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With Minneapolis’ weak-mayor system, does it really matter who gets elected?

Yes. The mayor, experts say, sets the agenda and, with the bully pulpit, can lobby legislators, the business community and every other group.

In an MPR-sponsored debate at the State Fair, eight of the 35 Minneapolis mayoral candidates talked about some of their priorities.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

Thirty-five candidates, some with long records of public service and others with no records at all, promise to make the Minneapolis mayoral election a crazy free-for-all.

To rise above the crowd after all, you have to distinguish yourself, either by doing something outlandishly memorable (or memorably outlandish) — like riding down Hennepin Avenue on a circus elephant, or, more conventionally, vowing to do something wonderful, like creating jobs or fixing the school system.  

In an MPR-sponsored debate the other day at the State Fair, the eight candidates who participated took the second route (though I suppose at some future date, they or any of the bottom 27 candidates could do the elephant thing).

Mark Andrew, for example, said that as a Hennepin County commissioner for 16 years, he had masterminded the city’s recycling program and helped create the Midtown Greenway. Presumably, if he were elected, we’d get more goodies like that.

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Bob Fine, a five-term Park & Recreation Board commissioner and commercial real estate manager, promised to “run the city as well as the park system.”

Cam Winton, a lawyer and entrepreneur, wants “to make it easier for companies to start and grow in Minneapolis.”

Dan Cohen, a member of the Planning and Charter commissions,  groused about the Vikings stadium, which maybe he wants to stop.

What Stephanie Woodruff, a volunteer on the mayor’s audit committee and search firm executive, or Jackie Cherryhomes, a former council member and small-business owner, hope to do was kind of muddly, although Woodruff vowed to “put children first.”

And, Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels, both current members of the City Council, said they would aim to close the yawning achievement gap that exists between the city’s black and white students.

Limited formal powers

In point of fact, however, the Minneapolis mayor, on his or her own, can accomplish almost none of these things.

“It’s one of the great ironies that we have a ferocious, barn-burner campaign for a job with very few powers,” says Larry Jacobs, professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Betsy Hodges, he points out, chairs the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee, which approves nearly every dollar the city spends. “She may be more powerful than the mayor right now,” he says.

Minneapolis has what is called a weak-mayor, strong-council form of government. In other words, if the mayor did decide to ride an elephant down Hennepin, he or she would probably need permission from the city council. None other than Sen. Amy Klobuchar memorialized this, in her 1986 senior thesis, “Uncovering the Dome,” about the first Vikings stadium:

The Minneapolis mayor appoints the chief of police and a majority of the members of the city’s commissions, but only with the council’s consent. Legally, the city council, with its combination of legislative and administrative powers overshadows the Minneapolis mayor. The “weak mayor” city government structure makes it almost impossible for the city to be governed by any kind of political machine or party boss. But the system also causes power to be extremely dispersed.

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 All that makes you understand perhaps why Amy never ran for mayor.

 So take, for example, those pledges to improve the school system.

“Education is not a city function; it’s a state function,” says Barry Clegg, chair of the Minneapolis Charter Commission. “All the mayor can do is advocate.” What’s more, school board members are elected; so they have their own pockets of political power that may not depend on the mayor’s good will.

 The Park & Recreation Board, while not a state entity, is also almost completely independent of city government. The mayor can veto actions — if, for example, the board decides to sell Lake Nokomis to a greedy developer — but the board can override his veto. “Usually, when their independence is threatened, they unite,” says Clegg.

The mayor does have the power to make major appointments — police and fire chiefs, city coordinator, engineer, assessor and so on. But they are subject to the approval of the Executive Committee, which is composed of the mayor, the council president and three other council members. If the committee rejects three successive mayoral nominations to a post, it can propose its own slate. “But that’s never happened,” says Clegg. Of course, there’s always a first time.

And those appointees generally have two bosses. They report to the mayor, of course, but also to the appropriate city council committee. So, for a misstep, the police chief, for example, might be called on two carpets — the mayor’s and the Public Safety Committee’s.

Mayor sets the agenda

Given all this, could Minneapolis, like the occasional small town in Idaho or Nebraska, elect a 3-year-old or a pet llama to be mayor without suffering too much?

Not a good idea.

“The mayor sets the agenda,” says Devin Rice, also a member of the Charter Commission. It’s his or her job to propose the budget, now about $1.2 billion, which puts money where his or her priorities lie. Of course, the city council gets to noodle over it before voting approval.

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And the budget has to survive the Board of Estimate and Taxation. That’s yet another check on mayoral power; it’s composed of the City Council president, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the head of the Park & Recreation Board, two independently elected officials and the mayor. “It generally approves what the council provides,” says Clegg.

Then, of course, there’s the intangible.

“Outside of the governor and senators, the Minneapolis mayor is one of the most recognizable figures in Minnesota,” says Rice. And s/he speaks for the entire city, not just a piece of it, as do council, school or park board members. He or she has the power to dominate the microphone or TV camera, to jawbone state legislators, the business community and every other group into providing what the city needs, whether it’s a taxing mechanism to fund streetcars or more local government aid. “He owns the bully pulpit,” adds Rice.

Given all that, what kind of mayor should voters be looking for?

A person who can find and recruit good appointees should be at the top of our wish lists. And, we need a collaborator who relishes working with hosts of annoying boards and committees. “It’s not a job for going it alone,” says Jacobs. And some management and budgeting skills wouldn’t hurt.

Finally, listen up, all ye mayoral candidates: It helps to have a large dollop of charisma.

“By virtue of his strong personality, R.T. has given the position some gravitas,” says Mark Stenglein, former Hennepin County commissioner. “He has a sparkle that makes you want to follow him.”