Mayor Frey’s Power Grab

If you’re reading this, you probably know that Minneapolis had a question on our city election ballots last year (“Question 2”) that would have restructured the police department and made it more accountable. But we actually had three questions on our ballot, and all three were, arguably, equally important.

Despite the best efforts of progressive organizers and candidates, Question 2 failed, maintaining the status quo for policing.

Question 3 narrowly passed and gave our City Council the ability to craft a rent control or rent stabilization ordinance.

Question 1 also passed and gave the Mayor the ability to do… a lot. This charter amendment, called the “Strong Mayor Amendment” or, more formally, the “Executive Mayor, Legislative Council Amendment,” fundamentally changed our city government.

I’m going to resist the urge to rehash what exactly Strong Mayor did, why it was bad, and why I think it passed. If you need some more background, I highly recommend this FAQ on the charter amendment by Sahan Journal and this Twitter thread by Lynnell Mickelsen about how the amendment further concentrates power in the hands of white, wealthy homeowners.

In summary, residents were led to believe that approving Question 1 would make our city government more efficient and more in line with other major cities. In reality, it took power away from our city council members, positions that are much more representative of the diversity of Minneapolis residents, and concentrated it in the office of the Mayor, which is largely elected by white people in East Harriet and luxury downtown condos.

What I actually want to focus on is the ripple effect that approving the Strong Mayor Amendment is having right now, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

The Situation

As a result of Question 1 passing, Mayor Frey, the Charter Commission, and our city attorneys began an ambitious process to fundamentally restructure our city government in a way that, they claim, better reflects what the voters who approved Question 1 actually want. That process involves totally reworking City Hall’s organizational chart, drafting a huge city ordinance to reflect those changes in law, and eventually making further changes to the charter (our city’s constitution). We’re currently in the middle of that process.

On September 20th, city attorney and Ethics Officer Susan Trammel walked through the Mayor’s draft government restructure ordinance for the city council. You can watch that presentation here if you want, but it’s so incredibly dry and full of jargon that I recommend against it.

A couple weeks later, on October 4th, council members had the opportunity to bring forth and vote on amendments to this ordinance. In contrast to the previous presentation, this meeting was full of heartfelt, righteous efforts by a few council members, and baffling and dishonest actions by others. I think it actually provides us with a really clear demonstration of how much we instantly lost when Strong Mayor passed, who currently holds power here, and what is still at stake.

I’m going to highlight a few particularly illuminating moments from that meeting and what they reveal. I’ll then talk about what we, as Minneapolis residents, can still do to dampen the future damage to our city as much as possible.

The Mayor’s Attorney’s Office

Let’s start with the second amendment that was up for consideration at the meeting. It was a proposal by Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley, which edited a sentence of the ordinance declaring Mayor Frey to be “the chief spokesperson and official representative of the city in all its affairs.” Instead, Wonsley suggested a change that would designate him as the city’s “ceremonial spokesperson.”

When introducing her amendment, Wonsley explained, “having the Mayor as the official spokesperson could have the impact that any comment the Mayor makes will just be taken as fact.” (If you’re not sure why she would be concerned about that, just think back to February of this year. When Mayor Frey was asked how Amir Locke was killed during execution of a no-knock warrant given that he had previously stated that no-knock warrants had been banned in Minneapolis, he told the City Council, “language became more casual, including my own, which did not reflect the necessary precision or nuance, and I own that.”)

Wonsley also notes that the current city ordinance uses the “ceremonial spokesperson” language, so this is effectively a proposal to keep what we currently have.

Council President Andrea Jenkins started the discussion by asking attorney Trammel what it means to be a “ceremonial spokesperson.” Trammel responds by saying she doesn’t know.

That itself seems a little odd. Trammel is ostensibly there at the meeting to provide objective information and background about city law. Shouldn’t she have some kind of legal interpretation of the Mayor’s responsibilities as spokesperson according to current city law?

Regardless, Trammel then precedes to give a lengthy defense of the “chief spokesperson and official representative” language by citing legal scholars’ writings on what it means to be an “executive mayor” and talking about other cities with an executive mayor, legislative council system that give the Mayor this power.

Maybe this would have been an appropriate answer from Trammel if Jenkins had asked something like, “Based on what you know about executive mayor, legislative council systems, do you think this is an appropriate amendment?” But that’s not what she asked. Instead of even attempting to answer Jenkins’s actual question, Trammel used it as an opportunity to say whatever she wanted.

