The Minneapolis City Council prepares to vote on a rent stabilization ordinance during a meeting on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The vote Wednesday happened in under a minute, with no Minneapolis City Council members discussing the measure or its timing before deciding the matter. 

But the council’s 6-4 vote to kill a draft ordinance on rent control while three of its Muslim members were absent exposed rifts in the council, underscored issues of cultural and religious sensitivity, and raised questions about why the city was unprepared for one of the biggest holidays in Islam.

The council voted while council members Aisha Chughtai, Jamal Osman, and Jeremiah Ellison, who are all pro-rent control, were absent celebrating Eid al-Adha. Had they voted, rent control would have moved forward toward possible implementation in Minneapolis this year. Wednesday’s vote eliminated the matter from being revisited until next year.

It had been known worldwide since early last week—Sunday, June 18—that Eid would fall on the council’s pre-scheduled meeting. But interviews with council members and city staff Thursday reveal that confusion, disputed accounts, and a lack of planning climaxed in a vote that drew harsh criticism from some council members, the public, and Muslim leaders.

“Just finished Eid prayers & heard Minneapolis City Council held a vote on a critical, contested policy when three Muslim council members were observing Eid,” Imam Asad Zaman, executive Director of Muslim American Society of Minnesota, tweeted Wednesday. “This is anti-democratic and discriminatory.”

City Council President Andrea Jenkins and Chughtai, who co-authored the rent control item in question, were at odds Thursday about how the mix-up occurred.

Jenkins, who presided over Wednesday’s meeting, took exception to Chugtai, Jamal, and Ellison’s joint characterization of the vote as “inappropriate, purposeful, and exclusionary.”

“We tried our best to be accommodating, so I can tell you it was not planned, it was not intentional,” said Jenkins, who voted in favor of the rent control measure. “To say that it was contrived to disenfranchise anybody is just flat out wrong.” 

The council was voting whether to refer a draft rent control ordinance to the city’s Business, Inspections, Housing, and Zoning Committee. Had the council voted yes, the committee would have held public hearings on the draft ordinance, and the council would have later voted whether to submit a final ordinance to the November ballot, allowing city voters to decide if it should become law.

The six council members who voted against the draft ordinance were: Emily Koski, Michael Rainville, Linea Palmisano, LaTrisha Vetaw, Lisa Goodman, and Andrew Johnson. 

Council members Elliott Payne, Andrea Jenkins, Jason Chavez, and Robin Wonsley voted in favor of moving the rent control process forward.

Jenkins said Chughtai had brought the motion forward for Wednesday’s meeting, and that the measure’s authors were “fully aware of the changed meeting and put the item on the agenda.” Jamal, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, co-authored the rent control measure with Chughtai.

Jenkins also said that she, like other city staffers, wasn’t aware until Monday that Eid’s date had changed. The council voted on its meeting dates last September, and had moved this week’s meeting to Wednesday in anticipation of Eid starting later in the week. The council typically meets on Thursdays.

When asked if she was informed before Wednesday that the three Muslim council members would miss the meeting, Jenkins said: “I was not. I only learned that they would not be there Wednesday.”

Chughtai disputed Jenkins’ account.

“On Monday, I spoke with her and told her explicitly that Eid was on Wednesday, and as such, I would not be at the council meeting,” Chughtai said in an interview with Sahan Journal. “We were walking back from committee and had this conversation.” 

Jenkins responded in a text: “I specifically asked her, does she have a rent control measure? And she said no. I do not recall her saying she would not attend the council meeting.” 

City staff notified Tuesday

Minneapolis city spokesperson Casper Hill said City Clerk Casey Clark first learned at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that the three Muslim council members would not be present Wednesday. 

Clark said at Wednesday’s meeting that city staff did not learn until Monday that Eid would fall on Wednesday. By then, he said, rescheduling the City Council meeting would have violated the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires that government meetings are publicly scheduled at least three days in advance. 

The date for Eid al-Adha is determined by the lunar calendar, and can change shortly before it occurs. This year, the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia officially declared last week that Eid would fall on Wednesday. 

Hill said the City Council is in charge of adopting its meeting schedules to accommodate “dates of special significance” and state-recognized holidays. 

The council also voted 5-4 Wednesday to send the rent control motion Chughtai and Jamal successfully passed during a May 25 City Council meeting back to them, which means they would have to reintroduce the draft policy another time. The policy Chughtai and Jamal proposed would have capped rent increases at 3 percent each year. 

Council Member Elliot Payne, who voted for the rent control ordinance and strongly criticized how events played out Wednesday, said the move took him by surprise. 

“I didn’t anticipate that this would be the vote where it would live or die,” Payne said Thursday. “This wasn’t voting on a policy. This was voting on moving a policy to a committee so we could negotiate. 

“There’s a lot of different policy elements that have been in conversation, things like rent banking, things like a new construction exemption, that we didn’t even get to discuss. We just killed the democratic process right then and there. ”

The fallout after both votes led Chughtai, Jamal, and Ellison to collectively criticize the City Council’s actions as “a denial of our democratic process and obligation.” They said the council was “taking this action at the expense of their Muslim colleagues.”

Council members could have intervened

Other actions could have potentially kept the bill alive this year.

Council Member Ellison said that when the authors of a motion are absent for a scheduled vote on their measure, it should pique the interest of the council member chairing the meeting. 

Ellison said that when he has served as chair under such circumstances, he has motioned either to delay the vote or to make no recommendations on the measure, even when he disagreed with the policy. 

“As the chair of a meeting, you can pretty much look around, read the room, and make a decision, and that is what she did,” he said, referring to Jenkins. “I think the decision was a strange one, to say the least.”

Jenkins said Chughtai, Jamal, and supporters of the rent control measure did not request in advance that she delay the vote to another meeting. 

“It didn’t occur to me, and no one asked me,” Jenkins said. “Had my colleagues asked me, I would have.”

Any council member in attendance can also make a motion to delay a vote, Ellison said, adding that taking such action on a contentious matter like rent control can come with risks. 

The same division in the council over an agenda item could emerge when council members vote whether to delay the item. For example, the six council members who voted Wednesday against moving forward with rent control could have potentially voted against delaying the agenda item until Chughtai, Jamal, and Ellison could vote on it.

“Anybody could have made the motion,” Ellison said. “But if you’re sitting on a body and you know you only have four votes, making a motion to delay the item a cycle might feel a little bit like a fool’s errand.”

Payne, a first-term council member, said he’s been “chastised” at times by some council members and city staff for not following proper City Council procedure, and that he’s “taken that feedback very seriously” and “adjusted” his process. He now finds that criticism bothersome in the wake of Wednesday’s vote.

“When the majority of this body disagrees with a policy on substance, they should do it with their vote—yes or no,” Payne said. “What I think we saw yesterday is using methodology to kill an idea rather than using just the will of the majority of the body to guide that idea.”

Ultimately, Ellison said, the “scheduling SNAFU” is “kind of insignificant.”

“It happens,” he said. “It is what it is. I don’t think it should have happened. But I do think there are solutions to it.”

All sides are in agreement on one thing: rent control is dead for the year, and won’t make it on the ballot for this fall’s election. The city clerk has said it cannot be revived this year due to the amount of steps the city needs to take to vote on the matter, hold public hearings, and finalize a policy before the election.

“From here, we figure out how we move forward, and how that includes building with our communities and with policymakers,” Chughtai said.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...