Minneapolis City Council weighs citizen process for ballot initiative, referendum

Minneapolis City Council weighs citizen process for ballot initiative, referendum

Minneapolis City Council weighs citizen process for ballot initiative, referendum

The Minneapolis City Council will continue considering an amendment to the City Charter that would allow residents to take issues straight to the ballot through initiatives and referendums.

St. Paul has such a process, and it’s similar to the amendment now on the table in Minneapolis. However, Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley, who spearheaded the effort, confirmed in an interview on Sunday that it won’t be ready in time for a vote on the November ballot.

The proposal sparked the age-old debate between representative democracy, where decisions are made by elected officials — like the city council and the mayor — versus direct democracy, where residents vote to enact and repeal laws at the ballot box.

“People respond to issues that have an impact on their lives,” Wonsley said, arguing that ballot initiatives incentivize higher voter turnout and put citizens’ voices over powerful influence groups.

“I mainly think of my first day of orientation when I joined City Hall,” she said, answering why she proposed the amendment to the city’s constitution. “Our lunch was with the Minneapolis Downtown Council, and that really left an imprint, or a lasting impression, around, you know, who actually has access to, you know, elected officials behind the closed doors.”

Ballot measures aren’t always free of outside influence, either.

Critics of the proposal, including a few fellow council members following a public hearing on the topic at the City Council’s Committee of the Whole last week, argued such initiatives undermine the lawmaking process and give public officials an excuse to avoid tough decisions.

“I think this only weakens our democracy,” Ward 3 Council Member Michael Rainville commented.

Speaking during the hearing, a resident said, “I believe that all of you were elected to do your job, and this relieves you of that responsibility.”

The citizen testimony was split right down the middle, with half speaking in favor and the other half in opposition.

Research from city staff used ballot measures in five of the state’s most populous cities — St. Paul, Rochester, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park and Duluth — as examples, and Wonsley on Sunday said that dozens of Minnesota cities have similar processes.

Ward 4 Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw was not convinced that those were fair comparisons.

“There’s been a comment about, ‘All these other cities are fine.’ I’m not sure if that’s true. I haven’t talked to anyone in all these other cities that we’re being compared to,” Vetaw said during the committee meeting. “I will say, a comparison that’s obvious is that all of these other cities have part-time city councils. …They also have less council members. If I’m not mistaken, we’re the only full-time council in the state of Minnesota, the Minneapolis City Council is, so that’s what makes us different.”

Wonsley’s proposed charter amendment comes just three years after residents previously voted to amend it in favor of strengthening the power of the mayor’s office.

Wonsley firmly denied that her proposal was in any way an effort to reverse the outcome of that decision by the voters.

“No. Ballot initiatives and ballot referendums are powers that already exist, again, amongst, you know, 70-plus home-rule cities across the state,” she said. “It’s nothing about circumventing or over- or undermining those types of powers.”

Council members, even those in support of the proposal, weren’t ready to pass it at the full City Council meeting on Thursday, saying they wanted more time to iron out the details before voting to send it back to the author.

After council approval, the next step for the proposed amendment would be the city’s Charter Commission, and then back to council for a final vote before the approved language would ultimately go to the voters.

The city attorney’s office said at the committee meeting the Charter Commission’s deadline to receive amendments would be up before the end March.

Given the timeline and the vote to keep working on it, Wonsley said there’s no chance that the amendment would make it onto the November ballot as she hoped. She expressed plans to request additional research in the coming weeks and keep the work on the language going in the months ahead.