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Election 2013: Volume 6, Issue 1: Minneapolis Charter Amendments

September 21st, 2013 (05:49 pm)

So, I discovered the other evening that sample ballots are up! You can find yours by going to http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/ and plugging in your zip code and address. (FYI, this is one of the things that sometimes makes it complex to examine other people's voting options in detail -- I need an address in a particular precinct to pull up a ballot.)

When I pulled up the ballot for 12-2 (i.e., for my old address) I found that in addition to the Mayoral, City Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, Park Board At-Large, and Park Board District Five, there are two charter amendments on the ballot. The text of each:

CITY QUESTION 1 (Minneapolis)
PROPOSAL TO AMEND THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY CHARTER
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended in the form of a complete revision which (1) modernizes the Charter; (2) redrafts its provisions for brevity and in plain language; (3) reorganizes the Charter into nine articles, and groups related provisions together; (4) removes from the Charter certain provisions for possible enactment into ordinance; and (5) retains the current role and relationships of City boards and commissions?

CITY QUESTION 2 (Minneapolis)
PROPOSAL TO AMEND THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY CHARTER LIQUOR-LICENSING PROVISIONS
Shall the Minneapolis City Charter provisions relating to the sale of liquor and wine be amended by reorganizing and rewriting in plain modern language?

So the short version is that I think you should vote yes. But read on for all sorts of interesting (and possibly even important) information about this, in Q&A form because frankly that just seemed like the easiest way to structure this post.



1. What's a charter, exactly?

The city charter is basically the city constitution. It's supposed to explain how the city is governed; the actual ordinances are supposed to be handled in a separate document. The city charter spells out things like the powers of the mayor vs. the City Council, who hires and fires the police chief, etc.

2. What exactly are they proposing to do?

They want to toss the current charter and replace it with one written in modern English and in plain language.

3. Why?

Because it was written in a style that was archaic even when it was drafted, and in dense legalese that is barely readable even if you're a lawyer.

The rewritten charter is in plain English and doesn't use the word "doth" anywhere. It also doesn't use the word "shall." Also, the current charter has a bunch of random stuff that really ought to be in the ordinances, like rules for swimming in Cedar Lake. When stuff's in the charter, it requires a really cumbersome process to change it, which brings up another problem -- there are all sorts of completely obsolete, goofy rules in there, like the requirement that no one can sell a loaf of bread that weighs less than a pound.

4. You say "rewritten" like this process has actually already happened. Could you explain that?

The charter has already been re-drafted (it took ten years) and in fact you can look at it online. (It includes a helpful introduction that talks about why the word "shall" is evil and shouldn't be used in any sort of legal document.) It's here. The current charter is online here but be sure to click on "Charter" near the very top of the left-hand frame; don't get distracted by the Code of Ordinances, which is not currently being revised.

5. I don't really want to read all that.

Okay. Let me just give you an excerpt that should give you a sense of the flavor of the original vs. the revision. In the section on Police, here's what the current charter says:

    The mayor shall be vested with all the powers of said city connected with and incident to the establishment, maintenance, appointment, removal, discipline, control and supervision of its police force, subject to the limitations herein contained and the provisions of the civil service chapter of this Charter, and may make all needful rules and regulations for the efficiency and discipline, and promulgate and enforce general and special orders for the government of the same, and have the care and custody of all public property connected with the police department of the city. The executive committee shall, by and with the consent of a majority of all of the members of the city council, appoint for a term of three (3) years commencing January 2, 1980, some suitable person as chief of police, subject to removal upon the recommendation of the executive committee by a vote of a majority of all of the members of the city council. Such position shall be in the unclassified service. The term of office of each chief of police shall be three (3) years from and after the second day of January of the year of appointment. In case of a vacancy occurring otherwise, the appointment shall be for the unexpired term. Ten (10) days prior to the appointment of a chief of police, the executive committee shall file with the city clerk the name of all persons the executive committee is then considering for the appointment. The chief of police may be reappointed by a majority of all members of the city council. In the event that the council does not reappoint within thirty (30) days of the termination of the term, the executive committee shall within sixty (60) days thereafter make a new appointment. Persons holding the position of chief of police shall be entitled to the same employee benefits as persons in the classified service except as to appointment and removal. If the person appointed chief of police is a member of the classified service, such person shall be deemed to be on leave of absence during the tenure as chief of police, and upon the termination of service as chief of police shall be returned to his or her permanent civil service classification. If no vacancy is available in that permanent civil service classified position, seniority shall prevail and the person most recently certified to such position shall be returned to the permanent civil service classification held prior to such certification. The Mayor shall also appoint, subject to the provisions of the civil service chapter of this Charter, all members of the police force and other employees of the department prescribing the title, rank and duties of each, and report a list thereof to the city council, and the civil service commission. The personnel of the police department shall be established and maintained at a ratio, or as closely thereto as is possible within the limits of section 2 hereof, of not less than one and seven-tenths (1.7) employees per one thousand (1,000) of population of the city according to the latest United States official census. Each and every person so appointed shall be subject to removal by the mayor when the mayor shall deem the same necessary after proper investigation in accordance with the civil service chapter of this Charter. The mayor may also, in case of riot, large public gatherings or other unusual occasions demanding the same, appoint such number of temporary police as may be needed but not for a period of more than one (1) week, without the consent of the city council. All police officers so appointed shall be licensed as required by law and shall possess all the common law and statutory powers of peace officers, and any warrant for search or arrest issued by any magistrate or court of record in Hennepin County may be executed in any part of said county by any member of said police force. (As amended 6-13-61; 10-30-70; 11-6-79; 11-6-84; 89-Or-195, § 1, 9-29-89)


