A new political committee pushing a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department accused city officials of including "politically charged language" alongside a question that could appear before voters this November.
Yes4Minneapolis, the group that gathered signatures to place a public safety question on the ballot, said it has concerns about an explanatory note that city leaders want to attach to it.
"We are currently exploring our options to ensure that the question on the November ballot honors the demands of Minneapolis voters without interpretation," the group said in a statement.
The group's proposal has become a focal point in debates over how to change policing and public safety after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year. It also has become a central issue in the November elections, where the fate of the Police Department, the Mayor's Office and all 13 City Council seats will go before residents.
The first city races since Floyd's death are drawing national attention and money, and new groups are forming to mount campaigns both for and against proposals to replace the Police Department.
Yes4Minneapolis registered as a new political committee last year, and its supporters include local activist groups such as Black Visions and Reclaim the Block, which led some of the largest protests after Floyd's death.
Earlier this year, Yes4Minneapolis began collecting signatures for a proposal that would allow city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency. When a group collects enough signatures to place an item on the ballot, the mayor and City Council are tasked with determining the language that appears before voters. They must present the question in an accurate and nonpartisan way, and often consult with city attorneys.
The proposal written by Yes4Minneapolis would remove language in the city charter that requires Minneapolis to keep a Police Department with a minimum number of officers based on population. The city would then create a new agency responsible for "integrating" public safety functions "into a comprehensive public health approach to safety." The new agency could have police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department."
The proposal also strikes language from the charter that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers.
If voters approve the plan, the mayor and City Council would make decisions about how to design the new agency, which public safety operations to include and whether to include officers.
The City Attorney's Office began drafting ballot language, including both a question and an explanatory note to include on the ballot. The question asks voters if they want to amend the charter "to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety." It refers voters to an explanatory note providing more detail.
It would be the first time in memory that officials include an explanatory note to accompany a ballot question. City Clerk Casey Carl has said in public meetings that the practice has been approved by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office and he hoped attaching an explanatory note would help reduce confusion at the polls, where workers are limited by law in answering people's questions.
Yes4Minneapolis, in its statement, said adding an explanatory note "represents an underhanded attempt to override the will of the people."
Though city officials are calling the note a form of voter education, the group claims the move would be "sowing confusion and mistrust among voters and politicizing a matter of procedure."
JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes4Minneapolis, said they are troubled by "the entire concept of having the explanatory note" and fear some language "can be subjective depending on the interpretation."
The explanatory note says the new department would: combine public safety functions "with the specific public safety functions to be determined"; include police "if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department," and be led by a commissioner. It says the mayor would "not have complete power over the establishment, maintenance and command of the Department of Public Safety."
The note also says the proposal would remove the Police Department from the charter, "which includes the removal of its Police Chief." It notes that the plan would remove the requirement to fund a minimum-sized police force and remove council's authority to impose additional taxes "to fund the compensation of employees of the police force."
Some council members also raised concerns about the language in a committee meeting this week. They voted 12-1 on Friday to approve the language. Council Member Lisa Goodman cast the sole "no" vote.
Goodman said she didn't feel the intent of the proposal came through clearly enough in the proposed wording. "The term comprehensive public health approach is pretty vague. It means different things to different people and it's not defined in the ballot language," Goodman said. "Most importantly we don't need a charter change to have a public health approach to law enforcement."
The ballot language now heads to Mayor Jacob Frey, whose office said he wouldn't sign off on it but wouldn't block it either. Under Minneapolis rules, the mayor has until the end of the day Thursday to take action on the ballot language. If he doesn't approve it or veto it, it will be "deemed approved" and the city will send the language to the county for printing on the ballot this fall.
"Mayor Frey maintains that giving the Minneapolis City Council control over public safety work would mark a major setback for accountability and good governance," Frey's office said in a statement. "The mayor will not be signing the measure, but appreciates the careful work and thorough analysis done by city staff to prepare fair and accurate language for voters."
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994