By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A proposal before Minneapolis voters would shake-up the city’s structure of government by shifting more authority to the mayor’s office and reducing the power of the city council.

If approved, City Question 1 on the ballot would switch the city to a “strong mayor” approach by defining the mayor as the city’s chief executive and consolidating authority over all operating departments to that office.

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Supporters of the effort say it will create clear accountability and make government operate more efficiently, while critics caution that it would give the mayor too much power.

“As a former city council member and a department head, I’ve observed firsthand how dysfunctional, and time consuming and conflict-causing our structure is,” said Kathleen O’Brien, a former Minneapolis city council member and city coordinator.

Under the proposal, the council would be defined as a legislative body that cannot “usurp, invade, or interfere with the mayor’s direction or supervision.”  As a result, the executive committee—which is made up of the mayor and some city council members to oversee city officers—would be eliminated.

That language is concerning for City Council President Lisa Bender, who’s not seeking re-election this year. St. Paul also has a “strong mayor” system, but she believes Minneapolis’ proposal goes a step farther, giving the mayor too much authority that would squash the council’s input as a result.

“It’s like a pre-veto,” Bender said. “In our system, the mayor can veto policies once they’re adopted by the city council. This is giving the mayor almost an informal veto over any work that the council would initiate that would rely on any city staff in any department.”

The proposal comes from the Charter Commission, which compiled interviews from city department heads last year who described the current system as “complex and high inefficient” and “significantly influenced by personalities of elected officials.”

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“In Minneapolis, the buck stops nowhere yet everywhere, leading to organizational confusion, costly duplication of effort, and lack of centralized control and coordination,” the commission’s government structure report said.

St. Paul, Duluth and St. Cloud are the only three charter cities out of 107 in Minnesota that have a “strong mayor” system, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.

Doug Linkhart, president of the National Civic League, said most cities across the country also don’t operate this way. Just 34% of cities with 100,000 people have strong mayors, while 64% have a city council and city manager structure—the league’s model policy.

But Minneapolis’ current form of governing is unique, he said.

“The strong mayor system would concentrate more power in the hands of the mayor and reduce the power of the council,” Linkhart said. “That certainly helps in terms of clear lines of authority, but it reduces the representative democracy aspect of the city.

The top four contenders to be the city’s next mayor are split down the middle on the issue: Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth are against it, while incumbent Jacob Frey and AJ Awed support it.

In a recent WCCO debate, Nezhad said has “equity concerns about voter representation” should more power shift to the mayor. Frey pointed to St. Paul and said there is “disjoint” in Minneapolis by not having a similar model.

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Caroline Cummings