City Council, Park Board going to court over rejected amendmentby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — The latest power struggle between the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is going to court because of a vote on Friday by the council.
The City Council refused to put an amendment on this fall's ballot that would have established the park board as an independent unit of government.
The Park Board is already a semi-autonomous, elected body. It controls a multi-million dollar budget, but it doesn't have taxing authority.
Earlier this year, Park Board supporters got riled up when a few council members wanted to dissolve the board as a cost-cutting measure. That didn't go anywhere, but it did inspire park board supporters to craft their own charter amendment to establish the board's full autonomy - taxing authority and all.
That attempt was blocked when the council voted 11 to 2 to keep the proposed charter amendment off the ballot. The majority mostly based their votes on the opinion of the city attorney, who said the city lacks the authority to create another independent governmental unit.
Before the vote was taken, council member Paul Ostrow told his colleagues that if they allowed an unconstitutional charter amendment on the ballot, they would be violating their oath of office.
"I can think of few things more irresponsible than putting an issue on the ballot that we know will -- depending on the result, even if it's voted in the affirmative -- will not be effective," Ostrow said. "What could be more cynical and what could be more wrong than that? To engage the people of the city of Minneapolis in an election, when the result of it will be null and void."
Earlier this year, Ostrow and two other council members kicked open a hornet's nest when they crafted a series of charter amendments including the attempt to dissolve the Park Board. That measure never made it to the ballot, but another measure seeking to drop the Board of Estimate and Taxation proposal did.
Pat Scott is a former city council member and a member of the group advocating for the independent park board charter amendment. Scott said she'll vote against the attempt to eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation - the elected body which sets tax policy. Scott said the measure is one of the reasons why an independent park board is necessary.
"The actual proposal for the Board of Estimate and Taxation is not to take the board away, but to make the City Council the board," Scott said. "And if they have total control of that, with no voices from independent citizens, nor from the Park Board - I think the financial situation for the park board is in serious jeopardy."
Scott and other supporters of the amendment fear that in today's atmosphere of government cutbacks, the Park Board may get the short end of the budget stick. If the Park Board were an independent governmental unit under the State of Minnesota, it could have the power to set its own tax levies.
But since the City Council blocked their bid to get the measure to voters, supporters of the amendment will now resort to the courts.
Attorney Brian Rice is filing a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the authors of the amendment. The group, called Citizens for Independent Parks, collected more than 17,000 signatures in order to get the proposed changes on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Rice said the council's action violates a basic right of citizens.
"Petitioners had a constitutional right to get this matter in front of the voters - that it's not unconstitutional, that it's not preempted by state law and it's not against public policy," Rice said. "I mean, the legislature itself created the Park Board 126 years ago as a local unit of government. So, we'll have an issue in court about whether or not the voters have a say in their governance."
This is not the first time the city council has rejected a ballot measure initiated by a citizen group. In 2004, the council shot down a proposal to set up a medical marijuana distribution system. The city rejected it on legal grounds.
In the meantime, supporters of the park board amendment expect a judge to rule on their lawsuit early next month.
- All Things Considered, 08/28/2009, 5:50 p.m.