Election 2021: Minneapolis City Question 1, the “Strong Mayor” charter amendment

Here’s the question as it will appear on the ballot:

CITY QUESTION 1 (Minneapolis)

Government Structure: Executive Mayor – Legislative Council

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to adopt a change in its form of government to an Executive Mayor-Legislative Council structure to shift certain powers to the Mayor, consolidating administrative authority over all operating departments under the Mayor, and eliminating the Executive Committee?

There is no explanatory note.

tl;dr: I would vote no.

This might actually be a good idea — there are clearly some actual city workers who think it would be a good idea — but I do not trust the people running the campaign for it and I really do not trust the timing.

Minneapolis’s charter was adopted in 1920, so (if I’m understanding this time line correctly) it’s been this way for literally a hundred years, and it’s this year the question of mayoral power suddenly needs to be dealt with? What it looks like to me is that the charter commission, which a year ago deliberately slow-walked the public safety charter amendment to keep it off the 2020 ballot, put this on the ballot for the primary purpose of making the case that it’s a problem to have city department heads reporting to the City Council as well as the mayor, since that’s how the Public Safety department will operate.

“But why would that be a problem when every other department works that way?” — well, now that’s a problem they’re trying to fix!

The people pushing for it are all of my least-favorite people in city government, plus a number of my least-favorite former members of city government (such as Sharon Sayles-Belton). My current favorite ex-mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, has pointedly not taken a stance other than to note that right now, the Police Department is the one department that reports solely to the mayor, how’s that looking to people? If RT Rybak, who managed to annoy the hell out of me by the end of his time in office but who I generally liked better than I like Jacob, has taken a stance on it, I’ve missed it.

If it weren’t literally being pushed as a package with “don’t pass the public safety charter amendment” and “re-elect Jacob Frey” I would probably be more inclined to seriously consider it. But under the circumstances: I would vote no.

The examples I’ve seen of the problems created by the current system are all annoying yet minor stuff like a duplication of effort while hosting the Super Bowl. Whereas with the one department actually controlled by the mayor, the City Council would like to ban or constrain the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets, and they can’t. They do get to approve the settlements with people horrifically injured by them, though.

(Another more-substantial argument against it is that it takes control away from the under-represented areas of Minneapolis and gives more control to the already-well-represented Southwest corner. And that’s also a good argument. But “it’s being pushed incredibly hard by all the people I trust the least” — it’s not that one group pushing it is terrible. It’s that all the groups and individuals I most loathe and distrust are pushing it. The Downtown Council really wants this. The least progressive City Council reps really want this. The people demanding that Minneapolis continue to submit to abusive policing really want this. So yeah, absolutely not, and my apologies to the frustrated city workers, who have legitimate reasons to find the current structure really irritating.)

ETA: I remembered seeing someone talk about how the proposed new structure was nothing like St. Paul’s setup. Here’s an opinion piece from two former City Council reps plus a former mayoral aide that goes into that in more detail. From the piece:

Currently, since executive authority is shared in our hybrid system, city staff must be responsive to all elected officials. But this extreme proposal would change the charter to say that council members may “seek information or assistance” but only “with the Mayor’s consent or in a manner that the Mayor arranges.”

Contrary to proponents’ claims, this goes far beyond what exists in St. Paul. Intended or not, it constitutes a license for bullying and favoritism by the mayor. For the first time in our history, the mayor would have the power — legally — to direct staff to be responsive to allied council members and less responsive (or unresponsive) to the mayor’s opponents. Voters should reject Question 1 on that basis alone.

ETA #2: RT Rybak has now come out in favor of Question 1. I am, tbh, a lot more convinced by his policy aide’s stance than his.

Did you know that I had a book released this April? Chaos on CatNet is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and takes place in a future Minneapolis. Signed copies are usually available from Dreamhaven and from the current mail-order-only incarnation of Uncle Hugo’s. Books make great holiday gifts, but should be ordered early this year — Tubby & Coo’s bookstore explains why.

