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Swimming rules? Bread weights? Minneapolis’ arcane City Charter provisions due for a makeover

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The Minneapolis City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the “plain language” charter for 9 a.m. Friday in Room 317 of City Hall.

If you decided you wanted to swim across Cedar Lake, it would take a vote of the citizens of Minneapolis to make that legally possible.

If your kid wants to float on the lake aboard an air mattress? Sorry. That’s against the rules outlined in the Minneapolis City Charter.

And don’t even think about scuba diving in a city lake. That’s also prohibited by the charter, and it takes a ballot question and a vote of the people to change it.

Most of the laws governing life in Minneapolis are outlined in ordinance form and can be changed by members of the City Council or the Park and Recreation Board. Not so with the charter.

This fall Minneapolis voters will be asked to adopt — or reject — a new “plain language” charter that eliminates many obsolete rules or laws that could become ordinances, instead of Articles that are currently in the charter.

Barry Clegg

“Our goal is not to do anything significant about the way the city is governed,” said Barry Clegg, who chairs the Charter Commission.

The Minneapolis City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the “plain language” charter for 9 a.m. Friday in Room 317 of City Hall.

The “plain language” charter did not happen overnight. The Charter Commission had been working on the changes for 11 years, through 13 revisions and countless partial drafts.

The current charter is 200 pages, which Clegg says is longer than the Minnesota and U.S. constitutions combined. The new charter is 60 pages.

Gone from the new charter are the definitions of joggers and walkers. A jogger moves “at a rate of speed such that both feet are at intervals not in contract with the ground.”  A walker, according to the charter, always has one foot on the ground. It would take a vote of the people to change those definitions.

The current charter has been revised 100 times, according to Clegg, either by a vote of the people or by the requirement that the document conform to state law.

In 1971, the Minnesota Legislature created the Constitution Study Commission, which recommended an amendment restructuring the constitution for easy references and re-writing it in modern language.

At the time, the Minnesota Constitution had some language problems of its own. Canada, for example, was referred to as the “northernly British possession,” according to Clegg.

The amendment calling for a “plain language” Minnesota Constitution was on the ballot in 1974 and passed by a vote of 815,064 to 311,781. There are many state statutes that require “plain language” to be used in all official state documents.

What voters will find on the ballot this fall, in terms of charter changes, are two amendments. Both call for “plain language” revisions, but they are separated by topic.

The amendment dealing with liquor requires a 55 percent vote, while the remainder of the revisions requires only a simple majority.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity in the current City Charter,” said Clegg. “If anything was ambiguous, we left it ambiguous.”

So far, the “plain language” charter has been reviewed by the City Council, the Park and Recreation Board, the city attorney and the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

What other arcane stuff is in the charter?

The slaughtering of horses, for example, is prohibited in the city charter. And don’t get any fancy ideas about serving horsemeat to your friends as a main course, unless your friends are cats and dogs. The consumption of horsemeat by humans is prohibited by the charter.

And every loaf of bread sold in Minneapolis that weighs more or less than one pound is in violation of the current charter. Bread sellers are required to keep scales handy for customers to assure themselves they are getting a proper pound of bread. Bread that does not comply with this law can be confiscated and donated to the “poor of the city.”

This bread provision does not apply, as stated in the charter, to “crackers, pretzels, biscuits, buns, scones, rolls or loaves of fancy bread.”

“All of that stuff is gone,” said Clegg.

If adopted this fall, the new “plain language” charter would go into effect in January 2015.

 This gives the City Council and the Park and Recreation Board one year to transfer control of lake swimmers, joggers, horsemeat sales and bread production to ordinance form or, in the words of Clegg, “fall by the wayside.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by James Samuell on 08/01/2013 - 10:16 am.

    Links?

    A link to the proposed plain language charter would be a helpful addition to this article.

    http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@clerk/documents/webcontent/wcms1p-109178.pdf

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