On the ballot this November, along with the election of city officers, will be a proposal calling for the approval of a new city charter. The City Charter Commission, a group of 15 people appointed by the District Court, has assured us that this new charter is the same as the old charter, just cleaned up and modernized.
On the website of the commission is the new charter, and a couple of side by side comparisons between the old charter and new charter. Even with this documentation, it took me several very long days to go through the documents, and I am certain that I missed things. I am not a lawyer, but I have spent most of my life with lawyers and one thing I am certain of, language matters. Legalese is much maligned, for good reason, but lawyers use it to be specific in their meaning.
Generally, I am a fan of simplifying. The Charter Commission simplified the charter in three ways:
1) By deciding that something is outdated and does not need to be in the charter anymore: The most talked about item in the old charter is the provision empowering the City Council to control the size of a loaf of bread. This one is obvious, but not all of them are. A few examples: The old charter requires the city finance officer to do an annual report (audit) of the city financials. I cannot find this in the new charter. There was a requirement for a yearly inventory of city property that I cannot find in the new charter. The new charter eliminates the requirement for the City Council to do annual audits, and eliminates the requirement for the Park and Recreation Board to do annual reports. I am sure such reports and audits are a burden, but as a citizen, I think we should at least talk about removing these requirements from the charter. Certainly these are not trivial.
By stating that certain things in the charter are better in city ordinances: This seems reasonable, but an ordinance can be changed by a majority (or in some cases super majority) of the City Council, and the charter only by a vote of the citizens. I would feel much more confident if we had a list of these things, so that we could decide if they should be moved from a higher to a lower standard. It is very difficult to be confident that I saw them all, and I did look. A few examples that might deserve some discussion: What to do in case of a tie in elections. (The old charter says by lot, the new one leaves it to be decided by ordinance). What happened to the authorization for a presidential election poll? Or the requirement that the City Council provide ballots to all precincts? Or the rules for removing elected officials who do not do their work, or move out of the city? Maybe it is fine with the electorate to let the City Council and the mayor decide things about their own membership. I am not convinced.
By rewriting to simplify: This is the tricky part; it is hard for me, not being a lawyer, to tell if there is a problem here. I looked closely at the citizen-passed charter change to require a vote on a sports stadium. The old version is long and the verbiage complicated The new one is short, to the point and seems clear. BUT, are these two sections equivalent?
This is the old language:
“[If] the aggregate amount of any such obligations or indebtedness to be issued or incurred for any improvement, including but not limited to acquisition, development, construction or betterment, of any public building, stadium, or other capital improvement project, shall in all phases from inception to completion exceed Fifteen Million Dollars ($15,000,000.00), the Board of Estimate and Taxation shall not issue or sell any bonds or other obligations nor incur any indebtedness for such purpose without the approval of a majority of the electors voting on the question of issuing such obligations or incurring such indebtedness at a general or special election.”
This is the new language: “Capital improvements. The City may not issue bonds, borrow money, or otherwise incur debt in connection with any capital improvement where the debt exceeds $15 million for the entire project unless the voters so authorize.”
Well, if the powers that be (PTB) were people of good will, who were interested in governing with respect to the people’s will, then perhaps we could live with this. Do you trust them? Even if you trust the current office holders and administrators, are you confident you will trust their successors?
When things matter, then language is important. It is important that the cost of the stadium includes “other” costs. It is important that the entire cost and commitments be taken into account, not just the indebtedness. This is just not clear in the “simplified” version.
I am not comfortable with this new charter. I am going to vote no. My recommendation to anyone that asks will be to vote no.
Related: COMMUNITY VOICES | Plain language Minneapolis charter ballot questions (Barry Clegg, 2013)