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Location: St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Minneapolis Governance Overhaul

The City of Minneapolis and its Charter Commission are studying that city's
core form of government. The present configuration is unusual, especially
for a city of such size and influence as Minneapolis, in that it is a strong
council-weak mayor form, creating of city government a chaotic climate with
thirteen ward councilmembers officially in charge of running the city with
the mayor somewhat relegated to running the police department and
responsible for recommending budgets.

Over the years, often by mutual consent of the Mayor and Council, the mayor
has acquired greater powers - either by ordinance or charter amendment - to
manage the city day-to-day, in concert with the City Coordinator and the
President of the City Council - the so-called Executive Committee. The Mayor
may now veto legislation, requiring a super-majority of the Council to
override. I'm sure I'm missing more than this.

Moreover, the city's parks and library system, as well as its taxing
authority, have been governed by independently elected boards never or
rarely answering to either the Mayor or Council.

Structure does not always determine the best government and changing it is
not necessarily the way to ensure efficiency or proper representation of
residents, because, ultimately, those who hold the offices make all the
difference in good or bad governance. The City Charter is much like a state
constitution for what in Minnesota is called a home-rule city, and because
of its population size, Minneapolis is considered, with St. Paul and Duluth,
a city of the first class, with even greater autonomy from state laws that
govern other municipalities.

The charter lays out the form and construct of the local government and is
created and maintained by a 15-member charter commission whose members, for
obvious reasons, are not appointed by the city's elected officials, but by
the Chief Judge of the District Court of jurisdiction, in this case,
Hennepin County. The city's voters, with rare exceptions, must be consulted
on the creation and amending of a city charter, and it can be placed on the
ballot by the commission itself, by initiative petition submitted by
citizens, or by resolution of the City Council.

Now, comes a community discussion of a major shift in the city's governance
constructs. The Star Tribune is attempting to trump the political process
more than a little bit by joining the issue early on, including a specific
proposal for a revised charter creating a mixed ward and at-large system,
with the Mayor sitting as Council President and a city manager running the
operation. Further, the three primary boards now separately elected would be
appointed and be drawn in under aegis of the Mayor/Council's policy process
and the manager's administration. The Star-Tribune suggests the Council
become part-time - a disastrous idea in a city of this size with its
overwhelming number and complexity of issues. Talk about turning city
government over to bureaucrats and lobbyists!

I'll not detail their full proposal here, but commend you to the ST's
websites where you may begin to look at it and keep track of its progress.
Click on this articles headline or cut and paste this address:

http://www.startribune.com/opinion/

http://www.startribune.com/stories/561/5143402.html

I find this entire matter fascinating for several reasons, not the least of
which is good government.

One or two quick thoughts: on the subject of split representation for
elected boards and councils, neither all-ward or all at-large local policy
bodies are a good thing. Whether the Mayor should preside over a city
council of this size in a city of this size leaving management to a city
manager is questionable, but I'm open to suggestions. I generally support
the better accountability of bringing parks, libraries and the board of
estimate and taxation in under the Council.

From 1991-1999, I served on the St. Paul Charter Commission. During my first
year, I chaired the subcommittee examining the costs and benefits of a
combination ward and at-large system of electing councilmembers as well as a
part-time city council. This was 1991. I was the author of the ward/at-large
proposal, hoping to convert the council to a balanced representation system
- in this case, a four-at-large/five-ward split. Both ballot questions went
to the voters. My proposal failed, while the part-time proposal passed.

The Star Tribune Editorial Page excoriated me (and my colleagues) then - and
again in 1993 (when I was a candidate for the St. Paul City Council) for
proposing what they assured readers would be a diminishment of voting power
for Blacks and other minority communities because going from seven to five
wards would increase the size of each ward by about 15%. I argued that it
would yield precisely the opposite effect. They now have reversed their
position. The evidence from around the country - and Minnesota - must be in.

We on the Commission researched this issue to a fare-thee-well then and in
subsequent years, when we boned up to ask voters to reconsider a scaled back
version of our proposal (say, a seven-ward, two at-large arrangement). In
every case where mixed council systems were matched against all-at-large or
all-ward types, the general balance of meeting human needs and attracting
human capital with that of large bricks-and-mortar capital investments was
significantly better and stability between parochial interest and those of
the city as a whole far more assured.