Here is the revised version:

    7.3. Police
    (a) Police department. The Mayor has complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the police department. The Mayor may make all rules and regulations and may promulgate and enforce general and special orders necessary to operating the police department. Except where the law vests an appointment in the department itself, the Mayor appoints and may discipline or discharge any employee in the department (subject to the Civil Service Commission’s rules, in the case of an employee in the classified service).

    (1) Police chief.
    (A) Appointment. The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a police chief under section 8.4(b).
    (B) Term. The chief’s term is three years.
    (C) Civil service. The chief serves in the unclassified service, but with the same employee benefits (except as to hiring and removal) as an officer in the classified service. If a chief is appointed from the classified service, then he or she is treated as taking a leave of Revised Charter 30 Proposed 1 May 2013
    absence while serving as chief, after which he or she is entitled to return to his or her permanent grade in the classified service. If no vacancy is available in that grade, then the least senior employee so classified returns to his or her grade before being so classified.
    (D) Public health. The chief must execute the City Council’s orders relating to the preservation of health.
    (2) Police officers. Each peace officer appointed in the police department must be licensed as required by law. Each such licensed officer may exercise any lawful power that a peace officer enjoys at common law or by general or special law, and may execute a warrant anywhere in the county.
    (b) Temporary police. The Mayor may, in case of riot or other emergency, appoint any necessary temporary police officer for up to one week. Each such officer must be a licensed peace officer.
    (c) Funding. The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident, and provide for those employees’ compensation, for which purpose it may tax the taxable property in the City up to 0.3 percent of its value annually. This tax is in addition to any other tax, and not subject to the maximum set under section 9.3(a)(4).


5. Wait, I see things there I don't like.

It was all in the original charter, scattered around the document, and you just didn't know because in addition to being written in dense archaic legalese it's about 75,000 words long, which is the length of a novel. Except no one is going to curl up on the couch with the city charter. (I started to say "except possibly Carol Becker" but you know what, I could see her curling up on the couch with the city budget but not with the city charter. She's a numbers geek, not a lawyer.)

6. Okay, so what's with the two questions?

You have to have a larger majority in order to pass revisions to stuff to the charter that relates to alcohol. The Charter Commission is hoping that both pieces pass, but if not, they're hoping that at least they can rewrite the bulk of the charter. (Which would mean most of the charter would be written in plain modern English, and then it would revert to archaic legalese in all the places it mentions alcohol. That would be odd. I recommend passing both pieces.)

7. What is the downside here?

Change always creates some hassles and expense. The City Attorney doesn't want to make the change because at this point, we have established precedents on what all the bits and pieces of the current charter mean; she says they'll need an additional attorney if the amendment passes.

I found some chit-chat on the e-democracy forums about whether the revision makes changes in substance rather than style, but frankly I think that conversation illustrates why the revision is a good idea; if you look at the charter expecting to find accurate information, you totally will not, because there are a zillion bits that have been superseded but not removed or even footnoted. Scott Vreeland expressed concern that the new charter "strips the Park Board of its two appointed members who are on the reapportionment commission." Barry Clegg from the Charter Commission pointed out, "The Redistricting Commission, which included two members appointed by the Park Board when drawing park districts, was ABOLISHED by Amendment No. 171, a referendum in November 2010."



Anyway. I think the current city charter is extremely difficult to understand; even if you're fluent in dense archaic legalese, all the unmarked bits that have been superseded are going to make it difficult to figure out how the city is actually supposed to be run.

Given that both documents are online, I would encourage Minneapolis residents to take at least a brief look. I looked around for Barry Clegg's e-mail address because he seems like a good person to contact with questions; alas, I didn't find it.

Index of 2013 Election Posts

Comments

Posted by: Dan Goodman (dsgood)
Posted at: September 22nd, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)

" the requirement that no one can sell a loaf of bread that weighs less than a pound." A charter provision which several groceries routinely violate.

Posted by: Naomi (naomikritzer)
Posted at: September 25th, 2013 03:56 pm (UTC)
witchlight

Yes. Also many bakeries in town, although apparently the rule exempts "fancy" bread without defining it but presumably someone selling a 12-ounce baguette could make a case for baguettes being fancy. Except they'd never have to because the rule gets completely ignored.

Posted by: Naomi (naomikritzer)
Posted at: September 25th, 2013 04:02 pm (UTC)
witchlight

And honestly, even if the city council considers it important to set a minimum weight for bread loaves, they ought to do it in the ordinances, not the charter.

There are candidates proposing that the council sit down with the ordinances and strike all the ones that are stupid, obsolete, overly intrusive, trivial, completely unenforced, etc., which I think would also be a good project, although I predict it will turn out that there are people who will campaign vigorously for keeping some of the ones that I would point to as silly/pointless, and it will be a much less straightforward project than one might expect.

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