Barry Clegg, Brian Melendez and Lyall Schwarzkopf
of the Minneapolis Charter Commission
charter revision is long overdue
A Civic CaucusFocus on CompetitivenessInterview October 18, 2013
Adams, Dave Broden (vice chair), Barry Clegg, Pat Davies, Randy
Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz (chair), Brian Melendez, Dana
Schroeder, Lyall Schwarzkopf, Clarence Shallbetter.
Revisions to the Minneapolis City Charter
are long overdue, say Barry Clegg, Brian Melendez and Lyall
Schwarzkopf, all involved in an 11-year project to revise the charter
by modernizing it into plain language, shortening it and reorganizing
it. In the Nov. 5, 2013, election, Minneapolis voters will decide
whether to approve the proposed revised charter.
Minneapolis adopted its charter in 1920 and
it contains archaic provisions and archaic language, the three say.
The current charter has been amended 100 times over the years, with
many of the amendments tacked onto the end of the document, rather
than placed with the provisions they affect. The situation is made
more complex by the involvement of the state in Minneapolis
governance. The legislature can override provisions of the city's
charter by passing special laws affecting only Minneapolis. The
proposed revisions include adding the provisions of those special laws
in the charter, reorganizing the amendments and making the document
much shorter and easier to understand, Clegg, Melendez and Schwarzkopf
contend. They say the revisions are at least 40 years overdue.
They maintain that the charter revisions
might make Minneapolis more economically competitive by clarifying the
city's government structure for developers and others looking to
invest in the city. They say that the proposed revisions should make
it easier to implement charter revisions and charter reform in the
There are two questions on the Nov. 5, 2013,
election ballot, both seeking approval of revisions to the Minneapolis
nonsubstantive revisions to the charter that modernize, shorten and
reorganize the document. One question refers to the overall revisions
to the charter and the other refers specifically to the revisions
relating to liquor-licensing provisions.
The wording of the questions is as follows:
"Proposal to Amend the Minneapolis City
"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?" "Yes
"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?"
Lyall Schwarzkopf, secretary of the
Minneapolis Charter Commission, said, in order to be approved, the
first question must garner 51 percent "Yes" votes from those
who vote on the question. The second question, concerning
liquor-licensing provisions, must garner 55 percent "Yes" votes
from those voting on the question to be approved. Unlike with state
constitutional amendments, not voting on a city charter amendment
question does not translate into a "No" vote. Only the actual votes on
each question determine whether the question passes.
Barry Clegg, current chair of the
Minneapolis Charter Commission, said if the charter provisions are
approved, they would take effect in January 2015. Clegg said it could
happen that the main charter question will pass, but not the question
on the liquor provisions. "So we could have 95 percent of the charter
in plain language and five percent in archaic language," he said. "If
that happens, we'll go to the city council and say, 'Let's clean this
It's taken 11 years to complete the drafting
and redrafting of the plain-language revisions and bring them before
voters to approve or disapprove. Brian Melendez, who served on the
Charter Commission from 2002 to 2006, became the volunteer reporter of
the 11-year-long plain-language revision project. The revised charter
on the ballot is the 14th major draft of the document during that
time. He said he spent about 500 hours, all as a volunteer, working on
the revisions over the last 11 years.
City charter commissions are created by the
Minnesota state constitution. According to Clegg, state
legislation determines how charter commissions are appointed and what
they do. The Minneapolis Charter Commission is not a commission of the
City of Minneapolis; it is a commission under state law, appointed by
the chief judges of Hennepin County. Its purpose is to propose a
charter and to propose amendments to an existing charter.
Charter questions can be put on the ballot
(1) independently by the Commission; (2) by the city council after it
sends them to the Charter Commission for review; and (3) by a citizen
petition signed by at least 8,000 voters. The charter can be amended
without a citizen vote, if all 13 city council members, the Charter
Commission and the mayor all agree. "That usually only happens with a
minor technical amendment or a change to conform to state law," Clegg
said. "It happens with some regularity for those kinds of minor
Clegg explained that the charter is the
constitution of Minneapolis. "It explains and lays out how we're
governed," he said. "The charter is the reason the council has 13
wards and that council members represent wards, rather than serve at
large. It explains how the mayor and the city council relate to each
other and why Minneapolis has several independent boards."