Striking a balance between issues of narrower parochial views (wards) with
those of the city as whole is a critical change heading for better
policymaking. Not only is this not elitist, it is just the opposite,
removing exclusive fiefdoms from serving as leverage for logrolling votes -
a the bane of all-ward systems, creating many more opportunities for all
classes of people to have a say in who governs them, and providing the mayor
with some competition for what is now his exclusive territory - the city
at-large.

Let's address some opponents' specific concerns:

Supposition 1: Elections will cost more for at-large members. The cost of
elections are rising exponentially with or without a change in council
configuration, and should be the last reason not to consider changes that
would yield better representation and policymaking for all citizens should
the costs of elections.

Here's why representation would be enhanced not hamstrung:
With the present all-ward system, all voters in the city have but one person
to elect while the rest of the council is elected by other sections of the
city, thus keeping each ward's constituency utterly reliant on the
responsiveness of one of thirteen councilmembers and creating a virtual
kingdom with which to bargain with council colleagues on issues of
importance to a given ward. This invariably means trading votes for one
issue or project for similar support when your time comes for needing it.
Those votes are often cast without a shred of concern over the merits of the
vote vs. what that vote can do for the councilmember later on.

The current system also presents but one opportunity for any citizen to be
elected to the Council, for they may only run for the seat that represents
their residence area.

With a combination (we'll use the Strib's breakdown which is strikingly
similar in proportion to the one I proposed and they shot down over ten
years ago in St. Paul) of (at least) six wards and/or (at least) four
at-large seats, each resident gets to vote - and/or run for - five Council
seats instead of one. Further, once elected, ward councilmembers are going
to be inclined to respond to constituent concerns more quickly since the
voter can run to any one of the other four for satisfaction.

Show me the elitism in providing a five-fold opportunity for citizens of all
stripes to help influence their city's governance.

Supposition 2: Nonprofessionals will be short-changed in favor of
professional elites. Where is the evidence that such a revision will yield
that result? The St. Paul model of a part-time council was thought to
attract more "professionals", therefore be more representative of the
citizenry. It happened once for one or two elections. Some talent joined.
The rest caved in to the full time nature of the job, but it remained that
Mayor was able to assume a far greater portion of the balance of power the
strong-mayor form was designed to assure.

Oh, yes, a few so-called professionals (Doctors? Lawyers? Accountants? CEOs?
Small business owners?) might run and even be elected. But, first of all,
very few would be willing to sacrifice high-level careers for a four-year
full time stint on their City Council. You have to want to serve badly to
leave a law practice, a medical or dental practice, a corporate executive
post for scrutiny, the notoriety and significant drop in pay these men and
women would suffer. If and when they do, it will obviously be because they
are prone to public service over monetary self-enrichment. But, even then,
four years apart from their client bases and customers can leave little to
come back to.

This is hardly, I hasten to add in rebuttal of some concerns, a recipe for
southwest Minneapolitans to dominate the Council. St. Paul's history puts to
rest similar fears that Crocus Hill, Mac-Groveland and Highland Park would
be "overrepresented" in a configuration with at-large representatives.
Councilmembers - even when we had an all-at-large commission form of city
government (from 1916-1972. The strong mayor form has only been with us for
30 years) - came from everywhere in the city, many of the most powerful
hailing from the East Side, the North End and Northwest sections of the city
where residents of generally more modest means reside.

Naysayers overstate the likelihood that those with the dough will run. Good
candidates can raise the money necessary to run and win. And, again, those
from Southwest Minneapolis are not likely more active in their communities
than residents from other parts of this city. Perhaps less so.

As for the city management form, I'm not sanguine about the accountability
of this arrangement, although some administrative coordination might be
wise, especially if the Mayor is the Chair of the Council.

It is important that the old saws and elitist fears not be trotted out
unless you have pretty solid evidence that the changes can't work, in this
case for the betterment of city policy. Other cities' experience dictates
otherwise, and a mix of neighborhood types and well-placed at-large members
is not a bad thing, as I see it.

One thing that must go is the singularly archaic strong-council/weak-mayor
form Minneapolis now struggles with. Either make it a strong-mayor/council
system with a balance of power struck by a mixed ward/at-large council
configuration and the Mayor the chief executive, or if, like a parliamentary
piece, the Mayor is a councilmember, then govern with an executive committee
and a city coordinator, much as it is now with the exception that mayor
couldn't veto, merely vote along with the rest of them.

We'll keep an eye on this process here - despite being a resident of
Minneapolis' sister city to the East. I happen to love Minneapolis almost as
much as St. Paul.

Andy Driscoll
Saint Paul

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