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Minnesota Supreme Court issues partial ruling on Minneapolis police ballot question

Early absentee voting in Minneapolis begins on Friday, Sept. 17.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis police reform ballot question is now in the hands of the state supreme court, a day after a lower court judge once again struck down the ballot language as too vague.

Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson knocked down the ballot language several times, ruling that it can't go to voters because the question, as written, doesn't make it clear enough what changes a "yes" vote would bring to the city's charter.

The Minneapolis City Council is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse Anderson's decision, or at least send it back to the judge with instructions that would allow the question to appear on the ballot. The city's legal staff asserts the wording of the ballot question complies completely with state law, which requires voters know what's being amended and can distinguish it from other questions appearing on the same ballot.

County elections officials have already printed all 350,000 ballots with the language Judge Anderson says can't fly. And early absentee voting in the city election is set to begin Friday, Sept. 17.

But in her latest ruling Judge Anderson also ordered Hennepin County elections officials to refrain from counting any votes cast on that ballot question she has invalidated. The judge also warned them against divulging partial results from those who vote on the question.

It was the latest victory for the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the ballot language: Don Samuels, a former city council member, his wife Sondra, who heads the Northside Achievement zone, and Uptown developer Bruce Dachis.

They contend with violent crime on the rise, especially affecting Black families, voters should know the proposed amendment will eliminate the police department from the Minneapolis City Charter, along with the police chief's position, and minimum staffing requirements found in the charter.

"I am a Black mother! That’s why I wanted the ballot to speak fairly about what it was doing," Sondra Samuels told reporters Wednesday.

"Because we believe that we want reform, but it has to be in participation with Police Chief Arradondo. And with the police who are not all Chauvin."

Leaders of Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that collected thousands of signatures to put the issue on the ballot, called the judge's ruling a blow against democracy.

"For them, that group of people, to snatch away something that 22,000 people fought for, that 100,000 more said they are ready for, THAT is heinous! That is completely undemocratic!" Rev. Janae Bates told reporters.

"The reality is Judge Anderson took something that should’ve been legal and procedural and made it political."

Sondra Samuels said she wants all three sides - her group, the city council and Yes 4 Minneapolis - to reach an agreement on language so that some version of the question can still appear on the ballot.

"If we’re going to have a ballot question - and we want a ballot question - it has to tell people what they are voting for or against," Samuels explained.

The group's attorney said the ballot language should explain that the police department, the position of chief, and minimum law enforcement staffing requirement all may disappear as early as December 2, when the city charter amendments would take effect.

Joe Anthony said if the city council wanted to be completely transparent it would've developed a blueprint for what will happen to the city's police force beginning December 2, and shared that with the public. Judge Anderson said she lacks the authority to order the city council to create a new public safety department prior to the people voting on it.

Assistant City Attorney Ivan Ludmer argued in court that ballot questions by law don't have to predict the effects of a yes or no vote, and that its beyond the scope of the court's role to add such a requirement on another branch of government.

Bates contends there's a pressing 30-day deadline to create a new department, if her group's question were to win the day.

"There are ordinances in place currently to make sure that everything functions as it’s supposed to, that we have a streamlined transition to the Department of Public Safety."

Terrance Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said the city council created the MPD through a city ordinance, and that will still be on the books even if the department is removed from the city charter. If voters change the city charter, Moore contends, the city council would no longer be required to have a police department but would decide to keep it in place until they've had time to create the new department of public safety.

Disputed language

The language approved by the city council Sept. 7 and struck down by Judge Anderson on Sept. 14 reads as follows:

"Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of amendment being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made part of this ballot? Yes__ No__ "

Explanatory Note:

"This amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council. The Department would be led by a Commissioner nominated by the Mayor and appointed by the Council. The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated."

What would be removed from city charter:

Here's the current language that will be struck from the Minneapolis City Charter, if the voters approved the proposed amendment:

§ 7.3. –

(a) Police department. The Mayor has complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the police department. The Mayor may make all rules and regulations and may promulgate and enforce general and special orders necessary to operating the police department. Except where the law vests an appointment in the department itself, the Mayor appoints and may discipline or discharge any employee in the department (subject to the Civil Service Commission's rules, in the case of an employee in the classified Service).

(1) Police chief.

(A) Appointment. The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a police chief under section 8(b).

(B) Term. The chief's term is three years.

(C) Civil service. The chief serves in the unclassified service, but with the same employee benefits (except as to hiring and removal) as an officer in the classified service. If a chief is appointed from the classified service, then he or she is treated as taking a leave of absence while serving as chief, after which he or she is entitled to return to his or her permanent grade in the classified service. If no vacancy is available in that grade, then the least senior employee so classified returns to his or her grade before being so classified.

D) Public health. The chief must execute the City Council's orders relating to the preservation of health.

(2) Police officers. Each peace officer appointed in the police department must be licensed as required by law. Each such licensed officer may exercise any lawful power that a peace officer enjoys at common law or by general or special law, and may execute a warrant anywhere in the county.

(b) Temporary police. The Mayor may, in case of riot or other emergency, appoint any necessary temporary police officer for up to one week. Each such officer must be a licensed peace officer.

(c) Funding. The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident, and provide for those employees' compensation, for which purpose it may tax the taxable property in the city up to 0.3% of its value annually. This tax is in addition to any other tax, and not subject to the maximum set under section 9.3(a)(4).

What would be added to City Charter:

7.3 Public Safety:

(a) Department of Public Safety.

(1) Function: The Department of Public Safety is responsible for integrating its public safety functions into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, including licensed peace officers if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.

(2) Commissioner of Public Safety Department, (a) The Mayor nominates and the City Council appoints a commissioner of the department of public safety under section 8.4.