How would you like to work for 14 bosses? That is the situation in Minneapolis government today. No wonder the city has lost seven very qualified department heads in the last two years.
This November, Minneapolitans have a chance to support a charter change to fix this problem.
In many ways the city of Minneapolis is in crisis. First came George Floyd's murder followed by civil unrest. Then the COVID economic crisis. The persistent inequity for some Minneapolis' citizens. And finally, the high property taxes burdening not only homeowners but also renters.
The status quo will no longer do. Anyone who has looked at an organizational chart of the city of Minneapolis knows that there are unclear lines of authority, blurred accountability, and an overlap of executive and legislative functions. President Harry Truman once said, "The buck stops here." Where does the buck stop in Minneapolis city government?
Minneapolis has never adopted a comprehensive city charter to guide the management of the city. In 1920, Minneapolis simply adopted all the special laws relating to Minneapolis so that it could qualify to be a "home rule" city. Attempts were made over time to adopt a comprehensive city charter, including efforts by mayors Hubert Humphrey, Art Naftalin and Don Fraser. All failed, and today we have leadership — or more accurately, a lack of leadership — by 13 council members and one mayor.
Minneapolis city government is a large enterprise with an annual budget of $1.5 billion and a staff of 3,800 employees. It lacks clear and responsive direction for a city of 435,000 citizens. The mayor represents all Minneapolis citizens but has responsibility with little management authority. The City Council has most of the management authority, but each council member represents only 34,000 people. Who is in charge? We need to align responsibility with management authority.
Here are some examples of the chaos that occurs with 14 bosses:
- During last year's civil unrest, some City Council members gave direct orders to police officers (who are responsible to the mayor's direction). What orders do the officers follow at a critical time?
- City Council members routinely give orders to department heads and staff that conflict with city policy, and then threaten retaliation if their direction is not followed. What should the department heads do?
- In 2020, council members stripped the mayor and police chief of key units to enable coordinated police reform.
In Minneapolis there is a Charter Commission (required by the state Constitution) composed of 15 Minneapolis residents, seven women and eight men, four of them of color. They hail from 11 of the 13 wards. The chief judge of Hennepin County selects them for four-year terms. The Charter Commission functions as a "think tank" studying how our city government can work better for all citizens.
This spring the charter commission, after interviewing former and current city department heads, council members and mayors, voted unanimously to place on this fall's ballot an amendment to the charter assigning executive functions to the mayor and legislative functions to the City Council. This would eliminate the confused management of the city. It would mirror the way the federal and state governments are organized, along with the cities of Duluth, Rochester and St. Paul. Under this approach, the mayor would have the crime prevention and domestic violence units reporting to him, allowing for truly effective police reform.
Under this charter change the mayor would appoint all the department heads, oversee city operations, and propose the city budget. The City Council would provide constituent services, define city services, oversee a city auditor performing financial and program audits, confirm or reject mayoral appointments, and amend and approve the city budget.
This charter change is supported by thousands of informed city residents, the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, current and former Minneapolis department heads and, importantly, former City Council members and mayors.
If you believe that Minneapolis city government isn't working for all Minneapolis citizens, if you believe that true police reform should occur and if you believe that the mayor should have executive authority and be held accountable for city operations, then vote for the "Government Structure: Executive Mayor-Legislative Council" charter amendment this fall.
Jay Kiedrowski is a senior fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and former budget director for Minneapolis.