That’s not actually very surprising. There has been a series of occasions in the past few years when city staff who are meant to provide objective advice, such as City Clerk Casey Carl and city attorneys, take it upon themselves to promote their personal opinion or obfuscate information. Interestingly, their opinions always seem to line up with the best interests of the Mayor.

Trammel’s comments and conduct throughout this meeting provide just one more piece of evidence that Mayor Frey is already fully in control of city operations, including the staff members meant to provide objective information to the City Council. Our “City Attorney’s Office” is actually the Mayor’s attorney’s office. Still, seven council members (Rainville, Vetaw, Osman, Goodman, Jenkins, Koski, and Palmisano) voted to also make the Mayor the “official representative of the city in all of its affairs.”

A Betrayal to Residents

The next amendment on the docket, also authored by Wonsley, only occupies a few minutes of the meeting, and that’s kind of shocking.

Wonsley’s proposal strikes a section of the ordinance that lays out a new mayoral power “with respect to city council.” The section states that “the mayor shall submit for the council’s consideration a comprehensive policy which shall” lay out a plan to fulfill his agenda for the city. That last part is a paraphrase, but you can see the exact text here.

At first I wasn’t sure if this section was just giving the mayor the option to submit such a proposal or requiring it, but on second watch, when Trammel introduces the amendment, she uses the word “requirement.”

In her explanation of this amendment, Wonsley says, “I have no interest, and I hope my colleagues would have no interest, in giving more of their authority away, because that would be a betrayal to the residents that we represent.”

She says she is proposing the deletion of this section to clarify the lanes of power for the legislative and executive branches, which is, after all, one of the stated goals of this whole government restructure exercise. She suggests that this mayoral power “blurs those lines, and actually oversteps it.” I have to agree. She explains, “the job of the executive is to administer the policies that the legislative body creates.”

After hearing the objections to Wonsley’s previous amendment, which seemed pretty uncontroversial to me, I was very interested to hear the discussion on this item. Would the 7 council members who voted against the spokesperson amendment actually try to argue that the mayor should also have more power over policy making? How would they justify supporting a section of this ordinance that clearly violates the whole intention of this new “executive mayor, legislative council” system?

The answer is, none of them felt the need to say anything. No one requested to speak about this amendment, and the same 7 council members still voted against it. Wonsley’s motion failed.

Pause and think about that for a second.

This proposed ordinance has a section that says, going forward, the Mayor will now be required to propose “a comprehensive policy” to the council in line with the Mayor’s political priorities. In a political vacuum, that might not be a huge deal. The city council will still have the ability to discuss and vote on the proposed policies, including vote against them. I still wouldn’t like it though, because it means that the council would be required to use some of their limited policy making time and resources considering policy that perhaps none of them would have ever introduced otherwise.

But the biggest issue is that Minneapolis is not a political vacuum. It’s a city where, as Lynnell explains in her thread, people in white wealthy neighborhoods typically vote at triple the rate of some racially diverse working class neighborhoods. It’s a place where, recently, dozens of BIPOC city employees publicly testified that their boss is actively promoting a racist and toxic culture, and the mayor and city council majority decided to give her a promotion anyway. It’s a city where we all received several huge glossy mailers funded by the Chamber of Commerce and other old money politicians full of lies about Question 2 to help ensure our racist police department can continue to function as normal. It’s a place where the Mayor has been completely and unilaterally responsible for the police department for 5 years, yet when they murdered George Floyd and instigated a global racial uprising, the city council somehow got the blame.

In this environment, CM Wonsley suggests maybe we shouldn’t give away even more of our time, resources, and authority to this one city-wide position and 7 members of the council said, no, actually, I would love to do that.

I don’t know about you, but if that’s their opinion, I don’t know why these people ran for office in the first place. And I sure as hell don’t know how they have the right to ask us to vote for them again.

“The city of Minneapolis is racist.”

Let’s look at one last example.

Wonsley and Ward 5 Council Member Jeremiah Ellison both proposed very similar amendments to elevate our Department of Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging to an executive-level office that would report directly to the Mayor. So, on the org chart below, the director of the department would jump from reporting to the City Operations Officer to becoming their own “orange box.”