Minneapolis originally adopted its charter
in 1920, after several failed attempts. "It was disorganized then
and has gotten worse," Clegg said. It's been amended 100 times. And
the state can pass a special law related to Minneapolis that overrides
the city charter. "Our charter is really a mess and that's what got us
started on this project," he said.
The Charter Commission wanted to get broad
buy-in to the revision process. "We wanted to have a very
inclusive process," Melendez said. "We thought it would take four
years, when we started in 2002. It's taken 11 years, because we wanted
to be sure we heard from everybody who wanted to be heard from."
The process started with the Charter
Commission doing a first draft, which was then reviewed by 15
independent readers. The readers, Melendez said, included major
players from all political parties and people who had been very deeply
involved in city government, such as former mayors. After the
Commission developed a draft the readers were comfortable with, the
draft was brought before the city attorney, all the independent boards
(including, at that time the Board of Estimate and Taxation, the Park
Board and the Library Board), city departments, and neighborhood
organizations. Over the 11-year process, there have been four
top-to-bottom reviews by the city attorney's office and five public
The current Minneapolis charter is 192 pages
long; the document going to the voters for approval is 62 pages.
The Commission's first draft of the revised charter was 40 pages long
and removed some provisions that the Commission thought should not be
in the charter, but would be better addressed in city ordinances. The
Commission responded to concerns from city departments and others who
disagreed with the Commission's judgment and wanted the provisions
back in charter. "Whenever someone said that, we put it back in," said
Melendez. So the final draft grew to 62 pages, which is still only
one-third the length of the current charter.
Melendez said the previous amendments to the
charter were "a patchwork," sometimes just attached at the end of the
charter, rather than added to the relevant section. "Now this document
is in better order," he said. "It's a modern document in plain English
and has a table of contents."
In response to an interviewer's humorous
comment that the revised charter would be "less fun," Melendez said,
"If you make your living by people not being able to penetrate the
charter, it does take away some of your fun."
The proposed changes are not "charter
reform;" they're "charter revision." "It's making the charter
transparent, readable and modern," Melendez said. "We're not trying to
restructure anything. If this passes, the city ought to operate in the
same way as it did the day before. It's removing obsolete language and
Another interviewer asked whether the city
council and mayor could just approve the revisions, since they are
nonsubstantive. Clegg responded that some city council members wanted
the question to go to the voters, since the whole charter is being
revised. "They felt it's a significant enough change, even if it's not
a substantive change," he said.
He said the one substantive change is that
the Charter Commission is removing some things from the charter and
referring them to ordinance instead. In that case, the ordinances, or
any subsequent changes to them, would only need support from a
majority of the city council, instead of approval by Minneapolis
Clegg said the Commission has prepared a
side-by-side version of the proposed charter that shows all provisions
to be referred to ordinance. It also has prepared a side-by-side
version showing where provisions in the current charter are located in
the proposed revised charter.
Special state laws pertaining only to
Minneapolis can override provisions of the charter and voters can
override special state laws.
Melendez explained that when it comes to regulation of a municipality,
the city charter, or any amendment to it, is of equal rank to passage
of a special state law that applies to a particular city. The more
recent of the two governs. The state legislature can overrule things
in a city charter, but the voters can overrule special state laws
applying to that specific city. "The relationship between the
legislature and the city charter is retained in the revised charter,"
An interviewer commented that the
legislature overrode a previously passed amendment to the charter
providing that if the city is proposing to spend more than $10 million
on a professional sports venue, the proposal must go to the voters for
approval. The legislature nullified that charter provision for the
Vikings stadium, he said.
Clegg responded that the $10 million
provision is retained in the charter, but the state legislature can
and did overrule it. A state special law can be passed with a majority
vote of the governing body, which in this case was the city council.
"Lots of times, it's easier to deal with a special law than with a
charter provision," he said.
He gave the example of the former
Minneapolis Library Board, which is still in the current charter, even
though it is no longer in existence because of the merger of the
Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems. The merger was done
by special statute, not by charter revision. The now nonexistent city
library board has been taken out of the revised version.
Schwarzkopf said that many special state
laws pertaining only to Minneapolis that have actually amended the
charter have been incorporated into the revised charter. "We have
cleaned it up by doing so," he said. "It won't change the role of the
state in city government."
