Lawyers for each side called the other’s case “absurd” in a court hearing Thursday into whether the Minneapolis City Council was out of line when it denied a place on the November ballot to a charter amendment that would make the city’s park board more independent.
Referendum backers say greater autonomy to levy taxes would get the parks off a path to financial — and possibly existential — ruin.
Others (notably an 11-member majority of the city council and the city attorney’s office) say the referendum (see below) would effectively — and unconstitutionally — give birth to a new unit of local government, and for that reason shouldn’t be on the ballot.
“If they can do this, any charter city can go out and create another government subdivision,” said Assistant City Attorney Peter Gindner. “It’s an absurd result.”
But turnabout is fair play. “That’s an absurd reading of the [state] constitution,” said University of Minnesota School of Law Prof. Fred Morrison in defense of the proposed referendum.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Cara Lee Neville heard an hour of arguments from Gindner, who defended last week’s council action, and Morrison, who appealed that decision on behalf of citizens who signed a petition to put the referendum before voters.
Gindner and Morrison engaged in legal and sometimes semantic combat over the park board’s current quasi-independent status within city government and how to describe its new status should the referendum gain a place on the ballot and pass.
But after hearing the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board variously described as a unit of government or a city department, Neville still had a basic question for Morrison. How should she think of the park board, as a unit or a department?
Morrison rose to answer. “As a park board,” he said.
Neville accepted that and explained her question: “Sometimes the language squishes around.”
Gindner offered the judge a few alternative descriptions for what the park board would become under the proposed charter amendment: “some kind of hybrid creature” and “a very strange beast that you cannot tell what it is.”
Neville adjourned the hearing promising to reach a decision “as fast we can.” A Sept. 11 deadline for finalizing the ballot looms.
Here’s the city charter amendment as proposed:
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board shall be a separate and independent governmental unit of the state of Minnesota with an elected board of commissioners. The Park and Recreation Board shall preserve and protect park land, lakes and open spaces as a public trust forever and shall have all the powers and rights of a separate and independent governmental unit of the state was determined by the state legislature. The Mayor of Minneapolis shall have the right to veto the Park and Recreation Board’s legislative actions and budget, subject to the ability of Park Board to override a veto by a two-thirds (2/3rds) vote.
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