Both CMs gave several good reasons for this change. But I think these remarks by Wonsley are particularly poignant, so I’m going to quote them at length, edited slightly for clarity.

“The reason why we’re bringing forward this recommendation is simple: The city of Minneapolis is racist. We literally have the person who authored the amendment that declared racism as a public health emergency [as Council President]. We have the MDHR (Minnesota Department of Human Rights) findings that show that one of our most prominent departments [the MPD] is also racist. We had 50 employees of color come out and share their experiences about one of our largest city departments [the City Coordinators Office] as racist. It’s very, very simple. We are not doing a good job when it comes to racial outcomes, and this Department [of Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging] is responsive to that. It’s also very clear that, when it comes to racial equity, in administering it, the executive office is a far cry from being successful in that work. And here’s an opportunity for the council to say, “Here’s some help. Help from the brightest and most brilliant.” … Keeping them as a department is a disservice. It’s crumbs. … It’s very clear we need this.

Council Member Robin Wonsley

Responding to concerns Council Member Johnson raised about how this move may isolate the department, she reminds him of a past presentation to the council about how racial equity staff in Bloomington have successfully improved outcomes by working at an executive level. She mentions that more than 20 of cities across the country have executive-level racial equity departments and how that placement can help changes flow through the whole government. She then responds to a message CM Johnson apparently put in the council chat reminding her of rules of decorum. If you want to judge for yourself whether anything she said was at all disrespectful or unreasonable, I encourage you to watch it yourself.

It was not.

What proceeded and followed Wonsley’s remarks were a series of truly mind-bending comments from Council Members LaTrisha Vetaw, Andrew Johnson, Jamal Osman, Emily Koski, and Andrea Jenkins that seemed to intentionally ignore the entire point of this amendment.

These council members seem to have forgotten how any and all organizations work at the most basic level. They express worries that promoting the Director of Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging would somehow give that person less power. It would isolate the department. Remove any incentives for the Mayor and other city staff to take their recommendations seriously. Vetaw and Jenkins somehow simultaneously argue that the new government structure already raises the department to a higher level than where they are currently, which is great, but that raising them any further would either be useless or disastrous.

The last thing I’ll say about this: Imagine this conversation happening at any organization where you’ve worked. If HR recommended raising a team currently at the bottom level of management to now start reporting directly to the CEO, do you think you would be worried that the move would reduce that department’s power? I sure can’t imagine that.

What Can We Do?

I’ll be honest with you—probably not much.

It’s clear that the majority of the council supports the Mayor’s government restructure plan, including the parts that explicitly give that office more power by reducing their own. And most of the council members who feel that way aren’t exactly known as being open and responsive to constituent feedback.

But, in my opinion, this issue is too important to just let it slide. If the Mayor and majority of council are committed to taking as much power as possible from city residents who aren’t already part of the political elite, why should we make it easy for them?

Our last official, public opportunity to make our opinions known is coming up at the Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting this Tuesday, 10/18, at 1:30 pm. There will be a public hearing where residents are invited to come testify about our thoughts on this government restructure ordinance.

If you can, please show up to testify.

The council is then likely to vote on the ordinance at their meeting on 10/20 at 9:30 am. If you can, show up to that meeting too, and make it obvious why you’re there.

If you can’t show up, call or email your city council member, the mayor, and all of their policy staff. Post about this on social media. Tell your family and friends what Question 1 was actually about. Write an op-ed. Contact local journalists and let them know we expect them to fully and accurately report on this process and its huge implications for the future of our city. Contact national journalists and let them know what’s happening in the city that led a global racial uprising two years ago.

If you voted “yes” on Question 1, let our leaders know that you didn’t actually vote for all of this. And don’t feel guilty about your vote if you didn’t realize the implications—you were tricked, plain and simple.

In whatever form you choose, ask the Council to at least lessen the damage to our future government and reconsider any or all of the completely reasonable amendments proposed above. Ask them to vote “No” on this ridiculous ordinance. And make it known that you are aware that this government restructure is nothing less than a power grab by Mayor Jacob Frey, his allies on the council, his political appointees, and all of the wealthy, connected people who plan to run for mayor after him.

Do something, so when future generations ask us why, after possibly the largest racial uprising in history, we supported this move that will make our city even more inequitable, you can tell them that you did what you could to prevent it.