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Mpls. wants streamlined city charter, without legal quagmire

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Susan Segal
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal, shown in a file photo from Jan., 8, 2013, said that while the city charter is overly long and complicated, that complexity hasn't caused any problems.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Can a city completely revise its rulebook without changing any actual rules? That's the question Minneapolis voters will consider this fall when they vote on the first major overhaul of the city's charter in almost a century.

The "plain language charter revision" aims to simplify the document that serves as the Minneapolis constitution without changing the way city government works. But some city officials predict that getting rid of the old charter will cause legal headaches.

Adopted in 1920, the Minneapolis city charter regulates the discharge of steam by locomotives, the cleaning of stables, and the size and weight of bread.

• Photos: Minneapolis, then and now

It runs close to 200 single-spaced pages and has roughly 10 times as many words as the U.S. Constitution. The sentences are long, often convoluted, and occasionally include the word "doth" -- which hasn't been part of standard English vocabulary since Shakespeare's time.

"You need to be a lawyer to understand the existing charter, and most lawyers can't even understand it," said Barry Clegg, chairman of the Minneapolis Charter Commission.

Clegg, who is a lawyer, said a charter is supposed to work as a constitution does by spelling out the basic structure of city government -- not concerning itself with detailed regulations. He said the city's document is overdue for an update.

With that in mind, the commission has labored over the new proposed charter for more than a decade, producing 13 drafts. But the revision doesn't change anything about the way Minneapolis city government works, Clegg said.

Instead, it simply describes the roles of the mayor, City Council and various departments using a third as many words. It also eliminates provisions deemed too archaic or otherwise unnecessary.

"All we've tried to do is make our charter modern, readable, organized and understandable," Clegg said.

City Attorney Susan Segal admires the commission's aim for simplicity, but she said a bare-bones document has its drawbacks.

"My primary job ... is to try to minimize risk to the city," she said. "And, in my mind, I see more risk than benefit."

Although Segal agrees that the current charter is overly long and complicated, she said that complexity hasn't caused any problems. On the contrary, she said, thanks to 93 years of legal opinions and precedents, there is no confusion about what the document means.

On the other hand, Segal said, the new one would create uncertainty.

"As a lawyer, I really can't say that you can change wording and be guaranteed of the same interpretation and the same result," she said. "It inevitably leads to questions about, what does this provision mean? Does it really mean the same thing that it did before?"

Thorough revisions of city charters elsewhere in the country have spurred confusion. That's what happened when San Francisco overhauled its charter in 1995, said Buck Delventhal, one of the lawyers tasked with determining what the new language meant.

"There was a constant stream of questions," he said. "For example, a question might come up out at the airport regarding what kind of control the Board of Supervisors had over the airport's budget in light of the new language of the charter. These questions would pop up all the time."

Delventhal said the flood of questions slowed to a trickle after about a year. But nearly 20 years after the charter revision, there are still occasional disagreements over what parts of the charter mean, he said.

In Minneapolis, the City Attorney's Office has already warned the City Council that if voters approve the charter revision, it will need to hire an additional attorney to handle legal questions that will arise. The council also would have to pass new ordinances to replace provisions deemed too detailed for the new charter.

Some council members are skeptical the change is worth the trouble. But the council cannot block the referendum. Its only role is to come up with a way to present the issue on the November's ballot.

At issue: City charters


What's a city charter?

A city charter, technically called a home rule charter, is the municipal equivalent of a constitution. It's a set of local laws that outlines the structure of the city government.

How many Minnesota cities have a charter?

According to a list maintained by the League of Minnesota Cities, 107 Minnesota cities operate under home rule charters, including the most populous seven cities in the state.

But 750 cities in the state do not have charters. Among  them are cities as small as Tower, population 509, and Eagan, which has 66,709 residents. Cities without a charter organize their local governments based on structures outlined in state law.

What's the advantage of having a charter?

Charter cities may to choose any form of government they want, but their local autonomy is limited. The state Legislature has the power to override any city charter. For instance, the Minneapolis charter requires a referendum before significant amounts of city money can subsidize a professional sports stadium. But the 2012 Vikings stadium legislation trumped that provision.