BY CAM GORDON
The mayor and City Council are moving quickly to restructure city government.
Substantial ordinance amendments, which have yet to be shared with the public, could be approved by the end of August. The timeline presented by Mayor Jacob Frey in June called for the public hearing on August 4 and approval on August 20.
Some of it is already underway.
On June 30, the council approved two new executive positions: a community safety commissioner and a city operations officer to replace the city coordinator.
Ordinance amendments were approved to create the position of city operations officer, with a salary of $269,943 to $320,000, and the position of community safety commissioner, with a salary of $295,250 to $350,000. Both salaries exceed the cap of $192,144 imposed by state law and will require a waiver. Both positions will report to the mayor.
The city operations officer will oversee the proposed new Office of Public Service whichwould include the 311/Service Center, City Assessor, Civil Rights Department, Communications, Community Planning and Economic Development, Finance and Property Services, the Health Department, Human Resources, Information Technology, Intergovernmental Relations, Minneapolis Convention Center, Neighborhood and Community Relations, Public Works and Regulatory Services.
Then, on July 7, Mayor Frey announced his nomination of Cedric Alexander for the new position of community safety commissioner. As proposed, the commissioner would oversee the new Office of Community Safety, which would include the fire and police departments, 911, the Office of Emergency Management, and a new Office of Neighborhood Safety that will replace, or possibly include, the Office of Violence Prevention now housed in the Health Department. Alexander will be considered for the position by the City Council at their August 4 meeting following a hearing on Aug. 2.
The council also approved adding a city auditor position to the internal audit department and increased the department’s budget by $75,000 to do so.
When Frey announced his selection of Cedric Alexander for the safety commissioner, he said that government restructuring is “the most important thing I will probably ever do as mayor.”
Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) has given notice that she is authoring the restructuring amendments to repeal Chapters 17, 21 and 25 that relate to the offices of city attorney, internal auditor, and city coordinator and adding new chapters to “provide for the government structure and its Executive and Administrative Departments, including the offices of Public Service, City Attorney, and Community Safety” consistent with the mayor’s plan.
Presently, and historically, 10 departments report jointly to the mayor and council. The proposed reorganization reduces the number reporting directly to the mayor to four and limits the departments reporting directly to the council to two. The city attorney is one of the four who will report to the mayor but their relationship to the council is unclear.
Some council members are concerned.
Council Members Elliot Payne (Ward 1) and Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5) said that they are concerned about a lack of resources to support the work of the City Council as the legislative body. Council Member Jason Chavez (Ward 9) said he “still believes the pathway forward is through a charter change.” Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4) said that she “is afraid some departments, like health, will be lost.”
“We have to be mindful that Council still plays a role in approving department heads and that we don’t have a dilution of financial oversight,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson (Ward 12). He wants to ensure that there is no change in the level of financial authority currently held by the council.
“Question #1 has been implemented for nearly seven months, there is no reason to rush this process,” said Council Member Robin Wonsley (Ward 2), who was the lone “no” vote on approving the new positions. “I know the public wants to be involved in charting a path forward for our city.”
At the June 18 council meeting, Wonsley asked the mayor about community engagement on the proposal, and he highlighted the 2021 campaign and his work group. That work group was established in late 2021 without a single current, or newly elected, council member serving on it. None of its meetings were open to the public. In 2021, Question #1 won with 52.4% of the vote and was defeated in six out of the 13 wards.
“The mayor could take the time to work with Council and the public to shape an equitable transparent restructure package, instead he is rushing through an ordinance process to avoid public scrutiny,” Wonsley wrote following that meeting. “The current proposal lacks robust programs and resources on the legislative side that Council needs to best serve constituents.”
About lack of public participation, Wonsley said, “For comparison, the city did a multi-phased engagement process for the city’s Transportation Action Plan that received thousands of comments and created a process that allowed the public to see how their feedback shaped adjustments in the proposals. The guiding principles of this government structure were offered by the mayor’s Government Structure Work Group and the public safety plan was based on recommendations from the mayor’s Public Safety Work Group. Both work groups were handpicked by the mayor and met behind closed doors with little to no opportunity for public comment. This is not how elected leaders should be making decisions when credibility and public trust is at an all-time low, the public deserves better.”
Wonsley also raised concerns about the lack of any independent legal counsel to advise council members.
Given the many concerns raised by council members about the potential significance of this restructuring to further divide and eliminate checks and balances in our government, the council could decide to take a slower and more inclusive process going forward. If not, it could be written, approved, and enacted into law by the end of the month.