New language for Minneapolis policing
Minneapolis officials on Tuesday approved new ballot language for a proposal that would clear the way for city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, a change made hours after a judge struck down an earlier version of the question.
The council approved the new wording in an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon, and Mayor Jacob Frey then cleared the measure to head to the November ballot without his signature, saying the language is more transparent.
“It was wrong when the council tried to hide the ball and prevent voters from knowing what they were voting on,” Frey said. “It would also be wrong of me to prevent language for a ballot question from ultimately going on the ballot that has met all of the legal requirements.”
Tuesday marked a dramatic day in the monthlong fight over how to present a question to voters on an issue that has become a focal point in the November elections, the first municipal races since George Floyd was killed by a police officer.
The legal and political fights do not impact what the proposal does, only how it appears to voters on the ballot. At the center of the dispute is a question of how much detail voters need to make an informed decision and how much could be construed as a campaign statement intended to sway voters.
About 8 a.m. Tuesday, Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson, in response to a lawsuit, tossed out the prior wording of the ballot question. That version, she wrote, was “insufficient to identify the amendment clearly, it does not assist the voter in easily and accurately identifying what is being voted on, and it is vague and ambiguous to the point of misleading voters, all of which make it unjust.”
City attorneys worked behind the scenes to draft new language. At 1:30 p.m., the Minneapolis City Council convened for a rare emergency meeting in hopes of adopting new wording before the county’s 5 p.m. deadline to hand new language to the ballot printers.
“At this point, passing updated language, amended language today, is the only real possibility of getting this on the November ballot,” deputy city attorney Erik Nilsson told council members. “Any appeal, or even attempted appeal, even in the most expedited manner possible at this point, would most likely go beyond any county auditor statutory deadlines that are in play here.”
City Attorney Jim Rowader told council members, “I think we’re a little bit in unchartered territory.”
As city leaders scrambled to approve new wording, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that wrote the proposal, began preparing their appeal.
The fight over ballot language
The proposal is drawing national attention and money as Minneapolis residents prepare to vote on policing for the first time since Floyd was killed by an officer — and as the issue becomes a wedge in next year’s state and federal races.
Over roughly the past month, the city has faced two lawsuits over how it chose to word the question slated to appear on the ballot. The legal fights don’t impact the contents of the proposal, only the wording that voters will see.
The proposal deletes 406 words from the city’s charter, which serves as its constitution, and adds 80 words. City officials have said that state law prohibits them from posting the text of the proposal in polling places and bars poll workers from answering voters’ questions.
The measure would remove language in the charter that requires Minneapolis to have a police department with a minimum number of officers based on population. The city would then be required to create a new agency responsible for “integrating” public safety functions “into a comprehensive public health approach to safety.” The new agency could have police “if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.”
The proposal would also strike language from the charter that gives the mayor “complete power” over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers. The mayor and council would decide how to design the new department and whether — and how — to employ police.
In court documents and during oral arguments, attorneys argued intensely over how to interpret those charter changes and what that means for the fight over how to construct neutral ballot language.
The earlier question, struck down by the judge on Tuesday, asked voters: “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?”
Attorneys for the three people who brought the latest suit — Bruce Dachis, Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — had argued that the question didn’t provide voters with enough information to make an informed decision about the proposal.
Attorneys for Yes 4 Minneapolis and the city had argued the language provided enough information for voters to distinguish that proposal from others on the ballot.
In her order, Anderson wrote that the question was “vague to the point of being misleading” and “missing essential information that would accurately inform the voters.”
“For example, does ‘striking’ the Police Department mean renaming it (as the Petitioners suggest it could be interpreted) or taking it apart, as one would ‘strike a set’ after a play is done? The end of the Current Ballot Language says ‘ … to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety.’ To whose responsibilities does that refer? The Police Department? The new Department of Public Safety?”
Anderson added that attorneys in the case disagree on three points: whether the Minneapolis Police Department would cease to exist in early December if this passes, whether the police chief’s position would be eliminated and whether there is a funding mechanism for the proposed public safety department.
“These three issues are additional ambiguities in the Current Ballot Language,” she wrote. “All of these ambiguities risk creating a ‘chaotic situation’ in Minneapolis.”
Voting on new language
As they worked to approve new language, city officials faced an intense deadline.
Earlier in the case, Hennepin County officials, who coordinate ballot printing for the city, told the judge they needed to give final wording to the printer by 5 p.m. Tuesday. They asked Anderson to set new deadlines if she struck down the language outside of that timeline.
Anderson’s order did not include new deadlines for approving ballot language.
Instead, she wrote: “The underlying petition signed by residents of Minneapolis that gave rise to the proposed charter amendment is not affected by this Order and, if the proposed charter amendment is not on the ballot this November, it may be on a ballot in a future election.”
She added that the city could “hold a special election or put the proposed amendment with revised language on the ballot in a future general election.”
In one of their shortest meetings yet on this topic, the Minneapolis City Council voted 12-1 for a version recommended by the city attorney’s office, with Council Member Lisa Goodman casting the lone vote against.
Rowader, the city attorney, said they attempted to incorporate guidance Anderson issued in two lawsuits over the ballot language – the latest case and an earlier one brought by Yes 4 Minneapolis,
“We certainly think that we’ve done our absolute best to satisfy all of the concerns,” he said, adding: “We would expect this to be approved language.”
Latest version of ballot language:
Department of Public Safety
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?
This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated.