Minneapolis

Judge rejects ballot language for Minneapolis policing measure

2021-09-07 13:25:07 –

A Hennepin County judge on Tuesday tossed out the current ballot language for a proposal that would clear the way for city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department.

The current language “is insufficient to identify the amendment clearly, it does not assist the voter in easily and accurately identifying what is being voted on, and it is vague and ambiguous to the point of misleading voters, all of which make it unjust,” wrote Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson.

Minneapolis officials are set to meet in an emergency meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, in hopes that the mayor and City Council could approve new wording. Terrance W. Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, which wrote the proposal, said they “are considering appealing the order, which would happen no later than Wednesday.”

Hennepin County officials, who coordinate ballot printing for Minneapolis, previously said in court that if the judge struck the language, they needed to get new wording to the printer by 5 p.m. Tuesday. They estimated they would need updated phrasing by noon Tuesday to meet that deadline.

This is the second time in roughly a month that Anderson has struck the ballot language for this measure, although she did so for different reasons each time.

The proposal is drawing national attention and money as Minneapolis residents prepare to vote on policing for the first time since George Floyd was killed by an officer — and as the issue becomes a wedge in next year’s state and federal races.

Over roughly the past month, the city has faced two lawsuits over how it chose to word the question slated to appear on the ballot. The legal fights don’t impact the contents of the proposal, only the wording that voters will see.

At the center of the legal fight is a question of how much detail is needed to ensure people understand what they’re voting on, and how much could be construed as a campaign statement intended to sway them.

The proposal deletes 406 words from the city’s charter, which serves as its constitution, and adds 80 words. City officials have said that state law prohibits them from posting the text of the proposal in polling places and bars poll workers from answering voters’ questions.

The measure would remove language in the charter that requires Minneapolis to have a police department with a minimum number of officers based on population. The city would then be required to create a new agency responsible for “integrating” public safety functions “into a comprehensive public health approach to safety.” The new agency could have police “if necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the department.”

The proposal would also strike language from the charter that gives the mayor “complete power” over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers. The mayor and council would decide how to design the new department and whether — and how — to employ police.

In court documents and during oral arguments, attorneys argued intensely over how to interpret those charter changes and what that means for the fight over how to construct neutral ballot language.

The latest question, struck down by the judge on Tuesday, asked voters: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety which could include licensed peace officers (police officers) if necessary, with administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?”

Attorneys for the three people who brought the latest suit — Bruce Dachis, Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — had argued that the question didn’t provide voters with enough information to make an informed decision about the proposal.

Attorneys for Yes 4 Minneapolis and the city had argued the language provided enough information for voters to distinguish that proposal from others on the ballot.

In her order, Anderson wrote that the question was “vague to the point of being misleading” and “missing essential information that would accurately inform the voters.”

“For example, does ‘striking’ the Police Department mean renaming it (as the Petitioners suggest it could be interpreted) or taking it apart, as one would ‘strike a set’ after a play is done? The end of the Current Ballot Language says ‘ … to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety.’ To whose responsibilities does that refer? The Police Department? The new Department of Public Safety?”

Anderson added that attorneys in the case disagree on three points: whether the Minneapolis Police Department would cease to exist in early December if this passes, whether the police chief’s position would be eliminated and whether there is a funding mechanism for the proposed public safety department.

“These three issues are additional ambiguities in the Current Ballot Language,” she wrote. “All of these ambiguities risk creating a ‘chaotic situation’ in Minneapolis.”

Earlier in the case, Hennepin County officials told the judge they needed final ballot language by noon Tuesday and asked her to set new deadlines for approving language and printing ballots if an order came later. Asked how much flexibility they had, a spokeswoman for Hennepin County said Tuesday morning that she was looking into it.

Anderson’s order did not include new deadlines for approving ballot language.

Instead, she wrote: “The underlying petition signed by residents of Minneapolis that gave rise to the proposed charter amendment is not affected by this Order and, if the proposed charter amendment is not on the ballot this November, it may be on a ballot in a future election.”

She added that the city could “hold a special election or put the proposed amendment with revised language on the ballot in a future general election.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994

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