Emergency hearing underway on Minneapolis policing proposal language

By Liz Navratil

MINNEAPOLIS — Lawyers made impassioned but conflicting pleas Monday morning in a case that is raising concerns about whether a ballot measure determining the future of the Minneapolis Police Department could be kicked off the November ballot.

"The average voter can't tell from the ballot question what they're voting on, and there is confusion at the heart of the ballot question," argued attorney Joe Anthony, representing three Minneapolis residents who challenge the fairness of how the ballot question is worded on voters' ballots.

Attorneys for the city and Yes 4 Minneapolis, the political committee that wrote the proposal, argued the wording should stay in place and the issue must come before voters this fall.

"These are problems that they have with the charter change and how that charter amendment works," said Ivan Ludmer, an assistant city attorney in Minneapolis. "It's not a problem with the ballot question."

The arguments, made during an hourlong virtual hearing before Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson, came four days before early voting is set to begin in what many expect will be a historic election. Ballots are already being printed. Early voting is set to begin Friday.

Anderson didn't say when she would issue a decision, other than to say it would be "as soon as possible." The side that loses could appeal.

The proposal has become a central issue in the November elections, the first municipal races since George Floyd was killed by police. The case focuses the language of the ballot question that would clear the way for Minneapolis officials to replace the police department with a new public safety agency.

For more than a month now, city leaders have been embroiled in political and legal fights over how to present the question on the ballot in a neutral way. They've revised it twice based on court orders.

The process, Ludmer said, feels like something out of a Goldilocks fairy tale. Paraphrasing, he said, the first version was struck down because it contained too much detail, and second version because it didn't have enough.

"I think we're just here hoping that the court finds this third question just right," he said.

The proposal changes the Minneapolis charter, removing the requirement to keep a police department with a minimum number of officers. It then requires the city to create a new agency providing "a comprehensive public health approach to safety."

Attorneys on opposing sides have fiercely argued over how to interpret the charter changes and how to present the question to voters.

Three residents — businessman Bruce Dachis, nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and former City Council Member Don Samuels — have asked Anderson to block the city from using the latest version of the ballot question. Their attorneys argued it is too similar to one the judge struck down last week.

Their attorney, Norm Pentelovitch, 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."

Lawyers for the city and Yes 4 Minneapolis both opposed the request. Terrance W. Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, argued it would be a legal "error" to require the city to create plans for the new department before a charter amendment passes.

"Their argument is that the new ballot language cannot stand because it deprives voters of critical information about the effects of their vote," Moore argued Monday morning. "The complaint is that the ballot question doesn't discuss the effects of the vote. This position fails under Minnesota law, because the Supreme Court has made it clear as to the statutes, that explaining the effects of an amendment is not, is not a requirement for upholding ballot language."

In addition to arguing over the details of the ballot question, lawyers have debated whether state law permits the question to be pushed to a future election and whether the request was made using the proper legal procedures.

Attorneys for both Yes 4 Minneapolis and the city have signaled that, if the judge blocks officials from using the latest question, they intend to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

An attorney for Hennepin County, which coordinates ballot printing for the city, said the county is not taking a position on the content of the ballot question. If the judge blocks them from using the latest language, he asked her to allow them to send out the ballots currently being printed "along with a notice informing voters that the question will not be reported or effective, legally effective."

"I'll just say that destroying already printed ballots would delay the start of the absentee balloting period," said Jeff Wojciechowski, an assistant Hennepin County attorney.

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