Our City has changed in many ways since 1872. But our city’s charter, which establishes how we govern ourselves, has changed very little. For years, many objective observers have rightly concluded that it is a relic that burdens city leaders with an antiquated and overly complex structure that harms our competitiveness, effectiveness and responsiveness.
Our new President Barack Obama eloquently stated in his inaugural that as a country we are guilty of a collective failure to face the hard issues. As a city, we have failed to face up to the issue of serious charter reform that will give city government the tools it needs to meet the demands of the 21st Century. Our economic crisis, coupled with a potential loss of a total of more than 50 million dollars in local government aid over the next two years, only adds to the urgency of facing this issue now. It is time to engage our citizens in a critically important conversation about how we govern ourselves and to finally give our citizens a voice in how they are governed.
Our proposal contains three essential points. First, Minneapolis needs stronger professional management and a streamlined reporting structure. Under the proposal, all department heads would report to a City Administrator who would have the authority to discipline or terminate department heads. (The appointment process would remain unchanged as the Mayor would continue to appoint subject to Council approval.). No more would every department head have fourteen bosses. The Mayor and City Council will concentrate on setting policy while relying on the City Administrator to hold department heads accountable for the implementation of those policies.
Second, the responsibilities of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board would be transferred to the Mayor and City Council. An appointed body would replace the currently elected Board and would be advisory to the new Parks Department. The Park Superintendent would report in the new reporting structure to the City Administrator. One aim would be to shift savings made possible by elimination of dual police departments, legal departments, planning departments and other administration to the improvement of the current park and trail systems. An additional goal would be to create a unified green vision for our city.
Third, the change would bring accountability and transparency to a crazy system in which the Mayor and City Council largely control the park purse strings (through the Board of Estimate and Taxation) but have no say over how parks money is spent.
Finally, the proposal would shift the responsibilities of the Board of Estimate and Taxation to the City Council and Mayor. The charter change would allow the Council to set the maximum tax levy. It would come as a surprise to most Minneapolis residents that the Board of Estimate and Taxation rather than the Mayor and Council are responsible for this critical decision.
On March 4, Council Member Samuels, Council Member Remington and I will be addressing the Charter Commission. The Commission will be discussing the public hearings and process for consideration of these proposals. We would encourage all citizens to actively engage in these discussions as they move forward.
Following their review of the proposal, the Charter Commission will be forwarding the proposals to the Intergovernmental Relations Committee and the full Council for a vote on placing the initiative on the ballot in November. If the Council votes to not place the issue on the ballot, a petition process would be required to place the changes on the November ballot.
You may ask why is this important to me? The answer is clear. Perhaps in the past we have succeeded despite our cumbersome and disjointed bureaucracy. In the future, however, a fiscally and politically healthy city will have a much better chance of holding value for the homes and businesses of its residents and a far better opportunity to build an economy to attract prosperity for the next generations – your children and grandchildren.
Paul Ostrow is the Minneapolis City Council Member for the First Ward.