Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Park Board Amendment Kept Off Ballot

This morning, I voted against a motion to keep a charter amendment off of the ballot this fall. The amendment, if placed on the ballot and passed by the voters, would have likely given the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board independent taxing authority, contingent on being granted that power by the State Legislature.

I voted against keeping this off of the ballot for a number of reasons, none of them having to do with the merits of the charter amendment itself. As I said this morning, I am not sure that I would vote for this charter amendment if it was on the ballot. More importantly, I am a strong supporter of the agreement, reached by Council Members Benson and Johnson, Mayor Rybak and Park Board President Nordyke, to establish a blue ribbon commission next year to study the relationship between the City and the Park Board. In fact, I had put forward a very similar suggestion earlier this spring calling for further study before any amendments considering the elimination of our elected boards were put before the voters. I would have preferred to have kept the amendment to eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation off the ballot and wish that the Park Board and supportive citizens had not felt they needed to move forward with a charter amendment this year until after such a commission could have been formed and study completed.

However, as some of my colleagues on the other side of this question noted several times, the decision before the Council this morning had nothing to do with the merits of the charter amendment itself. It was both a narrower question about the constitutionality of the amendment, and a broader question about how we respect direct democracy in Minneapolis. My reasons for voting “no” are as follows.

The petitioners followed the process. Minneapolis has an established process for citizens to place charter amendment questions on the ballot by petitioning. The advocates of the Park Board charter amendment followed this process – that is not in dispute. They submitted more than enough signatures. It is my strongly held belief that we, as a City Council, must meet a very, very high bar, both legally and philosophically, to prevent a legally certified petitioned question like this from being placed on the ballot.

The City Attorney did a very good job making the case that we did have the legal authority to not put it on the ballot. However, the fact that we have the power to do something does not mean that we should. My basic position is to always err on the side of respecting the will of voters, who have followed legal, established processes, and not let my own feelings about a given charter amendment rule.

Some of my colleagues questioned the level of knowledge of those who signed the petitions, or the honesty of those who gathered them. In my opinion, this is not relevant and the argument shows disrespect for the voters of Minneapolis, a sort of disrespect that is corrosive to the very idea of democracy.

I disagreed with the City Attorney’s opinion. The first three points of the City Attorney’s opinion are that 1) the amendment is unconstitutional, 2) it is preempted by state law, and 3) it is contrary to state policy. The fourth is that it is essentially a waste of time, because it would only take effect after an affirmative vote of the Legislature enabling it to take effect. In my opinion, the fact that the matter is contingent on legislative action negates the first three concerns. The legislature will not pass something in violation of the constitution. This makes our decision this morning purely about one question: should we place questions on the ballot that would change our Charter dependent on action by another unit of government? The City Attorney and Council majority clearly believes we should not. I disagree.

There were several key examples given by my colleagues to prove their point. One dealt with the medical marijuana charter amendment that came before the Council before I was elected. Again, in that case the Council clearly had the power to keep that question off of the ballot. If I had been on the Council at that time, I likely would have disagreed with the Council majority on that question as well. A group of petitioners followed the rules, gathered enough signatures, and the Council’s belief that it’s inappropriate to put something in our charter that would be dependent on state action is simply not a compelling enough argument. Another key example given was the City of Saint Paul’s decision in 2008 to keep ranked choice voting off the ballot, because they received a very similar City Attorney’s opinion telling them that a) they had the power to keep it off the ballot and b) there were constitutionality questions. I strongly disagreed with this decision by the Saint Paul Council as well, and felt that they overstepped their authority.

One more extremely important point to note is that, according to our City Attorney, absolutely nothing required the Council to keep this question off of the ballot. It was clear to me that we had the clear legal authority to allow this to be placed on the ballot.

We must not base these decisions on our personal positions on the merits of a charter amendment question. There is an established process for the Council to choose to place a question on the ballot because we decide it is a good idea. We followed this process to place ranked choice voting on the ballot. However, there is another process that exists for citizens to place a question on the ballot whether the Council thinks it’s a good idea or not. When responding to these sorts of petitions, we must be extremely careful not to allow our own personal positions on the question to motivate our actions.

For example, I strongly opposed the question that Council Members Ostrow, Remington, and Samuels brought forward earlier this year to abolish the elected Park Board. I would have voted against placing it on the ballot by a majority vote in the Council. However, if they had gathered enough signatures to place a question on the ballot, I would have voted to place it on the ballot.

I am concerned that many of the reasons my colleagues had for voting to keep this question off of the ballot had to do with the merits of the amendment. They think it’s a bad idea. In my opinion, this puts the Council in the unenviable and potentially dangerous position of appearing to have seized upon a convenient legal argument to kill an amendment that we wanted to kill for other, more policy-driven reasons.

There is a disturbing trend towards asking the Legislature, not Minneapolis voters, to make these sorts of governance decisions. Several years ago, I was the only Council Member to vote against asking the Legislature to abolish the Minneapolis Library Board. Similar to my reasoning today, my reasoning then was not based on my opinion that the Board should not be abolished – that wasn’t the question. The main question, for me, was whether these sorts of questions should go to Minneapolis voters, through the charter amendment process, or should be resolved by legislators from places as far away as the Iron Range.

I was also one Council Member to publicly call for a referendum on the imposition of a new sales tax for the Twins Stadium, rather than allowing the Legislature to decide the question without any input from Minneapolis voters.

I strongly believe that questions about Minneapolis governance should go to the voters first. This is what the amendment the Council majority voted to keep off of the ballot would have done. I see a clear pattern of this Council preventing the voters from deciding these sorts of issues, and I find it profoundly antidemocratic.

As I said above, I wish that we had not been in this situation. I wish that Council Members Ostrow, Remington and Samuels had not raised the specter of abolishing the independent Park Board earlier this year. I wish that the Park Board had not responded by gathering signatures to attempt to grant itself fully independent taxing authority.

This year the Council and Park Board have behaved like ships miles apart at sea, lobbing poorly aimed cannonballs towards one another. As we do so we make no progress solving the real problems and issues at hand. In my opinion, very little of what has divided us has been about a constructive vision for the future of our parks; on that question, everyone basically agrees. We want great parks and green spaces. No, the questions that have divided us have been about power: who’s got it, who wants it, who should have it, who can be trusted with it.

We can’t keep on like this.

It is time to call a cease fire. All of us on both sides of this divide need to come together and find a more constructive solution. As the likely lawsuit plays out and the November election concludes (with or without a Board of Estimate and Taxation remaining) I hope that both sides will return to the spirit of the agreement from earlier this year, and form a blue ribbon commission next year to study various options for working better together.

I also strongly hope that the results of this commission’s work, if they include any charter amendments, are then put before the Minneapolis voters, not simply the Legislature, before any changes are implemented. I will fight for this to be the process we follow.


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