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Minneapolis Council takes a new approach in passing city’s 2017 budget: getting along

For anyone who had sat through previous budget adoption meetings, Wednesday night offered an unusual sight: an attempt by council to try cooperation over confrontation. 

Something emerged on Wednesday night that was missing in 2014 and 2015: an unspoken intent by council members to try cooperation over confrontation.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

This year’s edition of the Minneapolis City Council’s budget adoption meeting looked like it might be just as ugly as it was in 2014 and 2015.

A vocal segment of the city strongly opposed one of the council’s spending decisions, and felt they weren’t being heard in City Hall. Any shift in spending would have to be offset by possibly controversial cuts. And council members had already expressed fundamental disagreements with each other over an emotional issue — how to police the city.

In both of the previous years, those elements had led to protests, and to hours of passionate and personal testimony from the public. It had also led to equally passionate and personal debate among the city’s 13 council members.

Yet something emerged on Wednesday night that was missing in 2014 and 2015: an unspoken intent by council members to try cooperation over confrontation. The result was a relatively calm and relatively quick process that saw most members win support for their priorities. And after unanimous approval of nearly all of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ $1.3 billion spending proposal (and 5.5 percent property tax levy hike), after an evening when “no” votes were a rarity, it was clear the Minneapolis City Council had taken a different path. They had decided to get along.

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Or as council vice president Elizabeth Glidden joked at meeting’s end: “We’re arriving at a place where we’re going to go home and maybe not cry so much on the way out.”

A brief history of council conflict

That’s not to say that community tensions have disappeared, or that the council doesn’t reflect the conflicting approaches toward resolving those tensions. In 2014, the council clashed over a move to reduce the city’s property tax levy by reducing some of Hodges’ equity initiatives. Activists dubbed the relatively small cut in the proposed levy as the “latte levy” — partly because it approximated the price of a latte — and partly because it was seen as favoring wealthier residents.

Last year, with emotions still raw over the police shooting of Jamar Clark and the dismantling of a protest camp at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th precinct, conflict erupted over a last minute move to pay for repairs to that same precinct. The secrecy around those improvements allowed some activists to fear that they were meant to fortify the Plymouth Avenue station.

This year, the most inflammatory budget item was again related to the MPD: Hodges’ request to add 15 police officers to the city force. Twelve of those would be precinct-based officers, while three would be part of a pilot project to team specially trained officers with mental health experts. As part of the budget, Hodges has also continued to fund ongoing programs to try to change the culture of the department via training in crisis-intervention, implicit bias and procedural justice.

The budget also contains $1 million for a new initiative called collaborative public safety, which brings communities into a process of deciding public safety strategies and priorities.

But any new investment in a police department seen by some as expanding a hostile presence — especially in neighborhoods with large numbers of people of color — was decried as the wrong approach. A public hearing last week brought out residents who thought reforms should precede investment in more cops. Police, they said, don’t make these communities feel safer, and more cops would just as likely make them feel less safe.

At the budget markup meeting last Friday, three council members offered an amendment to shift three of the new officer positions in the police department to civilian staff in the health department. There, they would focus on domestic violence and youth violence prevention and intervention.

Glidden said she expected the amendment to fail. She was right. But it also provoked an emotional disagreement over crime rates, police response times and the sense in many neighborhoods of growing criminality.

Adding cops, it was argued, helps the police become better acquainted with those they police, and newly hired cops could help diversify the force.

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Before the vote, Glidden thanked her colleagues for a debate that was “for the most part respectful” (only twice was her proposal called “ridiculous”). And the relatively civil tone at the markup not only set the tone for the rest of the process, but made it likely that it wouldn’t be repeated on budget night, when police critics would be present.

And though a scolding by Council President Barbara Johnson of Council Member Alondra Cano over what Johnson saw as inaccuracies regarding Cano’s comments about the 4th precinct could have carried over to the final meeting, it didn’t. Cano didn’t respond, and the issue was not mentioned again.

A Wednesday surprise?

In both 2014 and 2015, the issues that sparked the tumultuous meetings broke late, turning what were expected to be mostly routine council meetings into battles. And the obvious question heading into Wednesday’s night meeting was: Would it happen again?

At the meeting, after nearly 90 minutes of public testimony — much of it pointed, some of it angry, all of it civil — council members went to work. Amendments were offered to increase the help the city provides small businesses; to fund those new domestic violence and youth violence workers; to support interventions that would help sex workers; to keep funding a GED completion program; to begin experimenting with “participatory budgeting” that involves residents in crafting city spending priorities; and to boost the staffing in the Civil Rights Department to respond to feared increases in hate speech and hate crimes. All were endorsed by council.

Many of the add-ons fit into what is sometimes called Safety Beyond Policing — non-police outreach and interventions to prevent or limit the impact of crime.

At one point, when Council Member Alondra Cano was trying to craft language to support the move to help sex workers escape the streets, Ways and Means Chairman John Quincy and Council Member Jacob Frey suggested they meet quickly in the room behind the chamber to craft a solution. Cano and Frey working together was noticeable, given they had been on the opposite side of the budget wars of 2014 and 2015.

Later, when Frey quipped that this was a “back-room deal” he could get behind, Glidden gently scolded him for the use of the phrase. But the point was made: collaborating and winning was much better than fighting and losing.

Activists who stuck around after the public testimony portion of the meeting got their own victory. Police funding wasn’t reduced — it wasn’t even discussed — but there was a successful call for the city to begin to divest from banks that fund oil and gas projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. Again, Cano worked with Frey to craft the language, which didn’t mention one of the city’s largest employers, Wells Fargo, but did allow Cano to cite the big bank as one of many that might face a future decision by the city to work with other banks – perhaps even a publicly owned institution.

Passage of the measure brought one of the few demonstrations from those in attendance: applause.

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New rules not needed

Perhaps in anticipation of another meeting marked with angry testimony and frequent interruptions, the council had begun the previous day to rewrite its rules governing decorum at meetings. The current rule says only that all those in attendance “shall conduct themselves with decorum and shall not disrupt the proceedings.”

That language will be replaced with a list of seven do-not-dos: don’t speak until recognized by the council president; speak only to the president and not to other council members or staff; use proper titles and last names when referring to elected officials; avoid personal accusations, profanity and “other improper conduct”; don’t exhibit “intimidating behaviors, threats of hostility, or actual violence”; avoid “audible demonstrations of approval or disapproval”: don’t display signs or banners in ways that endanger others or blocks their view or movement within the chamber.

The pending rule allows the president to order people to “cease the conduct,” order them removed if they refuse or clear the room if necessary.

All of those activities — save the “actual violence” — could have been seen in council chambers in 2014 and 2015. Yet while the new rules are set to be adopted Friday, and wouldn’t have been in effect Wednesday, they would not have been needed.  

Hodges gets a victory

The city’s budget process is one place in the city charter where the mayor has the dominant role. Despite all of the successful amendments, the bulk of any budget is what the mayor proposed back in August. And as is council tradition, the mayor gets the last word from her seat on the council dais.

Last year, it was a struggle. This year it was something of a victory lap.

“It’s not just ‘law enforcement’ in the 21st Century. It’s ‘public safety,’” Hodges said, “And we all have a role to play in that: community, law enforcement, elected leaders, all of us.

“We have changed the center of gravity on how we think about public safety.”