With a momentous decision coming before voters on the Nov. 2 ballot, the Minneapolis City Council has opted to give them less information.
Earlier this month the council voted 12 to 1 for an explanatory note that would have provided critical information about the ballot question that would dismantle and replace the Police Department. But after losing a lawsuit challenging that note, council members reversed themselves, voting 9 to 4 in support of a ballot question without any explanatory note, overriding a mayoral veto to do so.
It's important to keep in mind that it was the specific wording of the original note the court rejected. The court affirmed the city's right to include explanatory notes. Indeed, a proposed rent control ballot measure was approved by the council with an explanatory note.
But the public safety amendment, which would dismantle existing law enforcement structures, gets no explanation. Despite negotiations between Mayor Jacob Frey and the council, no new clarifying language was arrived at.
The question now reads, in its entirety: "Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety which could include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, with administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?"
That's it. On that, voters are expected to decide whether to blow up the existing police department in favor of … what? No one knows exactly. There is no plan for what would come next, what the transition would look like, what the new structure would be, or what would happen to existing operations, even though the amendment would go into effect just 30 days after the vote is in.
What is known is that the Police Department would be replaced by a Public Safety Department of unknown size and structure. It would be headed by a commissioner — no qualifications specified — rather than a police chief. And instead of the mayor having singular authority over police, the commissioner would be appointed by the council and would report to the mayor and 13 council members — in essence, to 14 bosses.
That the council opted for less clarity about all this does not inspire confidence in its ability to provide greater transparency and accountability in managing law enforcement.
"They wouldn't even say [on the ballot] they were getting rid of mandatory [police] minimums," Mayor Jacob Frey told an editorial writer. "You have to tell voters what they're voting for. The new language is deliberately vague. What does 'administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments' mean to the average voter?"
Perhaps two of the most unsettling words in the ballot question are those that say peace officers would be hired "if necessary." State law requires that only licensed peace officers are allowed to respond to some calls, such as crimes in progress or vehicular accidents. So by definition, the hiring of some police will be "necessary." Why the ambiguity? Is it an attempt to appease those who would prefer a city without police at all? Or to assuage others who fear no police would be hired?
"They don't want to just say the honest thing," Frey said. "We should at least be willing to live up to ideas of transparency and honesty and tell voters what they are voting for."
When the ballot wording passed in its final form, Council Member Steve Fletcher said that "The work of the council on these questions is done, and now your work begins. I encourage everyone to learn more about these proposals and come to the polls this fall ready to make an informed decision."
Indeed, the burden is on citizens, and on advocates and communicators on all sides, to provide illumination about what this proposal includes and what it leaves to be determined later. Ideally, the city would provide clear, unambiguous, vetted information that voters could depend on before making such an important decision, but that does not appear to be forthcoming.