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Why the reappointment of Minneapolis’ city attorney almost became a thing

Susan Segal is called on to issue legal opinions on sometimes controversial questions facing the mayor and city council. 

Susan Segal is sometimes called on to issue legal opinions on questions facing the mayor and the city council.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The renomination of Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal will officially go before the city council’s Enterprise Committee … eventually.

But while the committee waits for that to happen, it held a public hearing this week to see what residents think about Segal keeping her in the job she’s held since 2008.

Most of those who showed up on Thursday thought Mayor Jacob Frey’s decision to renominate her was a good idea. Illustrative of the support was John Turnipseed, the executive vice president of Urban Ventures, which works with at-risk youth. He told the committee he’s never endorsed a city attorney before. “Most of my life I, and people that I know, didn’t have a good relationship with the city attorney’s office,” Turnipseed said Thursday. “But Susan has changed that.”

Mary Moriarty, the chief public defender for Hennepin County who often goes up against Segal’s municipal court prosecutors, praised Segal’s work on criminal justice reform, while Jolene Jones, president of Little Earth of United Tribes, said Segal was the first city attorney the tribal organization had a working relationship with. “She has engaged our community,” Jones said.

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Saanii Hernandez, vice president of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, praised Segal’s work combating sex trafficking. And Javier Morillo, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 26, touted Segal’s successful defense of the city’s mandatory paid leave and a local minimum wage ordinances.

Even Former Council Member Elizabeth Glidden made an appearance, coming back to city hall to urge support for Segal’s reappointment. “I haven’t always agreed with Susan,” said Glidden. “But sometimes the beauty of how we come to respect someone is when you look at the body of their works as a whole and you see all the work they have done. I have all the respect in the world for her as a lawyer and a person.”

What’s not to like?

But there were a few people who don’t think reappointing Segal is such a good idea — opinions largely based on some of the city attorney’s past legal opinions and on the way path that the nomination did (and then didn’t) make its way to the council.

Segal is sometimes called on to issue legal opinions on questions facing the mayor and the city council. While officials can ignore those opinions, it would put a strain on the city attorney to defend actions that went counter to her legal advice. With controversial decisions, then, the council has often gone along the city attorney’s opinion while being accused of using Segal as cover.

It was a trio of Segal’s opinions that was the focus of opposition on Thursday. Chuck Turchick complained about an opinion issued by Segal years ago that former Police Chief Tim Dolan did not act improperly when he failed to take action in police discipline cases after disputing the facts gathered by the Civilian Review Board.

Dave Bicking, who co-founded Citizens United Against Police Brutality, disagreed with a Segal opinion from 2016 that said a charter amendment proposed by Bicking — to require police officers to purchase their own liability insurance — should not be placed on the ballot because the subject matter was preempted by state law. The district court later agreed with Segal’s analysis.

Bicking also pointed to a controversial opinion Segal produced in 2012 — that the council’s approval of state legislation that used city taxes to pay for a big chunk of the Vikings stadium did not violate a city charter provision that capped stadium funding at $10 million. (Our Revolution Twin Cities has also made replacing Segal one of its priorites for the new council.)

A procedural flaw 

Bicking further argued that since the matter isn’t legally before the council the hearing shouldn’t have been held. In fact, it was Bicking who pointed out the procedural flaw in how the nomination was handled by the city’s executive committee, a flaw that has required the scheduling of a revote.  

Under the Minneapolis city charter mayors appoint a list of department heads that are listed in the charter. Those appointments then go to the executive committee, which is chaired by the mayor but also contains four council members.

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Nominations must be forwarded to the city council by the executive committee. But when Segal’s appointment reached the committee on Feb. 20, there were only four members present. Two voted to send her nomination forward, and two abstained. The city clerk erroneously thought those two votes were enough to move the nomination; only later did he remember that the executive committee is required by charter to have at least three votes on any matter.

Rather than cancel Wednesday’s public hearing, though, City Clerk Casey Carl recommended that it go ahead since public notice had been posted. But because the Enterprise Committee didn’t really have Segal’s name before it, it couldn’t vote on her nomination. Instead, it kept the public hearing open until a special meeting can be held next Wednesday at 1:15 p.m. By theory, another special meeting — this one on Monday — will have been held and officially and legally and actually sent Segal’s name to the committee.

Got it?

Council vice president and executive committee member Andrea Jenkins, who missed last week’s meeting, said she would vote yes on moving the nomination forward, so if, as expected, Mayor Frey and Council President Lisa Bender vote yes again, there will be three votes.

Interest in the nomination is high among council members. While there are six council members on the Enterprise Committee, four additional council members attended, as did Frey.