Minneapolis' elected officials are publicly debating how they should best refine a new form of government approved by voters last fall — and how they should make sure they're not overstepping their wishes.
It's been nearly a year since Minneapolis voters approved a major change designating the mayor as the "chief executive" responsible for overseeing the city's daily operations. In the coming weeks, City Council members will vote on an ordinance aimed at clarifying how that new system might function.
Mayor Jacob Frey has pitched a plan to build a cabinet that includes four high-ranking staffers to help him oversee departments' daily operations, including a new community safety commissioner tasked with coordinating police and civilian employees.
City Council members pitched their own changes in a committee meeting Tuesday, debating whether they should play a greater role in selecting department leaders, combine more safety services or change language designating the mayor as a chief spokesman for the city. Some raised questions about whether the proposal oversteps the voters' wishes.
"I want to note the city government right now has limited credibility with working-class people and the last thing we need to do is to give the impression that we will misconstrue or contort the mandates that the voters give us," Council Member Robin Wonsley said as she unveiled four amendments, most of which were defeated by narrow margins.
The debate about how to best run the city has the potential to dramatically affect the quality of the services that residents receive. Many elected officials and some city staff have described it as among the most significant proposals they expect to work on during their time in Minneapolis.
"We have had much challenge, much trauma, much tragedy in the life of the city of Minneapolis over the past few years and I think these actions will help us, set us on the course of moving forward and progressing as a city," Council President Andrea Jenkins said near the end of the committee meeting.
The proposal overhauling Minneapolis city government was written by the court-appointed Charter Commission. It designated the mayor as the "chief executive" who must "direct and supervise" most city departments. It prohibits council members from interfering with the mayor's directions and designates them as the legislators responsible for writing ordinances, making policies and performing some oversight functions.
Supporters said the change was crucial for avoiding the sort of political logjams that hampered the city's response to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest that followed George Floyd's murder. Critics said they feared it would limit council members' ability to push through needed changes, particularly if their views didn't align with those of the mayor. Voters approved the change in November, with roughly 52% voting in favor and 48% against.
After the election, Frey convened a task force to help him decide how to run the new form of government. He then pitched a plan to create a cabinet with four high-ranking staffers who would help him oversee the city's 20-some departments. Central to that plan was the hiring of a community safety commissioner to oversee the leaders of police, fire, 911, emergency management and violence prevention programs.
During Tuesday's meeting, some council members suggested violence prevention programs should be housed elsewhere in the city to ensure they aren't consumed by the culture of other departments focused on emergency response. They were outvoted by others who suggested the programs should be part of a new community safety office to ensure effective collaboration.
Some council members suggested they should approve all departments heads, as opposed to just some. Some wanted to give race-equity programming its own space in the mayor's cabinet. Some worried about designating the mayor as a spokesman for the city, noting that council members and the mayor sometimes disagree. By the end of the meeting, council members had approved just two amendments: One making technical changes aimed at fixing errors in the draft, and another placing employees in the city's Office of Performance and Innovation in their own department, which would report to a chief operations officer.
Frey thanked council members for their work on the proposal and pushed back on criticism, saying he had worked with city attorneys and the clerk's staff to ensure his proposal complied with the change voters approved.
"We have an executive mayor. We have a legislative council. That question has already been determined," he said, adding that this step is about ensuring that system works well.
Residents can provide feedback in a public hearing Oct. 18. The council is aiming to take a final vote in late October or November, before it signs off on next year's budget plan.