Minneapolis City Hall. Credit: Marianne Combs | MPR News file

In addition to representing the constituents of the 6th Ward, Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman views his office as a resource for the larger local East African community.

“We get calls not just from people in the city of Minneapolis, but the whole state, for all kinds of issues,” Jamal said. “All the challenges that immigrant communities face, we are usually the one place they come for help.”

He’s worried that a citywide ballot measure to change the structure of city government will, if passed, dilute the power of his office. Jamal represents Cedar–Riverside and five surrounding south Minneapolis neighborhoods. Altogether, immigrants and people of color make up nearly 60 percent of his ward. 

“This office means everything to this community,” he said. “Eliminating that power will definitely do huge damage to them.”

Beginning with early voting on September 17, residents of Minneapolis will have the chance to change city government in myriad ways. Voters will fill all 13 City Council seats, as well as the mayor’s office, and will choose how the government will work. On the ballot are questions related to policing, rent control, and whether Minneapolis should switch to a so-called strong-mayor system. Such a system would shift power from the City Council to the mayor.

A.J. Awed, who is running for mayor and recently made a surprise showing by out-fundraising everyone in the race besides incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey, supports the strong-mayor amendment. He contends that streamlining local government will allow city departments to operate more efficiently and better serve the city’s marginalized communities.

“Our local government has been dysfunctional for so long,” he said. “Everything that the city runs on, currently there’s confusion on where the authority stops for the City Council members and the council at large. And it overlaps into the executive authority of the mayor’s office.”

One of the biggest changes that would come with a strong-mayor system has to do with which officials city department heads answer to. Currently, all department heads except the police chief report to the mayor and the 13 City Council members. If the charter amendment passes, the City Council would be relegated mostly to passing legislation while department heads would answer directly to the mayor. 

Proponents say the change would create a clearer separation of powers between the mayor and City Council and streamline how local government operates. The charter amendment would give more authority to an official who is elected city-wide, which supporters view as more democratic. Currently, they argue, council members govern based on issues important to their particular constituents, rather than looking at issues from the perspective of the city as a whole.

Opponents argue that the change would give the mayor’s office too much power and make the mayor less accountable to the public. They say the city’s less-affluent residents would have a harder time getting the attention of the government, since council members, who represent particular wards, would have less authority.

The strong-mayor charter amendment may be receiving less attention than some of the other issues on the ballot this election. But, if passed, it would lead to big changes that could affect city government at all levels. Sahan Journal has compiled this guide to understanding the complex amendment.

How are the mayor’s powers currently defined in Minneapolis?

Minneapolis city government is best described as a “weak mayor, strong council” system. While the mayor wields executive power in the current structure, that power is not clearly defined. The city charter, which essentially serves as the city’s constitution, does not give the mayor sole executive powers in the same way that St. Paul’s city charter, for example, does. That creates an opening for the Minneapolis City Council to take on administrative tasks.

Currently, the city’s department heads are first selected by the mayor, then approved by an Executive Committee made up of the mayor and a handful of City Council members. The committee makes recommendations to the full City Council, which votes on appointments. The only exception is that the mayor alone chooses the police chief.

Is the current Minneapolis system typical in other cities?

Though no two city governments are completely alike, their structures across the U.S. typically fall into one of two systems: either “strong mayor, weak council” or “weak mayor, strong council.”  Mark Levin, an expert in local government who served for 40 years as a city manager for suburbs of Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis, said opinions on which form of government works better amount to “a classic contest between two competing values.” Those values, he said, are efficiency and effectiveness versus responsiveness.

What is the best case for a strong mayor?

The best argument for a strong-mayor system is that it leads to an efficient government “much more along the corporate form,” said Levin, who is also a clinical associate professor of political science at Indiana University. “The less negotiation, the more speedily and effectively and efficiently it will be carried out.”

By way of example, under the current system, the decision to hire or fire a department head must first come as a recommendation from the city’s Executive Committee, made up of the mayor and a handful of council members. Then, the full City Council must hold a public hearing and approve or reject the recommendation. The strong mayor amendment would dissolve the Executive Committee and give the mayor the authority to act directly. In the case of hiring a department head, City Council would still have to approve it.

St. Paul voters approved a strong-mayor system in 1972. Proponents of the charter amendment argue that St. Paul’s government works well and presents a desirable model to emulate. 

What is the best case for our current system, where the City Council has more power?

The case for a strong council system, according to Levin, is that it’s more responsive to constituents. “Having a single person in charge means elected people in the legislative process have less authority, and they can’t hold the department heads accountable directly.” 

Supporters of the current system say that concentrating power behind one person could lead to more decision-making behind closed doors and fewer open-meeting discussions.

They point to failures in Mayor Jacob Frey’s leadership during his first term. TakeAction Minnesota, for example, wrote in a June blog post that “if the last 13 months have shown us anything, it’s that the mayor needs more oversight and accountability, not less.”

What does the strong-mayor charter amendment say exactly?

Under the title, “Government Structure: Executive Mayor—Legislative Council,” the ballot item reads as follows:

“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?”

Have Minneapolis residents voted on this issue before?

Voters in Minneapolis have repeatedly rejected strong-mayor proposals during the past century. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Minneapolis voters did approve incremental changes that expanded the mayor’s powers to propose the city budget and establish the city’s Executive Committee, which weighs in on personnel decisions. 

Who wrote the strong-mayor charter amendment?

The amendment originated with the Minneapolis Charter Commission. The commission is an unelected 15-member local body appointed by Hennepin County’s chief judge to review and make recommendations to the city’s charter. 

