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Recalling Minneapolis’ early charter-change efforts

After two decades of efforts, the local electorate agreed in 1920 to a charter plan that gave Minneapolis home rule.

minneapolis 1900
The Minneapolis Charter Commission’s proposal in 1900 was rejected by voters.

The plan drafted by the Minneapolis Charter Commission for the November 1900 ballot was ambitious and highly detailed. It transformed the mainly ceremonial office of mayor into a position of real influence, with the authority to appoint most key department heads. At the same time, the plan sharply limited the power of the City Council by making it a legislative body with little day-to-day control over the operation of city government.

Despite the best efforts of a blue-ribbon citizens group that spent months promoting the governmental overhaul, the charter was overwhelmingly rejected by voters who went to the polls on Nov. 6. If the 1900 charter had been approved, Minneapolis would have achieved home rule. That highly prized status meant that the city would no longer have to go hat in hand to the state legislature any time it wanted to alter its civic structure. The defeat of the charter eliminated the option for home rule in Minneapolis — at least in 1900.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
This cartoon appeared in the Minneapolis Journal on
October 19, 1900.

That year St. Paul voters approved a new charter for their city, which gave them home rule and bragging rights when they tangled with their neighbors across the river in Minneapolis.

After the defeat of the 1900 charter, Minneapolis civic leaders proposed new governmental organizational plans in 1904, 1906, 1907 and 1913, 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 home rule came at a price. In order to win popular support, the city’s charter commission merely codified the existing municipal government system into a new 77-page charter and abandoned any attempt to overhaul and reform the existing system.

While the city’s structural blueprint has undergone numerous changes over the last 93 years, vestiges of the 1920 document are still embedded in the current charter.  Those vestiges include authority granted to the City Council to “regulate caravans, menageries and circuses” and regulatory oversight that extends to “spirituous, vinous and fermented liquors.”

Now, in 2013, the Minneapolis Charter Commission, the successor to the 1900 citizens group, is proposing another overhaul of the charter [PDF], this time to eliminate obsolete and archaic language.

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The commission says it is not aiming to restructure or substantively change City Hall’s governmental machinery. Rather, it aims to update the charter to make it shorter, better organized and easier to read, using 21st-century language.

The commission points to the use of the word “doth,” an archaic form of the third person present tense used with the pronoun “he,” “she” or  “it.” The civic group notes that the term has been out-of-date for two centuries yet it keeps popping up in the current city charter.

On Nov. 5, the commission’s “plain language” charter, which eliminates the doths, along with the menageries and the vinous liquors, will be on Minneapolis’ election ballot. The 2013 charter overhaul has the support of the League of Women Voters and a group of former mayors that includes Al Hofstede, Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton. But current Mayor R. T. Rybak has voiced some reservations about the new charter and City Council President Barbara Johnson has indicated that she might vote against it.

Over the years, charter change has been a tough sell to Minneapolis voters who have rejected numerous revisions including, most recently, a plan to abolish the low profile Board of Estimate and Taxation. On Tuesday, today’s Charter Commission is hoping it will be more successful than its predecessors in selling its “plain language” plan to the people who turn out for the 2013 city election.