3 Minneapolis residents sue over policing ballot question

It's the second time in a month that the city has been sued over how it's asking voters if they want to replace the police department


By Liz Navratil
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Three Minneapolis residents — including a couple who last year sued over the city's police staffing levels — brought a lawsuit Monday seeking to have ballot language for a key public safety proposal tossed out.

Attorneys for Don and Sondra Samuels, as well as Bruce Dachis, argued that the language city officials approved earlier this month is "misleading" and fails to inform voters of key aspects of the proposal.

Former City Council Member Don Samuels, seen at a neighborhood event on Aug. 12, is one of three Minneapolis residents behind the lawsuit.
Former City Council Member Don Samuels, seen at a neighborhood event on Aug. 12, is one of three Minneapolis residents behind the lawsuit. (Tribune News Service)

"Voters need to understand that outcome and timeline," attorney Joseph W. Anthony wrote in the court petition. "The current ballot question hides that information from them. This must be corrected."

This is the second time in a month that Minneapolis has been sued over how it chose to ask voters whether they want to clear the way for city officials to replace the Police Department with a new public safety agency.

The proposal, written by a new political committee called Yes 4 Minneapolis, has become a central issue in the November elections. The races appear to be attracting unprecedented amounts of money as the fight over how to change policing in the wake of George Floyd's murder becomes a wedge issue in state and federal politics.

This is also the second time in just over a year that Sondra and Don Samuels, a former City Council member, have sued the city over a policing issue. A judge ordered the city to hire more officers after they, and others, brought a suit last year challenging whether Minneapolis was complying with funding requirements outlined in its charter.

Before the court now is a question of whether Minneapolis officials should revise the language that appears on the ballot when voters decide the fate of the city's Police Department this fall. Early voting begins Sept. 17.

The proposal Yes 4 Minneapolis wrote would remove language in the charter that requires the city to keep a Police Department with a minimum number of officers based on population. The city would then create an 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 also would take away the mayor's "complete power" over police operations, a move that likely would grant council members more sway over officers.

If voters approve the plan, the mayor and council would decide how to design the new agency, and whether to include officers.

City officials revised the ballot language multiple times, including after Yes 4 Minneapolis brought its own lawsuit. The latest version, approved during a marathon day when the council met three times and the mayor issued two vetoes, asks 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 Dachis and the Samuels argue the question should mention that, if approved, it would remove three things from the charter: minimum funding requirements for police; a reference to the police chief's job; and a line that gives the mayor "complete power" over police operations.

They also argue the language should say there "is no identified funding mechanism for the new 'Department of Public Safety.'" The proposal deletes a line from the charter saying officials "may tax the taxable property in the City up to 0.3 percent of its value annually" to fund police. In unrelated public meetings, city staff have noted they could use other sources to fund police.

Attorneys for Dachis and the Samuels also say it's misleading to say the new agency is "replacing" the Police Department, because there isn't a guarantee it will have police. They paint a dire picture for what would happen if city officials fail to pass ordinances defining the new department's roles within 30 days, the date the change would take effect. "City residents will be left to fend for themselves," they wrote.

Attorneys for the city declined to comment on that characterization or the lawsuit, except to say they were reviewing it. Representatives for Yes 4 Minneapolis didn't immediately respond.

The lawsuit asks the courts to block city officials — as well as state and Hennepin County election officials — from issuing ballots with the current question listed on it. They want a judge to send the question back to the city for revision.

The deadline for finalizing ballot language was Aug. 20. Officials at Hennepin County, which the city pays to print its ballots, previously said if a judge ordered them to accept new language after the deadline, they would "make every effort to expedite ballot production so that the city has enough ballots to serve absentee voters when voting begins."

©2021 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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