Minneapolis charter changes could bring reorganizationby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Members of the Minneapolis Charter Commission have been taking public reaction to three controversial proposed amendments to the city's charter. The most hotly debated proposal seeks to dismantle the elected Park and Recreation Board and move its functions under the roof of City Hall. But there are other more sweeping changes in the works. The charter document has undergone an extreme makeover, meant to eliminate redundancy and remove confusing and archaic language.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The Minneapolis city charter is like a blueprint which shows how the city government works. It details which position or department has the power to do what, how officials are elected and for how long and a lot more.
The charter has been amended dozens of times throughout the city's history and sometimes the amendment process is cause for public attention.
Earlier this week, a crowd of about 50 people packed into a room meant for half as many people, at the North Regional Library in north Minneapolis. They were welcomed by Commission Chair Jim Bernstein.
"We are here to listen to what you have to say about three proposals to amend the Minneapolis Charter."
Bernstein began taking testimony on the two amendments fewer people are interesting in talking about.
The first item seeks to realign the flow chart in City Hall and create a new position to oversee every city department. The second change would eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation. The board is an elected body which audits the city's books, issues bonds and sets maximum levy limits for various city tax funds.
Each proposal is passionately opposed by citizens and by some current and former elected city officials.
But the most vocal opposition of the hearing is saved for the amendment to abolish the city's elected park board amendment.
"We have a world-class park system," said Minneapolis resident Dan Thibideaux. "Our park board has done this for going on almost 100 years. I don't see any reason to change something that works. I think the city council would be well advised to keep their nose and fingers out of the parks."
The amendment proposals came from several city council members. They say the moves will streamline city functions, save some money and bring transparency to a sometimes opaque organizational structure.
For the last five years, members of the charter commission have been on a similar mission. But their task was not to restructure city government.
Instead, Commission Chair Jim Bernstein says their job was to rewrite the 70,000-word document that was written nearly 140 years ago.
"It should be written so that any citizen can pick it up and understand what the governance structure of the city is," he said, "and not have to have taken Elizabethan English to be able to process or have to be an expert in legal language."
Bernstein is referring to use of the word doth, instead of does. The word, which scholars say dates back half a millenium, appears four times in the charter.
Along with doth, charter editors removed more than 1,800 uses of the word shall.
In fact, the charter commission reduced the entire word count in the charter by more than 80 percent which reduced the number of pages by a third. The commission also reduced the average number of words in each sentence by a third.
To illustrate the significance of sentence word count, please consider the following 73-word sentence directly from the Minneapolis charter.
"Such report after its presentation to the Council, shall lie over until the next regular meeting of the Council, which shall occur at least one week after the reception thereof, at which time, or at any meeting the City Council may act upon such report and hear any complaint touching such award or assessment, or it may refer the matter to a committee of the Council to hear such complaints and report thereon."
Charter Commission chair Jim Bernstein says the original document is also disorganized in a few key ways.
For example, it scatters details about the police department around a few different sections. Bernstein says the rewrite organizes the charter into easy to find chapters and sections.
The changes will need to be approved by a unanimous vote from the city council. But the adoption process for the three controversial proposed amendments will be different.
If the charter commission recommends they go forward, any or all of them will be put to a referendum this fall.
- Morning Edition, 04/30/2009, 7:45 a.m.