The mayor and city council members would
probably oppose an effort to change the structure of Minneapolis city
government to a strong administrator system. An interviewer
commented that people in power are never interested in changing the
structure of power and asked whether the Charter Commission would
consider putting a charter amendment on the ballot that doesn't have
the support of the mayor or city council.
"I have no problem with that," Schwarzkopf
said. "I think that's what we should be doing. The Citizens League's
attempts in the early '50s to get a city manager form of government
went down to flaming defeat. The unions want a system like we have.
They're used to it and can work with it. That would change with a city
manager. We have to be practical."
"It's a dilemma to me," the interviewer
continued. "People have not had a chance to weigh in on their form of
government for 100 years. They might not choose that structure if they
looked at it today. Is there a role for the Charter Commission to lead
a discussion about the structure of government in the city?"
Clegg responded that the Commission has had
those kinds of discussions before. He said if the Charter Commission
put changing Minneapolis to a city manager system on the ballot, the
mayor and 13 council members would probably be campaigning against it.
The interviewer commented that in 2009, when
the idea for a strong administrator form of government came forward,
business leaders originally supported it, but then backed off for
Organized opposition can make charter change
difficult. Clegg said it's hard for charter change to be approved
if there's any organized opposition, because there's usually no
organized support for change. He gave the example of the city's Board
of Estimate and Taxation. A few years ago, the Charter Commission
asked voters if the Board should be abolished. The Board opposed the
provision, as did the Park Board, which can appoint members to the
Board of Estimate and Taxation. With that opposition, he said, the
charter amendment was defeated.
An interviewer pointed out that the League
of Women Voters is very active in supporting the current ballot
questions and that every mayoral candidate supports the revised
There is no official relationship between
the Minneapolis school district and the city. Clegg explained that
education cannot be in the city charter, because it's a state
responsibility that is delegated to local school boards. "The word
'school' is not in the charter at all," he said. "It's interesting
that the mayoral candidates are all talking about education now."
The revised city charter would make charter
change easier. Responding to a question about potential reforms,
Melendez said the Commission didn't find anything substantive as it
went through the charter. "But part of what we did was to make it
easier to accomplish reforms," he said. "We did change so change could
For example, Clegg said that to adopt a city
manager form of government by amending the current charter would
require looking in 50 to 100 different places and making changes word
by word. "With the plain-language charter, you could do it in a page,"
An interviewer asked if the Charter
Commission will be presenting more substantive changes to the charter
in the next few years. Clegg responded, "If it's germane to the
charter, if it's been thought out and fully baked, and if there's at
least some level of support for it, I think it deserves to be on
ballot." Schwarzkopf added, "I hope we'd come back with some changes."
Minneapolis is late in modernizing its
charter. Compared with other cities, Clegg said, "we're 40 years
late in doing this. St. Paul amended and restated its charter in 1972.
In 1974 the entire state constitution was redone." Melendez pointed
out that in 2010, Congress passed a law requiring all federal
regulations to be written in plain English. "We are the caboose of
this train," he said.
Clegg said volunteers have done the charter
revisions and it's taken a long time. "We're way behind the curve," he
said. "But we think we've got a very good product here that simplifies
and modernizes our charter."
A modern, plain-language city charter could
make Minneapolis more economically competitive. An interviewer
asked how important the charter is to the economic competitiveness of
the city. Schwarzkopf responded that a revised charter could make it
easier for developers to understand that they must work with the
Community Development and Planning Departments, that those departments
are basically run by city council members who are chairs of those
committees, and that the mayor now has a hand in appointing heads of
city departments. "If you know those things, you can come in and work
with that government to do whatever a developer wants to do," he said.
Clegg added that if a business moves to
Minneapolis, it will have to interact with the city. "If in making
that decision, you get to the current charter, you realize you will
have to hire a lawyer who knows the charter," he said. "The charter is
probably not going to be the deciding factor, but it certainly adds to
the burden that somebody who's coming in has to deal with to do
business in the City of Minneapolis." Schwarzkopf added, "That does
put us at a competitive disadvantage."
Melendez said people are less likely to
invest in the city because "the charter is a dense, impenetrable
document. If people could read the charter, we'd have a more
An interviewer commented that one could
argue that it's a foundational thing to have a good charter.
Schwarzkopf agreed. "A charter is part of the infrastructure of a
city, so anybody coming in can find out how it works. It's like
streets or parks."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and