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Minneapolis council moves to craft minimum wage ordinance — after voting to block $15 wage amendment from November ballot

The move came at a contentious hearing that was disrupted by supporters of a $15 minimum wage ballot measure.  

Supporters of a charter amendment to raise the minimum wage in Minneapolis rally in city council chambers before Wednesday's meeting.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A year ago, there weren’t enough votes on the Minneapolis City Council to have the city go it alone and impose a higher minimum wage.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said she opposed having a citywide wage higher than that of neighboring cities, fearing it could make businesses uncompetitive. And no move was made on the council to require higher hourly wages — up to $15 — for workers within the city limits.

Instead, as the city moved ahead on mandatory paid leave, the wage issue was set aside, with the council commissioning a study of the potential economic impacts of a city-only minimum wage. The study results aren’t due until September, but there remained no indication of a council majority in favor of an increase. 

Until Wednesday.

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After an emotional meeting of the council’s committee of the whole — and after a large majority of the council voted to prevent a minimum wage charter amendment from reaching the November ballot — the council directed city staff to move toward crafting a minimum wage ordinance.

The city coordinator is directed to meet with “stakeholders”; review laws in other cities; incorporate the results of the economic study; and come back with a recommendation on a minimum wage policy. All this should be completed by the spring of 2017. The council also wants the city coordinator to present a plan by Oct. 5 to engage the community on the issue.

While backers of the charter amendment lamented the vague language around the council’s move — there’s no guarantee the council has to act on the issue — the discussion did include a majority of the council pledging their support for a city-only minimum wage up to $15. Even some of those who said they would vote to block the charter amendment said they wanted Minneapolis to be the first in the state to create a higher minimum wage.

What brought about the change? Likely the popularity of the issue as exhibited by the successful signature drive — and the comments council members say they have received from residents. One council member who voted to allow the charter amendment on the ballot said he thought some on the council decided to support the staff direction because they wanted to be able to vote for a minimum wage matter after taking the vote against the charter amendment.

“This is all about inside strategy,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, adding that the charter amendment and the pressure brought by backers provided “a pinch point” where council members were forced to take some action.

The council will take final action on the charter amendment and the staff direction at its meeting Friday. David Prestwood, spokesperson for Hodges, wrote in an email that she supports higher minimum wages but prefers a national, statewide or regional minimum wage.

“She still has concerns about a Minneapolis-only approach, and awaits the study data,” Prestwood wrote.

Legal opinion prevails

Backers of the charter amendment — along with those supporting a second proposed amendment that would require police officers to purchase their own liability insurance — rallied before Wednesday’s meeting in front of city hall and inside council chambers.

“So let the people vote,” they chanted.

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After City Attorney Susan Segal wrote an opinion stating the measures were not valid charter amendments, supporters of both issues were expecting a battle, and said they were prepared to go to court to reverse an adverse decision by the council.

Jess Alexander, an organizer of the minimum wage drive, said it would be an insult to those who signed the petitions if the council doesn’t let it go to a vote. Londel French, an organizer for education support professionals of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59, said there are many local government workers who are paid less than $15 an hour.

“Let’s let the people decide,” French said. “Instead of the people from outside this community … instead of the business people who don’t live here … .”

But Segal told the council that the city charter does not allow voters to initiate ordinances, a power that does exist in cities such as Bloomington and Winona. The minimum wage issue is an ordinance disguised as a charter amendment, she said, and council members should prevent it from reaching the ballot, whether they support the underlying issue or not.

Karen Marty, a one-time city attorney advising the 15 Now effort, disagreed with Segal’s legal analysis, but a majority of the council followed the city attorney’s advice. Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who chairs the committee of the whole, said she was in the midst of the “conflict between heart and head.” She supports a higher minimum wage within the city but thinks the charter amendment process is not a legal means of getting it passed.

Council Member Jacob Frey, who has been supportive of a higher minimum wage, said he thinks a better ordinance will result if the issue passes through the council’s normal process — developing a policy via staff, public hearings, amendments and adoption. “I believe strongly that while an increase in the minimum wage is necessary … I simultaneously believe strongly that the referendum is not the mechanism to do it,” Frey said.

Council Member Andrew Johnson cited the recently adopted paid leave ordinance as an example of how they system can work. When paid leave first reached the council last fall, it would have failed to pass, he said. But after a task force took up the issue and after a council amendment process, it passed unanimously.

But some council members — and most of those in the room — weren’t convinced. One shouted that the council has had two years to take action and hasn’t. “How do you sleep at night?” asked a minimum wage supporter.

“Some people sleep in cars,” said another.

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Council Member Alondra Cano said she was comfortable voting to place the issue on the ballot. As the council’s strongest supporter of a local minimum wage, Cano said low wages are a significant problem and are related to other social issues. “The facts are there,” she said. “The issue is real. Twenty-seven percent of women in Minneapolis live in poverty. How dare we not let those women vote.”

But Cano also said she had some hope the council would act after a different process. “I appreciate their willingness to continue to walk with us in this conversation,” Cano said.

The vote to prevent the issue from reaching the ballot was 10-2, with Gordon and Cano voting no. Council Member Lisa Goodman was absent, attending a family funeral.

The vote for the staff direction, which was sponsored by Frey, Abdi Warsame and Lisa Bender, was 9-3, with Cano, Blong Yang and Linea Palmisano voting no and Gordon and Goodman absent. That vote was delayed for 30 minutes after backers disrupted the meeting with chants including “If the workers don’t get it, shut it down.” That action was triggered by the failure of a motion to table the issue, something called for by someone in the chambers.

Police insurance also blocked from ballot

The council’s action to block another charter amendment came after many of the minimum wage supporters, organized by the group 15 Now, had left.

“While we may be quieter than 15 Now, we are just as determined,” said Dave Bicking, a co-sponsor of the measure, which would require Minneapolis police officers to buy their own liability policies.

The theory behind the measure is that officers would be less likely to act in ways that would lead to claims if they risked having insurance rates increase or policies canceled.

Segal said she thinks the measure is illegal because it would contradict state law, which requires cities to defend and indemnify public employees. She said it also would conflict with the contract between the city and the police union.

Michelle Gross, another co-sponsor of the measure, said the council’s duty is ministerial and that they must move it to the ballot unless it is clearly illegal or unconstitutional. When the council voted to prevent it from getting to the ballot (on a 9-1 vote; Cano voted no, Andrew Johnson abstained, Gordon and Goodman were absent), Gross said she would see the city in court.

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After the vote, however, Londel French upbraided the council members for their vote. “I could die because of you … I’m afraid, I’m afraid when the cops pull me over,” French shouted. “They could kill me. And then the city would pay for it? I live here. They don’t even live here. It’s time for some of you to go.”

Update: Council Member Jacob Frey said he supports an increase in the minimum wage but did not say what dollar amount he supported. An earlier version of the this story said that Frey supported a $15 per hour wage.