New era in Minneapolis as more power shifts to mayor

A man holds a microphone on a stage.
Mayor Jacob Frey celebrates in Minneapolis as early election results prove promising for his campaign on Nov. 2. Voters reelected Frey and also passed a charter amendment giving the mayor more executive authority.
Tim Evans for MPR News

As Minneapolis elected officials are inaugurated Monday morning, they'll be taking office under a new city governmental structure that gives the mayor more executive authority.

But exactly how that new structure is implemented will likely play out over the next few months or years.

In the past, the Minneapolis mayor had sole control of only the police and civil rights departments. Oversight of other city departments was shared with the city council, through an executive committee. That now-defunct body was made up of the mayor, council president and several other council members.

That system didn’t always run smoothly, according to Barry Clegg, chair of the city’s appointed Charter Commission, which initiated the charter amendment that led to the city’s governmental change.   

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”The department head couldn’t just say, ‘The mayor has given me an instruction, I will carry it out.’ That department head had to make sure that the council was on board,” Clegg said. “Too often this resulted in inefficiency and nothing getting done.”

The charter amendment that changed the city’s governmental structure was approved by 52 percent of Minneapolis voters in November. It adjusted the city’s charter so that all city departments now report to the mayor and it got rid of the city’s executive committee. The City Council retains the ability to craft ordinances, to approve the budget and to audit city programs or departments. 

Clegg said this new structure puts Minneapolis in line with cities including Duluth and St. Paul, as well as other similarly-sized cities around the country.  

But there was opposition to the change, especially from some sitting council members. 

A man speaks while being surrounded by people wearing masks.
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison speaks at a news conference in north Minneapolis on May 27, 2021, where community leaders and city officials announced the launch of the Community Safety Specialist pilot program.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

Ward 5 Council Member Jeremiah Ellison will be serving his second term on the council, and said it’s not yet clear exactly how the amendment, called Question 1 on voter ballots, will be implemented. 

”A lot of people supported Question 1 on the premise that it would declutter this sort of decision-making,” Ellison said. “It’s maybe done the opposite.”

Ellison said the worst-case scenario for a system that gives a mayor more executive authority is that it could be abused to play favorites in how city resources are allocated. 

”If the mayor has the power to make sure the snow doesn’t get plowed in the wards of his political enemies, so to speak, will a mayor be petty enough to do that?” Ellison asked. “I don’t know.”

Clegg said council members are still allowed to request reports and information from departments, and that they’ll still be able to ask public works to, say, plow the snow off a street in their ward that’s been overlooked.  

”There’s still oversight that’s allowed,” Clegg said. “The only thing that’s not allowed is interference. The council is still given the power to inquire and the power to advocate for their constituents.” 

The system officially went into place on Dec. 3, when Mayor Jacob Frey met with all heads of city departments. During a city hall press conference, Frey said this new structure would bring lasting change in the city.

”There may be no more important work that we ever do as the city of Minneapolis,” Frey said. “This holds longer-lasting impact than any policy, or procedure, development or practice. This structure of government that we are setting up right now will hold multi-generational impact.”

The previous system of city government had roots in what the city’s Charter Commission described as a “patchwork” of laws, dating back to the city’s original legislative charter in 1872. Five previous attempts to change the structure failed. 

Frey also put together an outside workgroup after the election to suggest recommendations for how best to set up the new systems. That group is led by former Minneapolis City Council member and city coordinator Kathleen O’Brien and Pizza Lucé CEO JJ Haywood. They’ll deliver a report to the mayor early this year. Some structural changes would need to be approved by ordinance. 

Clegg, who is also serving on the workgroup, said Charter Commission members consulted with people in St. Paul about that city government’s structural changes 50 years ago, and was warned that it may take years to untangle how the system will function.

“It’s going to take a while; I know the mayor is looking at different structures, whether we should have a deputy mayor like St. Paul or a chief operating officer,” Clegg said. “So that will have to be resolved and decided.”  

Minneapolis City Council will also elect its new president and vice president after Monday’s inauguration ceremony. 

The ceremonial swearing-in of the mayor and council members will be in person, with restricted access due to rising COVID cases. The organizational meeting will not be held in person.   

Both the swearing-in and organizational meeting will be livestreamed on the city's YouTube channel.