Minneapolis voters likely will decide the fate of a single police overhaul proposal after three City Council members agreed Wednesday to withdraw their own plan to avoid confusion at the polls.
Two similar proposals asking voters to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety agency in the wake of George Floyd's death had dominated the conversation in recent months. The plans have drawn national scrutiny — and spurred strong reactions in the community — as people wait to see how the city will fulfill a promise to transform public safety amid a racial reckoning.
As the City Attorney's Office cleared the way Wednesday for a political committee's plan to land on the November ballot, Council Member Jeremy Schroeder announced that he and his colleagues wanted to "formally withdraw ours thus freeing up some of that confusion and making it much clearer for the ballot in November."
The proposals were similar but had different language regarding the role that police would play in a new agency.
Members of the political committee, Yes4Minneapolis, welcomed the news.
"It's great that there's gonna be one ballot question," said JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes4Minneapolis. "We certainly want to decrease any inkling of confusion or chaos for folks. And, for us, it's just really important for this to be clear and informed by community, making sure that community members are heard every step of the way."
The future of the Minneapolis Police Department has become the central issue in the first local elections since Floyd's killing.
Some activists argue Floyd's death was evidence that the Police Department can't be reformed and should be replaced. Others argue the proposals amount to little more than a name change and meaningful work can be done without eliminating the department.
Council members who wrote the proposal — Schroeder, Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher — had signaled in the past that they were open to withdrawing their plan if one pushed by Yes4Minneapolis was cleared for the ballot.
On Wednesday, the City Attorney's Office announced it had concluded its required review and found the Yes4Minneapolis proposal was legal.
The proposals written by the council members and Yes4Minneapolis were similar. Both asked voters to change the city charter, removing requirements to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers and requiring the city to instead have a new public safety agency.
They removed language that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations, likely granting council members additional sway over officers.
The key difference was that the council version said the new department must employ police, while the Yes4Minneapolis version says it would include police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."
A council committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed the decision to withdraw the council members' proposal, and that comes up for a final vote Friday.
Attention will then refocus on efforts to approve the precise wording that will appear on the ballot — a process that can have its own political implications.
When a group collects signatures to place an item on the ballot, as Yes4Minneapolis did, the mayor and council members work with the City Attorney's Office to determine the precise wording.
They can't change the substance of the proposal itself and are required to present the question to voters in a nonpartisan way.
If both proposals appeared on the ballot, city leaders would need to find a way to differentiate them at the polls.
In a presentation Wednesday, the City Attorney's Office suggested using the header "Department of Public Safety — Peace Officers Included If Necessary" to describe the Yes4Minneapolis proposal if there were two questions on the ballot. If only one appeared on the ballot, it suggested "Department of Public Safety."
The discussion Wednesday signaled that elected leaders' talks in the coming weeks could focus on whether to include information about state laws that govern police.
If the Yes4Minneapolis plan passes, the mayor and council members will determine police staffing levels as they vote on future budgets and write ordinances to flesh out details of the new department.
Schroeder believes the language should reflect that state law says some tasks can only be done by police officers.
"We will continue to have law enforcement," Schroeder said. "We will continue to need law enforcement in the city and that much is very clear."
Council Member Lisa Goodman pushed back: "I understand that maybe my colleagues would prefer to reinforce the fact that law enforcement isn't just kind of maybe a thing, that it will be included, but the petitioners are pretty clear that they only want it if necessary."
The city attorney's legal analysis contemplates several ways the city could provide police coverage if elected leaders determine it's necessary. The city could hire licensed officers "as employees or independent contractors" or enter into an agreement with another agency "to provide licensed peace officer services as needed."
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994