The commission came under fire last year when it blocked a proposed public safety charter amendment from the City Council that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety department. A similar public safety overhaul, prompted by a signature-driven campaign from Yes 4 Minneapolis, is slated to go before voters this fall (if it survives legal challenges).

How did the amendment come about?

Last year, a Charter Commission public safety work group evaluated the City Council’s public safety proposal. That proposal, like the one that will be presented to voters this fall, moves authority over the police department out of the mayor’s office and gives it to both the mayor and City Council.

This measure prompted discussions within the work group about the underlying tenets of the city’s governmental structure, said lawyer Barry Clegg, who chairs the Charter Commission. Next, the commission created a new work group to look at the relationship between the mayor and the City Council. In May, the commission’s “government structure work group” issued a scathing review of the current city system. That report, which came after interviews with current and former department heads and current and former City Council members, criticized an “archaic” governmental structure that “does not meet the needs of the 21st century.”

Last summer, a working group of the Minneapolis Charter Commission issued a scathing review of Minneapolis’ current governing system: “President Truman famously quipped ‘the buck stops here.’ In Minneapolis, the buck stops nowhere and yet everywhere, leading to organizational confusion, costly duplication of effort, and lack of centralized control and coordination.”

“The City’s structure lacks clear lines of accountability, is inefficient and costly, and creates an operating structure that is highly vulnerable to the politics of personality and not the tenets of good government,” the report reads. “President Truman famously quipped ‘the buck stops here.’ In Minneapolis, the buck stops nowhere and yet everywhere, leading to organizational confusion, costly duplication of effort, and lack of centralized control and coordination.”

A separate report criticizes the current governmental structure as “overly complex” and “significantly influenced by personalities of individual elected officials.” 

But, doesn’t the current system make it possible for communities of color to have a bigger say in local government? 

As a part of its May report, the Charter Commission included a “race equity impact analysis” of the strong-mayor proposal. According to the report, there are “no credible data or studies proving that government form or structure has a negative impact on BIPOC communities or contributes to racial inequities.”

On the contrary, the report notes that the city’s current form of government has been in place since the 1920s, and Minneapolis has been consistently ranked as “one of the worst cities in the United States in terms of racial inequality.”

However, amendment opponents argue that if the most powerful person in city government is elected city-wide, that person will give more credence to the city’s affluent voters, who tend to be white.“People are kidding themselves if they think consolidating power away from underrepresented wards is more democratic,” said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a spokesperson for TakeAction Minnesota. 

Council member Jamal Osman says the current structure gives his constituents a bigger say in how the city operates. He points specifically to a new law banning commercial truck parking on city streets, which is set to go in effect in January. Jamal voted against the ban because many commercial truck drivers are East African and live in his district, he said.

After the ban passed, Jamal used his current authority to instruct the city’s Intergovernmental Relations department to work with the truck drivers in his district to designate a commercial truck parking area. It’s abilities like these that Jamal worries he’ll lose if the strong-mayor charter amendment passes.

Are there concerns that moving to a strong-mayor system would create confusion?

Yes. Jamal said he and other council members are unclear about what powers they will retain if voters approve the charter amendment. He pointed specifically to how an assistant city attorney did not answer three questions posed by City Council President Lisa Bender during an August committee meeting. 

“People are kidding themselves if they think consolidating power away from underrepresented wards is more democratic.”

Kenza hadj-moussa, takeaction minnesota

At that meeting, Bender explained that the council passed a minimum wage increase and then directed city staff to write an ordinance. Then, she pointed to a “complete streets” ordinance passed by the council, which sets priorities for the city’s Public Works department when it comes to designing streets. Finally, Bender brought up the many calls she receives from constituents asking for help navigating the city’s bureaucracy on issues like business licensing.

Bender asked: Would the City Council’s authority on these issues change if the strong-mayor proposal passes?

“A lot of these questions would have to go back to the Charter Commission, frankly,” responded Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson.

Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl responded that, in his opinion, the first two issues would not change because they are legislative, and in the case of constituent services, council members would refer those issues to the appropriate departments.

The exchange left Jamal skeptical. “I feel like my community will not have enough of a voice,” he said. “So much power will be taken away from them.”

Isn’t it true that the mayor already has authority over the Minneapolis Police Department and that hasn’t gone very well?

City Council Member Jeremy Schroeder made exactly that point in a June committee meeting.

“The whole entire city, including our fire department, including our health department that’s dealing with a worldwide pandemic right now, the [council is] handling that with our current structure,” Schroeder said. “This would get rid of that governance and oversight from council and make it more like the police department, which is getting investigated by the federal government, which is being sued by the state.”

What do former mayors say about the strong-mayor amendment?

Sharon Sayles Belton, who was mayor from 1994 to 2001, supports the strong-mayor proposal. She told Sahan Journal that she was frustrated by the lack of authority conferred upon the mayor’s office, especially in city personnel matters.

She lamented that under the current system, department heads are appointed for two-year terms, and then the Executive Committee reviews their job performance to decide whether to recommend another two years. Sayles Belton called this process the “two-year check-in.” Under the proposed amendment, the mayor would appoint department heads for four-year terms, contingent on Council approval.

She believes that under a strong-mayor system, City Council members would still be able to hold city departments accountable by making legislative votes in committee and before the full council. Before becoming the city’s first and only Black mayor, Sayles Belton served as a council member in the 1980s and as council president in the early 1990s. During that time, she said she often formed factions with other council members from wards with majorities of people of color to wield more power.

“Most BIPOC people lived in certain areas of the city,” Sayles Belton said. “We knew that then and we know that today. People in those wards have common concerns.” She said council members could do the same under a strong-mayor system.

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...