Minneapolis charter revision ballot question sparks spat

The chair of the Minneapolis Charter Commission is raising the specter of a legal battle with the City Council over the wording of a question on the November ballot.

Voters will decide this year whether to rewrite the city’s charter, a project the commission has labored over for more than a decade. While the commission got to write the proposed revision, it’s up to the city council to write ballot questions.

The City Attorney’s Office, which opposes the charter revision, today recommended the council make the question as brief as possible.

Proposal to Amend the Minneapolis City Charter

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended in the form of a complete revision which reorganizes the Charter into nine articles, and removes certain provisions for possible enactment by ordinance?

“When you look at prior charter amendments that have gone through, the questions have been very straight forward, factually oriented questions,” Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder said. “That’s what the City Attorney’s Office and the Clerk’s Office attempted to do.”

But Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg argues that question will confuse voters.

“It might as well read, ‘Shall we reorganize the city charter so it has 973 sentences?'” Clegg told the council today. “It’s the opposite of transparency. It’s opacity.”

The Charter Commission’s proposed question is just one word shy of the 100-word legal limit for ballot questions. It attempts to lay out the rationale for the revision.

Plain-Language Charter Revision

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended in the form of a revision whose purposes are (1) modernizing, simplifying, and uncluttering the Charter; (2) redrafting its provisions for clarity, brevity, and consistency, in plain modern language; (3) reorganizing the charter into nine articles, with each article covering a single subject, and grouping related provisions together; (4) removing from the Charter detailed provisions better suited to ordinance; and (5) retaining a provision in the charter if it affects a citizen’s rights, or the relationship among governmental officers or bodies, particularly including (but not limited to) the independence of municipal boards?

In a memo to the council, Clegg hinted he was prepared to take legal action over the issue.

“We would hate, after the long decade of work that has gone into the Plain Language Charter, to end up in a legal wrangle over over the ballot language (which would need to involve outside counsel, since the City Attorney has been advising both sides up to this point,)” Clegg wrote.

City Council members tried to de-escalate the dispute at a committee meeting today. They put off action on the issue for two weeks.

In another wrinkle, voters will be presented with not one, but two questions regarding the charter revision. State law sets a higher, 55 percent, threshold for passing charter changes related to liquor licensing — or as the current charter, adopted in 1920, describes it, “spirituous, vinous, fermented or malt liquors.”