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Two low-profile ballot questions ask Minneapolis voters to update City Charter

Minneapolis voters will be asked in two ballot questions to adopt or reject a new plain-language city charter that eliminates out-of-date provisions and language dating to 1920.

In addition to a crowded mayoral field, individual City Council contests and several other city races, Minneapolis voters will find two low-profile, yes-or- no questions on Tuesday’s ballot.

Both deal with whether to adopt or reject a new plain-language city charter that eliminates out-of-date provisions and language dating to 1920.

The changes also eliminate some provisions that supporters think would be better off handled in ordinance form, which can be changed more easily with the times.

The plain-language amendments are divided by topic. The general amendment deals with all non-alcohol related topics and requires a simple majority of those voting on the issue for approval. The alcohol-related amendment requires 55 percent of those voting on the issue to pass.

The plain-language charter amendments are the product of 11 years of debate by members of the Charter Commission, which worked its way through 13 drafts and countless sub-drafts before final agreement on the wording that appears on the ballot.

“Its charter change, and for more than half of the voters, the first time they hear about will be when they go to vote,” said Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg.

The Charter Commission has no budget for a campaign to win support for the plain language revision, but a committee has been formed, The Citizens for a Plain Language Charter, which is sending letters in support of the amendments signed by former mayors Al Hofstede, Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has not endorsed the charter amendments. John Stiles, communications director for Rybak, says the mayor “thinks plain language is a great thing, but there may be some unintended consequences.”

“In its current form, a lot of case law is tied to the charter,” said Stiles, adding that the city attorney has pointed this out but has not made a recommendation for or against the new charter.

There has been no organized opposition to either proposal.

Clegg, himself an attorney, said the old charter does not go away if the new one becomes law. The old charter can still be used to establish precedence in legal matters.

Currently the city charter is 200 pages long. The plain-language charter amendments will reduce the length to 60 pages. Many of the items eliminated are obsolete, such as requiring that eggs be candled before they can be sold, or are currently covered by state law, which supersedes the charter.

Some of the items removed were deemed to be better addressed — and more easily changed — in city ordinances, which can be passed by either the City Council or the Park and Recreation Board.

There are two ways to change the city charter. The first is by a vote of the people. The charter, though, also can be changed by a unanimous vote of the City Council, a majority the Charter Commission and approval from the mayor, as required by state statute.

If the plain-language charter amendment fails, the current charter stays in place, but Clegg says he will be inclined to remove some of the provisions that are out of date, such as those dealing with the Minneapolis Library Board, which no longer exists.

“I would still try to nibble away at provisions that are wrong,” said Clegg, who would take his case to the City Council, Charter Commission and mayor.

If voters approve the plain-language amendments, the new charter would go into effect in January 2015, which would give the City Council, Park and Recreation Board and mayor a year to replace items removed from the old charter and transfer them to ordinance form.

An ordinance can be approved by a vote of the City Council or Park and Recreation Board and the signature of the mayor. If the mayor were to veto an ordinance, the relevant governing body– the City Council or Park Board – could  attempt to override that action.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 11/04/2013 - 08:52 am.


    Aside from a desire to banish outdated and archaic language, are there any specific examples of significant problems or issues that have arisen as a result of the charter’s current language format that would be solved by a change to a “plain language” format?

  2. Submitted by Adam Miller on 11/04/2013 - 10:27 am.

    is there a link

    To something that more fully describes what these changes will do?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/04/2013 - 12:35 pm.

    The only place you can find an exact comparison of the current Charter and the replacement Charter that is being proposed to voters is at the Charter Commission’s web page. It’s quite a lengthy exercise: 71,00 words in the current Charter, from which were removed 57,000 words, leaving a bare-bones document of 14,000 words.

    You have to jump around to do the comparison; no help is provided on what’s left out or why.

    If you haven’t read the two documents, the prudent thing to do–say those who have read it and see multiple substantive changes to our rights in it and to the way Minneapolis is governed–is VOTE NO. There is lots of time to change the charter, slowly and carefully and with an informed electorate.

    It appalls the thinking mind of a democrat, that the Minneapolis voter is expected to vote blind on this, in full ignorance of what it actually does.

    How interesting, too, that here the reporter doesn’t seem to have read the compared charters herself.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/04/2013 - 01:32 pm.

      They’ve been at this since 2002,…

      …yet, like Connie Sullivan, I am concerned that maybe the changes are not all innocuous – and further, the unintended consequences of massive simultaneous changes may turn around to bite us in the behind.

      I found the May 2013 report of the Commission to the City Council, a 78 page PDF with the rationale for the changes, proposed amendments for this election, and a literal rendition of the proposed new charter:

      Even though the Commission has been working on this for more than 10 years, I don’t think the voters have actually been up to speed on this thing for very long, if at all. Maybe a period of selling the product to the voters should take place.

      The idea behind putting a summary question on the ballot is basically, “Trust us, we’ve worked it out !”. Is it necessary her to go over recent decisions by city government which demonstrated it could NOT be trusted ?? There is good cause for a reasonable person to hesitate to grant blind trust. If what we have here is a referendum on trust in local government, it will be interesting to see the result.

  4. Submitted by Bob Striker on 11/04/2013 - 12:47 pm.

    More info here

    The city has posted a lot of info here:

  5. Submitted by David Greene on 11/04/2013 - 01:55 pm.

    Major Changes

    It’s misleading to label this simply a “plain language” rewrite. Significant parts of the charter are being changed, such as:

    “Some worry about deletion of charter provisions governing the removal of public officials who break the law, defraud the city, grossly neglect duties, or use public property for private purposes. It’s up to the council to replace those with ordinances, Clegg said.”

    The safe thing it to VOTE NO. If specific sections of the charter need changing, proposals should be made for those specific changes. We should not be hiding changes in a “rewrite.”

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/04/2013 - 02:28 pm.

      Yes ! A few changes at a time is fine. Where’s the fire ?

      We can take our time at this without any risk whatsoever. The voters can digest a few at a time and understand what they’re voting on. But in this form, no one will comprehend what their vote will mean.

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