Council presses Frey on contract for reopening 38th and Chicago

Cars and other barriers block a road.
Makeshift barriers to traffic were back near George Floyd Square within hours of city crews clearing the area on June 8, although some traffic was still getting through at 39th Street and Chicago Avenue.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Updated 4:43 p.m.

Minneapolis City Council members on Thursday questioned why Mayor Jacob Frey used emergency COVID-19 pandemic powers to contract with a community group tasked with reopening 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, the site of George Floyd’s murder.

Earlier this month, the city said a community group called Agape Movement was spearheading what he described as a “phased reconnection.” Members of the group cleared away barriers and plantings in the intersection. The city had contracted with the group for $359,000 for activities around the intersection without going through the council process. 

Frey has defended the move, saying it was appropriate and necessary to find a solution at the intersection that has been blocked off by activists.

Jim Rowader, the Minneapolis city attorney, told council members on Thursday that he believed the spending could be within the scope of the pandemic emergency powers. And that it was made without council approval due to timing, “logistical efficiency,” and the “need and desire for some additional operational secrecy.” 

Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said the city attorney’s logic seems like a stretch. 

“38th and Chicago has become a location after the police murdered George Floyd, and that had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schroeder said.  

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Council President Lisa Bender contested the idea that there wasn’t time to include the council in the decision. Bender said she’s inclined to end the mayor’s emergency powers following this incident. 

Council Member Steve Fletcher said the decision to use the emergency powers is one more way that the mayor has sought to distance himself from the decision to clear the intersection. 

“Claiming that was the independent initiative of a community group that we turned out to be paying is a scandal in itself, and then trying to pay them through COVID-19 expenditures is a scandal,” Fletcher said. “We have a problem, and it’s something that needs to be addressed and it’s something the mayor needs to answer for.”  

City workers and Agape Movement members have taken down traffic barriers outside the intersection, but activists have replaced them with other materials.

Frey was not present at the council meeting. In an interview with MPR News later Thursday, the mayor said that council members who criticized the funding, including Bender, had “declined” for months to help find a solution at the intersection.

“It was on us to move forward,” Frey said. “It was specified to us that most people wanted us to move forward without a major police presence and without a big showdown between cops and those that were occupying the space — that’s exactly what we did.”

Frey stood behind the city attorney’s analysis that he was within his rights to allocate the contract using emergency powers.

Frey said that June 3 statements from an Agape spokesperson that “the only way we are city-funded is that money was taken from the police department and given to” the group, may have been referencing “that the contract actually hadn’t been signed at that point, so it wasn’t in final form.”

The mayor added: “We’ve always been clear that our Black community members should be paid for their excellent work.”

The “phased” reopening plan was still in progress, he added.

“We’ve been in constant communication with those individuals who have been occupying the space over there: community members, local businesses, leaders of our Black community,” Frey said. “This shouldn’t be my plan or my vision, this should come directly from community itself and that’s why we’re working so directly with them.”

Bender later shared email correspondence between herself, Frey, city staff and council members representing the area around the intersection with MPR News to counter the mayor’s argument that she and other council members hadn’t been active in helping find a solution at the intersection.

The correspondence includes an email dated August 2020, in which Bender tells the mayor that she would be “very happy to support in helping bring next steps on 38 & Chicago through the Council process and help create more formality to the decision making.”

On April 8, Bender asked anyone with a proposal to "please work with me and the clerk to facilitate that process in a timely manner through the appropriate council committee." She renewed that request on May 27, just days before the plan for a phased reopening of the site was announced.