft ballot language prepared by the city attorney, and the city clerk will now transmit that ballot question to the county auditor for inclusion on the ballot.

What do opponents of the amendment say? 

Consolidating power in the mayor may streamline the city bureaucracy, but opponents of the measure say it also has the potential to box out City Council members and their constituents.

“In the system that’s in place, each part of the city gets equal representation,” said City Council Member Steve Fletcher. “And so you have a group of 13 of us coming together who care about the whole city but who also have a very specialized focus on the area of the city that we represent and that allows for advocacy on behalf of our constituencies, that I think is very important.” 

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The shared power, he added, “reflects a real commitment to ground-level, grassroots democracy.” 

City Council President Lisa Bender, who is leaving office at the end of this year, pointed to the power the mayor’s office has over the police department as an example of how other city operations could be affected by the proposal. “All [police policy] happens behind closed doors,” she said, noting that the current process for creating police policy does not require holding public hearings. 

Fletcher, City Council Member Cam Gordon and Bender have also expressed concerns that the amendment would consolidate power in an office that can be won with a voting coalition that excludes many voters of color and low-income voters. “If you look at voting patterns in our city,” said Bender, “it’s pretty easy to see how the map plays out. We have parts of the city with very high turnout where people always vote in the more affluent parts of the city, and those are the people who really elect the mayor.” 

“The more concentration of power we put in the mayor, the more concentration of power we’re gonna be putting in the wealthy neighborhoods of our communities,” said Gordon, who said that passing the ballot measure would send the city in a “backward direction that is anti-democratic.”

This amendment seems in direct conflict with the public safety ballot question that will also appear on the ballot. What happens if both pass?

Indeed, the ballot question proposed by Yes 4 Minneapolis would give City Council more power, with more oversight over a new Department of Public Safety. That would seemingly conflict with the idea of the mayor having chief executive responsibilities. The City Attorney declined to discuss any potential conflicts between the amendments, but according to Bender, if both are approved by voters, “the City Council would have legislative authority over the police department.”