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded. My readers have now helped buy a refrigerator for the school nurse at Olson Middle School, outfitted 8th grade Algebra students at Olson Middle School with binders to stay organized, bought a 3-D printer for students at Humboldt high school in St. Paul, equipped a classroom at Whittier with an air purifier, bought a pug mill (a clay mixer that allows you to reuse dried-out clay) for art students at Andersen United, bought copies of We Are Not From Here for North High students to read in 9th grade English class, provided a book/curriculum set to students at Green Elementary that would thoroughly upset a lot of pearl-clutching Republicans, and funded snacks for kids at Jefferson and Lucy Laney. Here are some other worthwhile fundraisers for high-poverty Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools:

A first-year teacher at Bryn Mawr would like a variety of classroom supplies, including individual dry-erase boards, a big easel, a classroom rug, a selection of books, and some educational games.

Two elementary teachers at  Folwell would like help providing a mid-morning snack to their students.

Two science teachers at Washington Technology high school in St. Paul would like learning materials for their chemistry classes: glassware and microscopes, and equipment that will allow students to “see how adding nanoparticles to a conductive solution affects voltage.”

And a different kind of school fundraiser:

Kaytie Kamphoff is a special education resource teacher at Patrick Henry High School and the co-director/producer of Henry Drama Club. (Christopher Michael is her co-director and their full-time theater and dance teacher.) She initially asked for funds on Twitter just so the Henry Drama Club could stage a couple of plays this year. Ms. Kamphoff has now set her sights higher: she’s hoping to raise enough to run a summer theater program for Northside kids, free for participants, paid for the recent grads/Drama Club alums who work. You can donate to her by Venmo or Paypal: Venmo is Henry_DC and PayPal is Kaytie.Kamphoff@gmail.com. Note “Henry Drama Club” in the memo and if Paypal insists you need the last four digits of her phone number, it’s 5548.

Her Twitter thread is solidly worth reading if you’d like some heartwarming stories of the transformational power of theater in the lives of high school students.


10 thoughts on “Election 2021: Minneapolis City Question 1, the “Strong Mayor” charter amendment

  1. So what would happen if both amendment 1 and 2 pass? Would the Department of Public Safety report to City Council and all other departments report to the Mayor? (basically the opposite of the current system)

  2. I’m a little sad that this post doesn’t live up to the high standards I’ve come to expect from your work. It barely analyzes any of pros and cons of the actual policy, it only discusses the politics of the supporters. While that may be one minor thing to consider, it’s certainly not the most (or indeed, the only) important thing.

    That said, I’m still extremely grateful for all of the effort that you put into these posts every election.

    • I mean, I tried to figure out what case the proponents of this bill are making for it and came up mostly empty-handed, which did not make me think, “if only I keep digging I will definitely find the GOOD arguments.”

      • Fair enough. But I was under the impression that many (most?) other large American cities (including St Paul) use a similar strong mayor system. So if that’s the case, then it isn’t enough for me to write it off just because people I don’t like are in favor of it.

      • There was an analysis I saw, and then couldn’t re-find, comparing the proposed system to St. Paul’s and saying it wasn’t actually the same. When I went looking for it again, all I could find were 8 gazillion iterations of people I don’t trust saying it’s going to be just like St. Paul’s.

  3. I also thank you for all the work you do on all the municipal races.

    But your piece on Question 1 somehow completely missed WHY the Charter Commission unanimously recommended it. It’s not a conspiracy. They interviewed a lot of current and former City employees and found that Council members’ interference (my word) in departments led to confusion; conflicting directions and requests; and a high rate of turnover in administrators.

    Also, the St. Paul city structure and that of most or all cities of comparable size DOES have what Q1 would produce, viz. an executive Mayor-legislative Council government. No other city has the Minneapolis model.

  4. I agree with you that it’s being pushed by groups I disagree with, and that’s bothersome.. but I’ve been advocating for Minneaoplis to abandon the weak mayor system for years… long before Frey. I find it useful to look at some of the old coverage on our weak mayor system, because I feel Frey has been a distraction on this issue. https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2013/08/minneapolis-weak-mayor-system-does-it-really-matter-who-gets-elected/

    I actually don’t think the problem is just “too many bosses” as some characterize the proponents. At least… it is not descriptive of how I feel. Instead I feel that the progressiveness of Minneapolis in totality (mayor AND council) is hampered by the current structure. And worse, we are less able to be an influential progressive voice in Minnesota and beyond, and less able to advocate for our city at the state level. When the mayor is only a figurehead, only really charismatic personalities can be at all effective, and I think we could use some quieter policy wonk types, too.

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