More than 20 years after his own battle with the City Council over his effort to revise the Minneapolis charter, former Mayor Don Fraser has plunged back into the City Hall charter wars — this time over a proposal by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to cut its fiscal ties to the 13-member council.
Last Friday, the City Council rejected a plan advocated by the Park Board to give the parks agency its own taxing authority. Board supporters had assumed that their proposal would appear on the November ballot because they had gathered enough signatures on a petition to gain the right for a public referendum. But the council voted to block the referendum, claiming that the Park Board proposal had legal flaws. Board supporters then sued to overturn the council action in order to gain a place on the election ballot.
Just before the Aug. 28 council vote, Fraser waded into the controversy, saying he was “startled and perplexed” that the Park Board supporters did not have an opportunity to make their case at City Hall. “I believe the zeal to kill this amendment without any semblance of a public hearing, a selective reading of the city attorney’s opinion, and no acknowledgement of the potential bias of the council members who may want to keep all the financial powers in the hands of the City Council has left me and perhaps others disappointed by the way this matter was considered and voted on,” he said.
In ’87, mayor circulated petitions
Fraser used even stronger language in 1987 when he clashed with the City Council over his move to boost to the power and authority of his office. Then in his seventh year as mayor, the former congressman had grown increasingly frustrated with his limited political role in City Hall. Earlier in the year, he tried but failed to persuade the city charter commission to approve his plan to make the mayor the presiding officer of the City Council. Rebuffed by the commission, Fraser circulated his own petitions calling for a referendum on his plan.
At the same time, Dennis Schulstad, a Republican City Council member, also petitioned to get ballot access for his own proposals — to reduce the size of the council and to establish staggered terms for council members and the mayor.
Because they both gathered the required number of signatures, Fraser and Schulstad assumed their proposals would come before the voters in November, but they soon discovered that the City Council had placed a stumbling block in their way. According to the charter amendment process, the City Council, not the charter amendments’ authors, determined the language of the amendments that would appear on election ballots.
When Fraser saw the council’s initial draft of his proposal, the usually even-tempered mayor flew into a rage. Fraser charged that the council language was misleading and was deliberately designed to defeat his proposal. He was also angry about the council’s plan to position his proposal on the ballot in a way that, he said, would make it difficult for the voters to distinguish between his plan and that of Schulstad’s.
After threatening to sue the council and trading barbs with several of its members, Fraser was finally able to get some new language that was more to his liking, but he was still not completely mollified. “If somebody is about to shoot you and you’re able to avoid being shot and that’s a victory, then I guess I won,” Fraser said after the language controversy had finally been settled.
Gained more authority in ’88
Fraser was not able to win voter approval in 1987 for his plan to make the mayor the presiding officer of the City Council, but he came back the next year with a new proposal to boost the mayor’s authority to nominate city department heads. The 1988 proposal generated a more positive response from the city electorate and it was approved in November of that year with over 60 percent of the vote. The Fraser plan, which gave the mayor indirect authority to hire and fire city department heads, is now a permanent feature of Minneapolis city government.
Today, the former mayor, who has been out of office for more than 15 years, has not lost his zest for the ongoing struggle over charter change in City Hall. But he has to stand by, as this latest battle between the Park Board and the City Council is fought out in the local courts.
Iric Nathanson’s “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century, the Growth of an American City” will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society in November.