In this fall’s local election, Minneapolis voters will be asked to approve a change in the city’s charter. The 2009 municipal ballot will include a proposal to abolish an obscure city agency known as the Board of Estimate and Taxation, which sets the property tax levy for local public agencies.
The Minneapolis Park Board, which now has a seat on the Board of Estimate, is resisting this effort to streamline the city’s governmental structure. If voters approve the charter change, authority over the Park Board’s levy will be transferred to the Minneapolis City Council. Park supporters maintain that their system will suffer as a result because it will be downgraded as a city priority. They plan to petition for their own charter change which would give the Park Board its own independent taxing authority. In order to gain a spot on the city ballot for their proposal, park advocates must gather the signatures of at least 10,000 city voters on petitions by Aug. 11.
This current flap over the Board of Estimate is just the latest in a long list of charter controversies dating back to 1900. That year, reformers sought to overhaul city government in Minneapolis by boosting the authority of the mayor at the expense of the City Council. Critics charged that reformers were trying to create a “dictatorship” in City Hall by consolidating political power in the hands of the city’s chief elected official.
Reformers needed to get voter approval for the charter plan through a municipal referendum, and they enlisted the support of the city leading daily newspaper, the Minneapolis Journal, to promote their cause.
Despite relentless editorializing by the Journal, the charter plan was soundly defeated in 1900 when a coalition of interests that favored the status quo turned out their supporters to vote “no” on the referendum. Defeat of the charter plan also denied Minneapolis the opportunity to achieve municipal home rule. With no voter-approved charter plan in place, the city would need to go to the state Legislature whenever it wanted to revise its city structure.
Minneapolis reformer tried again off and on over the next 15 years to overhaul the charter but each time they were rebuffed by the voters. Finally, in 1920 the local electorate agreed to a charter plan that gave Minneapolis home rule — but at a price. In order to win popular support for the plan, the city’s charter commission merely codified the existing system but abandoned any effort to overhaul or reform that system.
In the 1940s, the charter reform movement received a new burst of life when Minneapolis’ energetic young mayor, Hubert Humphrey, advocated for an overhaul of the city’s complex and disjointed municipal structure. But even the popular Humphrey could not win the support of the voters for his charter plan.
In the 1960s, two of Humphrey’s successors, P. Kenneth Peterson and Arthur Naftalin, also tried but failed in their efforts to pass a charter referendum.
Finally, in the 1980s, Don Fraser was able to gain voter approval for his nuanced plan which boosted the mayor’s authority to nominate city department heads but required him to work in partnership with the City Council’s executive committee.
But even with this most recent change in place, which moves Minneapolis towards a strong mayor system, city government remains something of a Rube Goldberg machine with a myriad of local boards and commissions each overseeing a separate piece of City Hall machinery.
It remains to be seen whether that machine will lose one of its moving parts when yet another charter change appears on the municipal ballot this fall.
Iric Nathanson’s “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century — the Growth of an American City” will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in November.