The latest legal twist over a ballot question determining the future of the Minneapolis Police Department prompted attorneys to renew arguments over whether a judge should scrap the latest version.
In a letter filed Wednesday, attorneys for a trio who sued the city over its ballot language asked Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson to block election officials from using the updated question, saying it's too similar to one she struck down the day before.
"Petitioners do not seek further relief lightly, but are compelled to do so to ensure that this Court's work, and Minnesota law, continue to protect Minneapolis voters from the irreparable harm of casting a ballot for something that no one, not even City Council members, understands clearly," attorney Norm Pentelovitch wrote in the letter.
Lawyers for the city of Minneapolis and Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that wrote the proposal, blasted the request.
"The letter all but admits that this request is a transparent effort to keep this question from voters for another election cycle," City Attorney Jim Rowader said in a statement. "Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the courts have completed their work. The ballots are with the printers. It is time for the voters' voice to be heard."
The request came a week and a half before early voting is set to begin in the first municipal races since George Floyd's killing by an officer. The proposal has become a central issue in the elections, which are drawing national attention and money as people wait to see how Minneapolis will fulfill a promise to transform public safety — and as the issue becomes a wedge in next year's state and federal races.
The proposal would clear the way for city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency. City officials are tasked with writing the precise question that appears on the ballot and have been embroiled in political and legal fights over the past month about how to present the question to voters.
The latest request came from attorneys for three Minneapolis residents — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — who sued the city arguing that an earlier version of the question didn't provide voters with enough information about what the proposal would do.
Anderson issued an order siding with them on Tuesday, and city officials scrambled to approve new wording before the ballot printer's 5 p.m. deadline.
Anderson's order left open the possibility the city could choose to put the proposal before voters at a special election or a future general election, if officials didn't have new, acceptable language in time for the deadline.
Rowader, the city attorney, said they "elected to comply with the order instead of [pursuing] a timely appeal that could have delayed the question reaching voters."
He defended the new wording, which his office wrote, saying it "meets every statutory requirement."
Lawyers for Yes 4 Minneapolis said the request to block officials from using the new version wasn't "appropriate." They argue the new version complies with Minnesota law and that state law requires the proposal to be placed on the November ballot.
"We have to meet the deadline, and it's time to put this to the voters," said the group's attorney, Terrance W. Moore.
In an interview, Pentelovitch said he and his clients were "not taking a position" on whether the proposal should remain on the November ballot or be placed on a future one. "Our interest here is ... ensuring that voters are presented with a ballot question that complies with Minnesota law," he said.
Pentelovitch argues the new version "suffers from exactly the same" problems the judge identified in her order.
"While the City Council has now added additional words and an explanatory note, addressing some, but not all, of the Court's concerns, the New Ballot Language still cannot be implemented because there is still no plan identified by the City for how the public safety department will be structured, overseen, or funded. Voters are still not informed of that fact," he wrote.
Pentelovitch said new language should also inform voters that the change would take place 30 days after the election, "that apparently no one knows if the police will continue to exist" and that it "does not identify what public safety functions may be" included in the new agency.
In his own letter to the court, Moore, the attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, argued it would be an "error" to require the city to create plans for the new department before a charter amendment passes.
"Here, the Petitioners are urging this Court to strike down the ballot question because the City Council has not yet formed the yet-to-be-voter-approved Department of Public Safety," he wrote. That, he added, "defies common sense, directly contradicts Minnesota law, and should be seen for what it is — another attempt to deprive the voters of Minneapolis of their constitutional right to decide on the form and manner of their government and the City Council of its 'constitutional requirement to submit the law to a popular vote.' "
The ballot initiative 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 be required to create an 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 would strike language from the charter that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations.
The mayor and council would decide how to design the new department and whether — and how — to employ police. They're limited in the amount of work they can do before the election. In a memo issued earlier this year, Susan Trammell, the city's ethics officer, warned elected officials they must be careful not to use government resources to promote a ballot issue before an election.
In her order, Anderson, the judge, noted that attorneys on varying sides of the issue disagree on what would happen if the proposal passes including: whether the Police Department would cease to exist in early December, whether the police chief's job would be eliminated and whether there was a mechanism to provide funding for the new department.
In prior filings, attorneys for the city raised the possibility that Minneapolis' elected leaders could, at least temporarily, choose to keep a Police Department while building out the new agency.
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994