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Why it only took 120 years for Minneapolis to adopt a ‘strong mayor’ system

Kathy O’Brien, a leader of the pro-strong mayor organization Charter for Change, says the Minneapolis Charter Commission deserves much of the credit for the historic change. 

Minneapolis City Hall circa 1899
Minneapolis City Hall circa 1899
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The plan developed by the Minneapolis Charter Commission was ambitious.

In an effort to revamp the city’s fragmented governing system, the plan tilted the balance of power in City Hall away from the City Council and towards the mayor. But the complex proposal had its critics. In the end, it was rejected in a citywide referendum.

The year was 1900.

Following that year’s defeat, reformers tried again to push Minneapolis towards a strong mayor system in 1904, 1906, 1907 and 1913. But each time, they were rebuffed by the city’s voters. Finally, in 1920, with the city still under the thumb of the state Legislature when it came to charter revisions, civic leaders merely codified the existing fragmented system into a new charter and presented it to the voters. The plan did not reform City Hall governance but it did, at least, give Minneapolis home rule, enabling the city to make future charter changes without first seeking state legislative approval.

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Finally, that plan did pass muster with the voters and was adopted.

Until this year, the 1920 charter, with its blurred lines of authority between the council and the mayor, defined this city’s municipal government. But now, after more than 120 years of failed efforts, Minneapolis voters, by approving Question 1 on November 2, acted decisively to clearly differentiate the powers of the mayor from those of the City Council.

Under this charter change, the mayor now becomes a true chief executive with authority to appoint all department heads, oversee city operations, and propose the city budget. The City Council will continue to provide constituent assistance, define city services, and conduct financial and program audits. The Council will also retain its current authority to confirm or reject mayoral appointments, and amend and approve the city budget.

Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Mayor Jacob Frey
Newly re-elected Mayor Jacob Frey heralded this historic change, calling it “one of the most important parts of the entire election,” in an interview with the Star Tribune. “It will allow us to have a delineation of who is in charge, and I think that’ll also push back in a lot of the silly disagreements we have seen in the last year and a half,” Frey said.

In the face of past failed efforts, the success of this year’s charter reform campaign was due in large part to a shift in the city’s political dynamics — particularly with the rise of crime and public safety as a preeminent concern of city voters.

An editorial cartoon depicting Mayor Don Fraser as Napoleon
Minnesota Historical Society
An editorial cartoon depicting Mayor Don Fraser as Napoleon
In the past, particularly in the 1980s when Don Fraser was mayor, the City Council pushed back strongly against any move it viewed as diminishing its authority and enhancing that of the mayor. In 1988, when Fraser tried to make the mayor the president of the Council, he was denounced for trying to become “a dictator” and foisting a “Napoleon style” of government on Minneapolis, according to Council Member Walt Dziedzic. Fraser’s 1988 effort failed, but he came back the next year with a subtler plan to more clearly define the mayor’s role on a hybrid body known as the Executive Committee. Even this milder plan was rejected by the Council and the Charter Commission, however, forcing Fraser to gather petitions in order to get his plan on the city ballot. In 1989, Fraser succeeded in winning voter approval for his plan, which enhanced the power of the mayor to some extent but retained the blurred lines of authority in the 1920 charter. 

Skip forward to 2021. The current Charter Commission — rather than resisting reform, as it did in 1980s — has taken the lead in developing the current strong mayor plan. While the amendment drew criticisms from some council members, those criticisms were much more muted than they had been during the Fraser era, and three of the Council Members re-elected on Nov 2 — Linea Palmisano, Lisa Goodman and Andrea Jenkins — actually supported the amendment. Palmisano was particularly enthusiastic, telling the Minneapolis League of Women Voters: “This amendment is exactly the clarity and accountability that Minneapolis deserves.”  

In the absence of a strong “vote no” voice coming from City Hall, opposition to the amendment was left to the most fervent supporters of Question 2, the public safety amendment, who frame the opposition to Question 1 as an issue of social justice. The advocacy group ISAIAH told its supporters to reject Question 1 because it said a strong mayor system “moves us backward in our work toward a fully multiracial democracy. The mayor’s race, as a citywide election, is decided disproportionately by wealthier, whiter voters and neighborhoods who turn out to vote in much higher numbers. Each ward has its own city council member who is more directly accountable to their neighborhood.” 

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By trying to link opposition to Question 1 with support for Question 2, advocates misjudged the mood of the voters, who decisively rejected Question 2.

Kathy O’Brien, a leader of the pro-strong mayor organization Charter for Change, maintains that public safety concerns helped build support for charter reform. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring about real change,” O’Brien said. “During the last year, we had a trifecta of crises in Minneapolis, the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic and a mounting crime wave. I think these crises made people realize that we needed to overhaul our municipal structure to deal with the very serious issues facing the city. Voters realized that our disjointed governance system wasn’t working. They recognized that Question 1 could provide some much-needed remedies.

Kathy O’Brien
Kathy O’Brien
“The Charter Commission deserves much of the credit for this historic change,” O’Brien went on to say. “The Commission spent a lot of time and effort coming up with a plan that could clarify and streamline the lines of authority in City Hall. It came in for a lot of criticism for taking this bold step, but its members persevered.”

Jeff Schneider, another Charter for Change activist, agreed. “The Commission was finally able to remedy the flaw in the 1920 charter that has caused so much dysfunction in City Hall. In the 1940s, Mayor Humphrey tried but failed to eliminate the flaw. My former boss, Mayor Fraser, tried but was only partially successful. I’m confident that both of them would be pleased with the outcome on November 2.”