Judge to decide ballot language on replacing Minneapolis Police Department

A Hennepin County judge will decide whether Minneapolis can include an explanation on its November ballot along with a question on whether the Minneapolis Police Department should be replaced with a new public safety agency.

Judge Jamie Anderson heard arguments in the case Monday morning and issued no immediate order. Minneapolis faces an Aug. 20 deadline to submit final ballot language.

The 198-word explanation, the first of its kind in Minneapolis history, is playing a central role in the future of the city's police department. Activists have been pushing to disband the agency since George Floyd's 2020 death, while business interests favor keeping the department intact.

Terrance Moore, the lawyer for Yes 4 Minneapolis, which got the replacement issue on the November ballot by collecting more than 20,000 signatures, said the state Legislature has never given cities the power to do explanatory notes.

"Obviously an explanatory statement on the ballot itself is fertile ground for partisan political statements at best, and in the worst cases is a good place for lies or self-serving statements from those in power," Moore said during Monday's hearing.

The explanatory note tells voters that the amendment would remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter, remove its police chief, eliminate a minimum sworn staffing level, and take away City Council's ability to raise property taxes to fund police.

Assistant City Attorney Sarah McLaren said the wording fairly explains to voters what would be changed in the city charter.

"They are consistent, and the city has done its duty to fairly and neutrally put forward a fair ballot question to the voters that will lead to an informed electorate so that the citizens of Minneapolis can make an informed decision," McLaren said.

Moore raised concerns with two lines in the six-paragraph explanation. The mention of the police chief's removal lacks context because Chief Medaria Arradondo could be hired as the new public safety director -- or be out of a job, Moore said. And the line about the City Council's inability to raise property taxes omits other potential funding streams, he said.

McLaren said the wording was "in no way inaccurate."

The court case is key to two other November ballot questions on rent control and mayoral powers because city staff plan to include explanations for those, too.

Anderson acknowledged the looming time crunch, saying she would make "every attempt" to issue her order "as soon as possible." The Aug. 20 deadline for ballot language allows election officials to print ballots in time for early voting, which starts Sept. 17.

The police ballot question is getting widespread attention. Yes 4 Minneapolis has received nearly $1 million in donations and in-kind contributions this year, while opposition group AllofMpls has raised $109,000, campaign filings indicate.

Minneapolis Department of Public Safety ballot question

Voters will be given the opportunity to vote yes or no on the ballot question, which reads:

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach, and which would include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

The explanatory note, which would be included with the ballot question, outlines how the head of public safety would report to the mayor and city council. It reads:

This amendment would create a new Department of Public Safety, which would:
1. Combine public safety functions of the City of Minneapolis into a comprehensive public health approach to safety, with the specific public safety functions to be determined.
2. Include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the Department of Public Safety.
3. Be led by a Commissioner of Public Safety. The appointment process for the Commissioner would include a Mayor nomination and a City Council appointment. The Mayor would not have complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Department of Public Safety.
This amendment would also do the following:
1. Remove from the Charter a Police Department, which includes the removal of its Police Chief, and the removal of the Mayor’s complete power over the establishment, maintenance, and command of the Police Department.
2. Remove the City Council requirement to fund a police force of at least 1.7 employees per 1,000 residents.
3. Remove City Council authorization to impose additional taxation on taxable property in the City of Minneapolis of up to 0.3 percent of its value annually to fund the compensation of employees of the police force