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Minneapolis commission hands setback to group seeking dramatic charter changes

A move to amend the Minneapolis City Charter suffered a setback Wednesday when a unanimous City Charter Commission required petititions to carry the exact wording of the proposed changes, not a short summary.

Power by the People, a self-described political action committee, wants to downsize the number of city wards from 13 to 7 and establish council term limits. It also wants department heads and Planning Commission members elected rather than appointed.

The group is planning a petition drive to place its proposed charter changes on the ballot this fall.

Rachel Nelson, attorney for Power by the People, told the commission that the technical language of the changes is “not something the lay person on the street is going to understand.” She would prefer a 50- to 300-word summary of the amendment be attached to the petition.

It all comes down to how you count words and read the state statute that requires the “text of the proposed amendment in full,” except when the language exceeds 1,000 words.”  In those cases, a summary is allowed. That wording would be written by the Charter Commission.

“The state Legislature wants people who might sign a petition to amend the city charter to see every single word,” said Assistant City Attorney Burt T. Osborne as he disagreed with Nelson. Osborne says the state statute is very clear in its requirements; Nelson finds its provisions unclear.

The amendment for reducing the number of city wards would make each one slightly smaller than a Senate district. The city currently contains six Senate districts.

Under the plan, current department heads would stand for election, including the police chief, city attorney and city coordinator, who would serve four-year terms.
The mayor would be limited to two four-year terms, while City Council members would be limited to two two-year terms.

Likewise, the 14-member Planning Commission would be elected, and members could serve two two-year terms.

The dispute over word count has the charter commission and Osborne lined up against Nelson and Power by the People.
“You don’t count all of the words on the paper,” says Commission Chair Barry Clegg, but just the words that are being changed.  By that count, the proposed amendment contains fewer than 1,000 words, thus requiring inclusion of the full text.

“We’re not taking this as the final word,” said Nelson after the meeting. She described the amendment as an attempt at “re-establishing accountability” in city government.  An earlier amendment proposal by the group would have reduced the council to five wards.

Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota associate professor of political science, disputes the idea that term limits establish accountability, as claimed by Nelson.

Citing a California study of legislative term limits, Pearson says they do little to produce policy experts or create diversity within an elected body. She said the short terms and rapid turnover create governing groups with less experience than those without term limits.

She also said term limits tend to increase the power of the executive branch, as well as of  lobbyists, who do not stand for election.

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