Could Minneapolis policing measure get blocked from November ballot?

By Liz Navratil

MINNEAPOLIS — A flurry of last-minute legal filings this week is raising new concerns that a proposal determining the fate of the Minneapolis Police Department could be blocked from the November ballot.

In a motion filed late Wednesday, a trio of residents who sued the city asked a judge to block elections officials from using the latest version of the ballot question yet again. They also asked the judge to prohibit city officials "from approving any ballot language ... until a plan exists to implement the new department of public safety."

The request drew a sharp rebuke from Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that wrote the proposal clearing the way for city officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency.

"We want to be abundantly clear that this is most certainly an act against the people of Minneapolis. Full Stop," said JaNae Bates, a spokesperson for Yes 4 Minneapolis. "It is incredibly undemocratic."

The charter amendment is a central issue in what's expected to be a historic election as Minneapolis residents vote on policing and select a new class of leaders for the first time since George Floyd's killing by police.

Lawyers on the other side pitch themselves as the ones working to protect democracy, saying residents have a right to understand what they're voting on and shouldn't be misled.

"I never have understood how giving people information that is accurate is somehow a problem," said attorney Norm Pentelovitch. "It, frankly, kind of baffles me why anybody, Yes or the City Council, anybody is objecting to people just having information about what they're doing. It's civics."

On Thursday, they anxiously awaited a response from Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson. By day's end, they were still waiting to see if she would schedule a hearing.

Long before Floyd's death, Minneapolis officials and activists were already debating how much money to give to the police department and which elected officials should have ultimate oversight of officers.

On the heels of his killing, some council members pursued a plan to replace the police department with a new public safety agency. After that stalled before the Charter Commission, Yes 4 Minneapolis collected signatures to get its own version on the ballot this fall.

Bates, the group's spokesperson, said the change would allow the city "to embrace a holistic model of public safety."

Opponents say they believe the city could do that without replacing the police department.

Yes 4 Minneapolis' proposal removes the requirement for Minneapolis to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers and requires the city to create a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety."

For more than a month now, attorneys have fiercely debated how to interpret those changes and how to present a neutral question to voters.

Groups on both sides have accused each other of putting out misinformation. If the proposal passes, the mayor and council will decide many details of the new department.

The first lawsuit came in July, when Yes 4 Minneapolis sued the city over the way officials worded the question on the ballot.

Noting state law prohibited them from posting the full text in polling places, city officials opted to include an "explanatory note" containing additional details about the charter changes. It was the first time in memory the city had used such a note.

Yes 4 Minneapolis attorney Terrance W. Moore argued the city didn't have legal standing to include a note and the wording was misleading. City attorneys argued they could include a note and there was "no daylight" between their phrasing and the proposal.

Anderson blocked the city from using that explanatory note. She said city officials could include a note but the particular wording they chose was "problematic."

That set off a frenzy in City Hall as officials, deeply divided on the issue, debated how much detail the new question should include.

On Aug. 20, the deadline for submitting language to county elections officials, the City Council met three times and Mayor Jacob Frey issued two vetoes before they landed on a new version.

The next legal challenge came from the other side.

Three Minneapolis residents — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — argued the new wording was misleading and didn't give voters enough information.

Their attorneys painted a dire picture of what would happen if the new department wasn't running in 30 days, and said the ballot language should inform voters of that timeline, among other provisions.

Yes 4 Minneapolis and the city — at odds in the prior court battle — were now on the same side, both asking the judge to keep the new language.

Assistant City Attorney Ivan Ludmer said some changes the trio wanted were already covered in the current version, while others were "not changes to the law, but predictions of how those changes will be implemented."

On Tuesday, Anderson struck down the language again, calling the new version "vague, ambiguous and incapable of implementation."

She noted attorneys disagree on what would happen to the Police Department and the chief's job if the proposal passes. The judge also raised the possibility the issue could be voted on in a different election if officials didn't have new language in time.

Facing the ballot printer's 5 p.m. deadline, Minneapolis officials rushed to approve a new version, which also had a note.

The next day, attorneys who brought the latest suit asked the judge to scrap the new version, saying it was too similar to what she had just struck down.

Pentelovich, the attorney, accused the city and Yes 4 Minneapolis of offering "mixed messages" about what the charter amendment would do.

"If (they) cannot publicly agree on what the Charter amendment will do, how can ordinary voters be expected to understand what they are being asked to decide?" he wrote.

The other side pushed back. While the new version also had a note, Moore said in an interview that this version "isn't misleading, is proper." More importantly, he added, "we have a deadline to meet and it's time to put this to the voters."

On Thursday, attorneys rushed to file responses. Moore accused the group of engaging in "political fear-mongering." The city characterized the request as "a political effort to prevent this choice from being presented to voters during this election cycle."

Now, they wait to hear from the judge.


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