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Recurring debate: How the Minneapolis City Council’s public safety plan would alter the balance of power in City Hall

The move to shift the balance of power between the mayor and City Council  threatens to reignite a conflict over the structure of municipal government that many thought had been settled more than 30 years ago.

In 1979, the strong council, weak mayor system was still in place in Minneapolis.
In 1979, the strong council, weak mayor system was still in place in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

As the Minneapolis City Council moves ahead with its plan to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department, the controversy swirling around the effort has overshadowed a key feature of the plan, a shift in power and authority away from the mayor and toward the 13-member council. The City Council plan would strip the mayor of much of his authority to oversee public safety functions, a role granted to him by the Minneapolis City Charter.

The charter language now empowers the mayor to establish rules and regulations for the MPD and to appoint the police chief to a three-year term, subject to council confirmation. Those powers would be eliminated under the council’s plan to replace the MPD with a new Department of Community Safety, an effort strongly opposed by Mayor Jacob Frey.

The move to alter the balance of power in City Hall threatens to reignite a longstanding conflict over the structure of municipal government that many local observers thought had been settled more than 30 years ago.

A century ago, the council had more power

The origins of the conflict extend back to the start of the 20th century, when a self-appointed group of civic reformers attempted to establish a strong mayor system for Minneapolis, replacing the existing system, which gave the City Council virtually unchecked authority to oversee most local government functions. The initial strong mayor plans, and later efforts like it, were rebuffed by the council and its supporters, who kept fighting off attempts to rein in the council’s powers.

By 1979, when former Fifth District Rep. Don Fraser was elected mayor, the strong council, weak mayor system was still in place. During his first two years in office, Fraser was increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as efforts by the council to limit his authority. Fraser thought he had worked out an informal power sharing arrangement with City Council leaders in 1981 by creating a new City Hall leadership group. The group, known as the Executive Committee, was composed of Fraser, City Council President Alice Rainville and three additional council members. But during his later terms, Fraser found that that his role on the Executive Committee was often undercut by the four council members who were able to out vote him.

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The Fraser amendment: subtle but significant

In 1989 Fraser proposed an amendment to the city charter that made a subtle but significant change in the mayor’s role on the Executive Committee. Fraser’s amendment stated that the mayor would continue to recommend city department head appointments, including the appointment of the police chief, to the Executive Committee, as he had done after the committee was first established. The Executive Committee, in turn, could forward these recommendations to the full council for a confirmation vote.

Don Fraser
Minnesota Historical Society
Don Fraser
Under Fraser’s charter language, the Executive Committee could vote up or down the mayor’s recommendation, but the group could not substitute a name other than the one proposed by the mayor. In effect, the charter amendment enabled the mayor to control the department-head selection process. If the Executive Committee was displeased with the mayor’s nomination, it could only stand by and wait to receive a name that was more to its liking. While the mayor did not have the direct power to fire a department head at will, he did have the power to refuse to recommend reappointment of that person at the end of the official’s term on the job.

This Fraser plan was opposed by council members, who saw it has another, more camouflaged attempt to dilute their power. Led by Ninth Ward Council Member Tony Scallon, the council drafted its own competing charter amendment, which would have weakened rather the strengthened the authority of the Executive Committee. This time, Fraser prevailed. In the 1989 city election, which saw him re-elected to a fourth term, Fraser’s amendment was approved with 60% of the vote. Scallon’s competing amendment lost by a margin of nearly two to one.

‘The mayor controls their fate’

Looking back at his 14 years in City Hall, Fraser noted that he got much of what he wanted in the way of charter reform. “The mayor does have the power of appointment, even if it is indirect. There is a public perception that we have a weak mayor system, but people can’t tell me what that means,” Fraser said. Former 12th Ward Council Member Dennis Schulstad agreed. “The mayor has immense power in Minneapolis,” said Schulstad, who gave up his 12th Ward council seat in 1997. “Every department head in City Hall knows that the mayor controls their fate, so they are going to pay attention to what he says. It may not look that way, but we really have a strong major system.”

During its 30-year history, the low profile Executive Committee has generally worked well. But its smooth functioning requires close collaboration between the mayor and the council’s leaders. Now, in 2020, as efforts to overhaul the city’s public safety system continue to roil City Hall and disrupt the status quo, it remains to be seen whether collaboration, rather than conflict, will continue to characterize the relationship between Minneapolis’ chief executive and the 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council.