Minneapolis City Charter undergoing revisions

The Minneapolis City Charter could soon get a facelift that would make it easier to read and navigate.

Former Charter Commission member and Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Brian Melendez, an attorney with Downtown law firm Faegre & Benson, is spearheading a revision of one of the citys most cumbersome documents.

If were going to have a city charter, it ought to be accessible and transparent, and ours is not, Melendez said.

When the charter was created in 1920, it was essentially a loose compilation of laws that, at the time, were enforced in the city. Since then, the document has undergone about 100 amendments by either the City Council or referendum. It is currently 192 single-spaced pages long and contains some 70,000 words, according to a report prepared by Melendez that he presented to the Charter Commission at its May 2 meeting. In comparison, the United States Constitution of 1787 is 4,543 words.

Melendez noted in his report that the charter is written in a legalistic style that is more than a century out of date and practically unintelligible to a nonlawyer (and exceptionally difficult even for lawyers). Worse, not all of the information in the document which is supposed to serve as the official guide to city government is correct.

Its full of redundant and conflicting information, said Melendez, who has volunteered hundreds of hours of his time to revise the city charter.

For example, the charter currently lays out three different appointment processes for the selection of department heads without any indication as to which is correct.

The city charter also currently says the Library Board consists of the mayor, president of the School Board, president of the University of Minnesota and six other members elected by residents. However, the Library Board actually consists of one mayoral appointee, one City Council appointee and six members elected by residents.

What we want to do is revise the charter so it reflects current reality, Melendez said.

The city has tried three or four times in the last 20 years to revise the document, Melendez said, but has never finished the process. The current revision process began in 2002. It is now in its 10th revision. Jim Bernstein chairs the Minneapolis Charter Commission and said he expects its members will vote within the next three months to adopt the revised charter. They will then send it to the City Council, which would need to unanimously approve the revision in order for it to become official. If the City Council doesnt approve the revised charter, the Charter Commission has the option of requesting voters to approve the changes in a referendum.

The purpose of the revision project is to modernize and clarify the charter, Melendez said. It is not intended to restructure city government in any way or make any other substantial changes.

We are not changing the face of city government, Bernstein said. The people of Minneapolis can still look at the city charter and see what they see now theyll just be able to read the document a little easier.

The revision will, however, reduce the clutter in the charter by moving some provisions to ordinances. Because amending the charter requires a unanimous City Council vote or a referendum while amending an ordinance requires only a majority vote by the City Council, Melendez acknowledged that a provision in the charter is more protected than a provision in an ordinance. The Charter Commission decided, however, that the fundamental elements that must remain in the charter are provisions that protect a citizens rights or the relationship among governmental officers or bodies.

Through the nine previous drafts, there have been four public hearings and input from various boards, citizens and other interested people. The revised charter will include a table of contents and an index. The number of pages, according to Melendezs report, will be reduced from 192 to 60.

Probably the most important change were making is putting it in plain English, Melendez said.