Minneapolis voters face a pivotal choice in November that will affect every single citizen.
No, I'm not talking about City Question 2, the proposed city charter amendment dealing with the police department. It's understandable that most media attention has gravitated to that issue; public safety is arguably the city's most essential function.
But it's alarming that the more comprehensive City Question 1 (the so-called "governance" amendment) is barely mentioned in most coverage of the coming election.
If we really want accountability at City Hall, this is the charter amendment that will make that possible.
As a retired attorney (and Minneapolis resident) I'm deeper in the weeds on this topic than most people. I spent most of my adult life representing cities across Minnesota in various ways. I studied many city charters, and helped write amendments to several. But you don't need to be a local government geek to become informed about City Question 1 — it's a paradigm shift that will have long-term consequences for the city.
The ballot question itself is surprisingly concise: "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?"
That language is shorthand for a lot of detail. To understand what the amendment would do, you need to know something about the existing charter. (For readers who want to dig deeper, I refer you to the superb report submitted by the Charter Commission — titled "Government Structure: Form & Function," available on the city's website.)
For starters, our charter is odd. First enacted in 1920, it is not the product of a thoughtful process like, say, the U.S. Constitutional convention in the 18th century. The first charter just patched together many existing laws that governed the young city.
From the get-go, it has been flawed by a diffusion of authority among officials and policymaking bodies. Amendments over the years have attempted to correct some of those flaws, but the document is now like sedimentary rock: an accretion of changes over the years that has hardened into something solid but unstable, riddled with fossils.
The central problem is that the charter fails to delineate executive and legislative functions, creating ambiguity, inefficiency and a tendency for policy to be undermined by ward politics and personalities.
Council members too often become involved in mundane administrative matters, and the mayor — the only official elected by everyone in the city — too often lacks the "buck stops here" authority needed to make decisions on behalf of the city as a whole.
City Question 1 would finally, clearly state that the mayor is the city's chief executive, charged with administering city business, while the council is the city's legislative body, charged with, well, legislating — enacting ordinances, defining city services, setting the tax levy, approving the budget and similar matters.
This structure might sound familiar. That's because it is the model used in our state government, the federal government — and most tellingly — in every comparably sized city across the land. It is past time to correct a city charter that, in the words of a Star Tribune article from 2004, "makes no one accountable and puts no one in charge."
And while I want to train the spotlight on City Question 1, I can't avoid mentioning the aspect of City Question 2 that will make me vote no on that one: it removes the mayor's executive authority over the police department, which is the only aspect of the existing charter where the lines of accountability are clear.
Diffusing authority among the mayor and council, even in the area where clarity is most critical, would be a giant step backward.
We're at an inflection point in history on many fronts. The pandemic and racial reckoning triggered by the murder of George Floyd have loosened the rusty bolts that held many seemingly fixed ideas in place. Let's use this moment to remove some bolts and reassemble the Minneapolis city charter in a way that allows us to meet the formidable challenges we face as a city. Please vote yes on City Question 1.
Stephen Bubul, of Minneapolis, is a retired attorney.