City Council votes to seize control of Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson

The Minneapolis City Council made a series of budget-cutting moves Friday, though the most controversial vote will save the city no money at all. 

Instead, it offers something else of value to council members: control.

The council voted 9-3 to take away the Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson, another move toward the council majority's goal of dismantling MPD. The public information officer will move from Chief Medaria Arradondo's office into the city communications department on Oct. 1, effectively giving the council control over the messaging.

Arradondo said in an emailed statement that the council ignored him.

"This position has afforded the department an avenue for building stronger relationships and better serving the stakeholders throughout Minneapolis," Arradondo said. "I made my position on this matter clear. Today, the City Council opted to go in a different direction."

Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and council members Lisa Goodman and Linea Palmisano and were the three “no” votes. The three said they wanted a delay so the move could be more thoroughly vetted.

Councilman Jeremy Schroeder, a sponsor of the spokesperson amendment, said he was motivated by an initial news release from the police department that described the death of George Floyd as a “medical incident.” He described the errors of omission as “egregious.”

A spokesman for Mayor Jacob Frey said the mayor had concerns about the council's move.

"Major city departments across the nation employ a public information officer so that they can provide timely information to the public who need it," said Mychal Vlatkovich, the spokesman. "Defying best practices and expert advice stands to limit Chief Arradondo‘s and our local government leaders’ ability to effectively communicate with Minneapolis residents.”

Open government advocates and the Society of Professional Journalists urged the council to reconsider. The new position would be highly politicized, they said.

"What if, in a given council district providing the information in a timely fashion says they have a high amount of crime in that district? Does the city council person want that as part of the reputation of their district? Of course not," said Don Gemberling, a longtime open government advocate.

Journalists have also raised concerns that the city's communications department is ill-equipped to handle the 24/7 nature of police messaging. MPD's current spokesman, John Elder, is frequently at crime scenes overnight and on weekends. 

Friday, the issue was the subject of intense debate at a council meeting conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think it’s kind of, with all due respect, kind of a silly argument," Schroeder said of the journalists' concerns. "We will absolutely get the person who can do that job." 

But Jenkins, the council vice president, echoed the journalists' argument and said the city communications department did not have extra capacity. Goodman countered Schroeder with a fiery response.

"The fact that journalists and open data and open meeting experts pretty much unanimously agree that this is a bad idea is not a silly argument," she said. "I'm disgusted."

Nine of the 12 council members have publicly advocated for dismantling MPD and replacing it with a public safety force whose leader would not have a law enforcement background. Doing so would require a change to the city charter, which could go before voters in November.

Friday's final vote on the police spokesperson position marked an opportunity to reconsider after the council's budget committee -- which includes all council members -- voted 12-0 on Wednesday to support the change. 

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The Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said a the council-directed spokesperson could be manipulated by the council.

"Public safety information should never be vulnerable to manipulation based on city politics and sentiments," the SPJ board wrote in a statement before the vote. 

Council member Steve Fletcher said Friday the city's communications staff -- which receives its budget and policy directives from elected officials -- "is not subject to politicization."

"Our city is at risk of going under, under the costs of sitting still," Fletcher said of lawsuits against MPD alleging discriminatory practices, brutality and a lack of transparency.