The most diverse city council in Minneapolis history might also be the weakest. We asked new council members how they hope to operate under a strong mayor system. Credit: Courtesy Elliott Payne (left) and Jaida Grey Eagle for Sahan Journal (right)

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On the night of the Minneapolis City Council elections, Elliott Payne emerged with a strong lead in the First Ward. It was also his 40th birthday, so Payne had more than one reason to celebrate. But as the results showed voters supporting the strong mayor ballot measure and rejecting a new public safety department, Payne’s hopes for what he could accomplish as a progressive, first-time council member suddenly dimmed.

Paul Ostrow, a former city council member and staunch supporter of both the strong mayor and public safety ballot questions, was at Payne’s election night watch party too. Payne joked that Ostrow was the only one there celebrating victory for the strong mayor question.  Despite their differences of opinion, Ostrow backed Payne’s campaign.

“One of the things people don’t realize is the extent to which our chaotic form of government keeps council actions from even being implemented,” Ostrow told Sahan Journal. A strong mayor system might make city officials more accountable, he said 

Now that the strong mayor charter amendment has passed, Payne and his 12 fellow city council members, including seven newcomers, will have to find new ways to assert power in City Hall. 

“This is about over 100 years of government structure shifting on a dime,” Payne said. “We still have power. It’s just, how do we want to leverage our body of government to use that power for good?”

Minneapolis voters elected a city council in which a majority will be people of color. But they also gave more power to the mayor.  Newcomers to the council wonder if the most diverse city council in history might also be the weakest. While the power structure is a bit more nuanced than that, we spoke with new city council members about how they hope to fulfill their campaign promises under the new government structure.

Here’s how it works: The mayor acts as the city’s chief executive officer and can appoint department heads later approved by the council. The mayor then holds authority over all city departments. The City Council would work mainly on making policies and passing ordinances, losing its power to recommend department heads. 

The new system will go into operation once all new members of the City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey are sworn in in January. Saint Paul became a strong-mayor city in 1970. Strong mayor supporters in Minneapolis have been pushing the change for more than a century.

Finding power in a new system

Proponents of the strong mayor say that the city will be able to act more efficiently. New city council members like Elliott Payne and Robin Wonsley Worlobah raised concerns that giving the mayor more power may mean less transparency.

According to Payne, under the previous system, the council was more effective in gaining support and passing legislation by wielding “soft power.” 

“People don’t like being told what to do. They like being inspired and coming along,” Payne said. “That’s what soft power is, your capacity to inspire, your capacity to share a vision.”

While that will still be the most effective strategy for Payne and his colleagues, he added: “When push comes to shove, sometimes you’re going to need to use hard power.”

One way to do that is through the language of ordinances, Payne said. For example, in his previous role as a City Hall consultant, Payne worked on an ordinance that overhauled how the city handles evictions resulting from nuisance and criminal behaviors. The City Council found that the original ordinance disproportionately evicted Black and brown tenants. 

“It was less the language of the ordinance that needed to be changed. It was more the execution of the policy,” Payne said. Payne added the council ultimately made slight changes to the ordinance, but could have used its power more effectively by being more specific.

“This isn’t going to be like, at the snap of the fingers, everybody just adjusts to the new power structure. Everybody is going to be learning and discovering what that is. There’s going to be plenty of collaboration,” Payne said. “But who knows how those relationships will unfold.”

Although Wonsley Worlobah also ran against the strong mayor structure in Minneapolis’ Ward 2, she said that her approach to organizing won’t change. Wonsley Worlobah is from Chicago, a city known for strong mayors, and she’s seen working class people making meaningful change regardless of the mayor’s politics.

“Regardless of our government structure, we need to make investments into public housing, we need to make sure we’re passing regulations for corporate developers,” Wonsley Worlobah said. “The advocacy for expanding funding and protecting the public good—that doesn’t go away.”

She said she’s going to navigate the new system by doing exactly what she did during her campaign as a Democratic Socialist candidate: organizing, building power amongst working class people, and engaging communities previously left out of the process. 

Among the new council members of color, LaTrisha Vetaw in Ward 4 is the only one who supported the strong mayor proposal on the campaign trail. Vetaw did not respond to Sahan Journal’s request for comment, but she told the Minnesota Spokesman–Recorder on Wednesday that she saw it as a good accountability measure. 

“With this last administration there was a lot of passing the buck, and I saw the strong mayor ballot measure as an opportunity for us to create a structure where people had to be accountable for their decisions,” she said, adding that the power balance will allow her to spend more time with constituents in Ward 4.

Ostrow said he hopes that a strong mayor system will allow for a clear and efficient way to hold leaders in the city accountable. The City Council, he asserts, still has the power to do that by bringing legislative issues to the public forum and discussing them with both constituents and other city council members.

“The mayor should be held accountable for the performance of his or her department heads, and you can only be held accountable if they report to you,” Ostrow said. “The key thing is we need a strong executive, but we also need a very strong legislative and oversight council.” 

Ostrow wrote in an op-ed for the Star Tribune in September that implementing a strong mayor system won’t address the “shameful lack of transparency and accountability endemic to the operation of the Minneapolis Police Department.”

“The council needs to weigh in on its police reform legislative agenda and on changes to the union contract it will require to ratify any new labor agreement,” Ostrow wrote.

Despite the fact that Ostrow is celebrating a strong mayor in Minneapolis after decades of advocating for the system, he said he’s concerned that Frey and the city attorney may use the existing charter to limit the council’s efforts to address safety in the city. He urged the incoming City Council to push for public hearings on, for example, policing and public safety, especially since the public safety ballot question didn’t pass.

‘This is going to diminish the voice of people’

Ostrow said that the new council also should wield its power in the new system by exercising its legislative authority. 

“We have the most diverse council that we’ve ever had,” Ostrow said. “The best way to be responsive to your constituents is not calling a department head because one person has an issue. It’s taking that issue and changing city policy so it works for everybody.”

Payne and Wonsley Worlobah raised concerns about their constituents’ ability to access their local government.

“This is going to diminish the voice of people who live in low voter turnout wards,” Payne said, especially low-income residents of color. “The less influence you have, the less power you have, the less voice you have.”

To address any disconnect between constituents and the mayor, Payne said he’s going to devise a system to aggregate the issues in his ward and present them to the mayor’s office. But he’s still concerned about being able to respond directly to constituents.

Payne urged the mayor’s office to come up with a more robust constituent services system. 

“There’s not a lot I can do as a council member,” Payne said. “I can forward your email to the mayor’s office and see if they have a good process for constituent services, which I don’t think they will.”

Wonsley Worlobah also noted the urgency to address constituent concerns. But she’s worried that a strong mayor system will keep residents out of the loop.

“We’re going to push back every step that we can to make sure that our constituents are informed about key issues being debated, and that they have an active role in that decision-making process,” she said. 

There’s one last ballot question Minneapolis voters also passed:They authorized the City Council to come up with a rent control policy. Wonsley Worlobah said she hopes the mayor’s office and future department heads will use their new power to include Minneapolis renters in the policy making process.

“It’s going to be a fight to make sure that regular people have a decision-making role on how rent control is going to pan out,” Wonsley Worlobah said. She anticipates some difficult conversations with city staff who don’t support rent stabilization. “More than 50,000 folks showed up and voted for it. You have to do due diligence as a representative to collaborate and work with us to make something happen.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.