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One more failed attempt to promote charter change in Minneapolis

On Oct. 29, the Star Tribune urged Minneapolis voters to vote “yes” on Amendment 168 to the Minneapolis City Charter. The amendment dealt with one of the finer points of municipal government in this city — the role of the little-known Board of Estimate and Taxation, which sets the property tax levy for the City of Minneapolis and its independent Park and Recreation Board. Amendment 168, in effect, would have eliminated the board by transferring its functions to the Minneapolis City Council.

In its editorial, the Star Tribune told voters: “Now’s the time to untangle the lines of accountability at City Hall. … Giving the City Council and the mayor clear authority over both the spending and taxation side of the budget ledger should help assure that the city’s choices match voters’ wishes.”

On Nov. 3, Minneapolis voters rejected the advice of their daily newspaper by voting “no” on Amendment 168 in overwhelming numbers.

The Star Tribune’s unsuccessful effort in 2009 to “untangle lines of accountability at City Hall” is just the latest in a long list of failed attempts by the daily paper and its predecessor publications to sway public opinion on charter change in Minneapolis.

1900 plan would have boosted mayor’s power
As early as 1900, one of those predecessors, the Minneapolis Journal, urged its readers to support a major overhaul of the city’s governmental structure. The ambitious 1900 charter plan would have boosted the powers of the mayor at the expense of the City Council.

Under the system then in place in City Hall, “the mayor has comparatively little power and his time and service are belittled by membership on several of the boards,” the Journal noted.  “On the other hand, the council makes the appointment of the heads of departments and through them executes the public work. Confusion necessarily has been the result.”

During the month leading up to the November 1900 municipal election, the Journal vigorously promoted the proposed charter in its news stories and editorials. But on Election Day, Minneapolis voters ignored the Journal’s advice and decisively defeated the proposed charter.

Over the succeeding decades, reformers would gain the support of the Journal for their charter overhaul plans. But each time, a charter plan appeared on the municipal ballot, city residents responded by voting “no.”

A separation proposed in 1929
In 1929, in the wake of a municipal corruption scandal, the Journal editorialized, once again, in support of charter reform.

“We have a Council form of government in which the Council not only legislates, but administers,” the Journal noted. “No only is such a system wrong in principle and thoroughly unbusinesslike, but it multiplies opportunities for graft. The remedy: divorce the administrative functions from the legislative functions. Give the legislative work to the Council, and the administrative work to a City Manager.”

But once again the voters rejected the paper’s advice, and the 1929 plan, like its predecessors, went down to defeat in that year’s city election.

Efforts to boost the power of the mayor were defeated again in 1948 and 1960 despite strong support for the reform plans  by the Journal’s successor, the Minneapolis Tribune. Finally, in the 1980s, during Don Fraser’s time as mayor, voters did agree to a highly nuanced plan which  created a power sharing arrangement between the mayor and the council.

‘Who’s in charge?’
In more recent years, the Star Tribune has continued to promote charter reform, most notably in a 2004 opinion-section project entitled “Who’s in Charge?” which included a December editorial, “Bosses galore/Accountability, efficiency suffer.”  The Strib project pressed its point with a satirical cartoon depicting Minneapolis city government as an octopus-like machine with more than 40 different pressure points.

In retrospect, it may well be that support for charter reform by the city’s leading daily paper has been counterproductive. Over the years, charter reform opponents have rallied supporters to their cause by claiming that the charter plans were part of an effort by the city’s power brokers and their newspaper allies to take power away from the people of Minneapolis.

While these charges have often been manipulated by charter opponents who were, themselves, political insiders, the fact remains that Minneapolis voters seem to be content with the city’s existing “crazy quilt” system of local government, despite repeated exhortations by local editorial writers that the system needs to be overhauled.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Kyle Weimann on 11/05/2009 - 10:34 am.

    Maybe it’s not the power player that the Strib is, but for what it’s worth, the U’s MN Daily editorial board came out against the Charter Amendment:

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 11/05/2009 - 10:49 am.

    Perhaps I’m not keeping up with my local news enough, but this effort seemed doomed to fail with nobody taking an active role to explain why the new structure would be better. I’m not sure how much the strib wanted this to go through, but evidently not enough to consistently write about it and display those articles prominently on their website (would have had to bump vikings coverage, which sems to generate most of their interest, so perhaps that’s asking a lot). I also did not hear much from Mr Ryback on this– as a popular mayor heading into his 3rd term, he could have made this a big issue. To me, the fact that he didn’t implies that he thinks the current system works well enough.

  3. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 11/05/2009 - 11:30 am.

    Two problems occur to me. First, nobody much is paying attention to city business, so lacking a compelling reason for change, voters are going to figure that the status quo is still fine. (Notice how little difficulty most incumbents had in getting re-elected.) Second, those who are paying attention have serious concerns about a power-grab by the council and mayor, so they oppose the change.

    Note the gutting of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Note the loss of Minneapolis’s library system. Note the Ostrow proposals to put Park Board and Board of Estimate decisions behind closed doors in city hall. Note the lack of candor in talking about budget cuts and program cuts. My goodness, the mayor didn’t even really campaign much for his own re-election, much less advocate for any deep city reform.

    I am certain that this mayor and all these incumbents are fine human beings, but there simply isn’t much honesty in addressing the huge looming problems that Minneapolis is facing. So there is indifference or cynicism or downright mistrust. Thus a certain lack of motivation in destroying yet another watchdog agency of city government.

  4. Submitted by Sam Bergman on 11/05/2009 - 03:26 pm.

    I don’t really have an opinion on the wider issue of charter change, but I voted no on the amendment because it struck me as a bad idea to give the City Council total control over the Park Board’s budget, without actually requiring council members to care about parks. In other words, since parks aren’t their job, it would be way too easy to gut the parks budget in tough years, then accuse the park board of not successfully doing more with less. The Park Board is far from perfect, but preserving its semi-independence as a body is something I think is important.

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