CHARTER AMENDMENT // voter’s guide 2009

There’s just one ballot question going before voters this year, and it’s not the one that’s gotten so much attention. The effort to expand the financial independence of the Park Board died at the court level last month, when a judge ruled it to be unconstitutional.

That leaves only an initiative to replace the membership of the little-known Board of Estimate and Taxation with the 13 City Council members. Here’s what you need to know:

What’s going before voters?

These words: “Should the City of Minneapolis adopt a change in its charter to the composition of the Board of Estimate and Taxation so that the Board’s membership consists of the members of the City Council, with the actions of the Board subject to the powers and duties of the Mayor?”

What does that mean?

The board currently has a membership of six: two City Council members, the mayor, a Park Board commissioner and two separately elected officials. This proposal would replace them with the full 13-member council.

What is the Board of Estimate and Taxation?

The Board of Estimate and Taxation’s main tasks include managing the city’s debt, auditing the city’s books and setting the annual maximum property tax levies for the city and the Park Board. It also is viewed as having a referee-type role. No other board brings the City Council, the Park Board and the mayor officially together to talk finances.

An original version of the board, which included representation for Hennepin County, was established in 1879 to oversee tax interactions among governmental bodies. The city-only board has been around since 1919. Until 2008, it included a representative of the now-dissolved Minneapolis Library Board.

What are the arguments for changing the board’s setup?

The ballot question originated in the office of Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), who in January proposed three charter amendments that he said would make the city more efficient. Ostrow’s original proposal was to fully eliminate the board, but it eventually morphed into what voters will see in November.

While efficiency is one argument, a 2006 study by the League of Women Voters offers another view: The board, it says, is “unusual.” Although the board is not the only one of its kind in the country, most larger municipalities don’t have one. St. Paul, for example, goes to the Legislature for its capital financing needs.

The study also shows that most Minneapolis residents don’t even know the board exists. That, the study argues, makes it difficult to hold accountable. If voters don’t know what qualifications candidates should have, the study asks, how transparent can the board’s actions really be?

What are the arguments for keeping things as is?

Just about the most vocal supporters for retaining the Board of Estimate and Taxation in its current setup, aside from five of the six candidates seeking the two separately elected seats, are the Park Board’s commissioners.

Their concerns are twofold: that it would no longer have a seat at the table when deciding the maximum tax levy — instead leaving that control entirely to the City Council — and that the council could, especially in difficult economic times when cuts to government spending are most expected, put the parks in a worse financial state.

The board’s referee role is also important to remember, opponents to the referendum say. Without a venue for Park Board and city officials to meet in the same room, with two separately elected people in the middle, the two parties’ often-contentious relationship could turn even grimmer than it is, they argue.

Plus, there are the checks and balances the board provides, says Carol Becker, the only incumbent seeking reelection to the board.

“Clean government doesn’t just happen,” she says.

Who’s running for the two separately elected seats?

There are six candidates: Becker, Michael Martens, James Elliot Swartwood, DeWayne Townsend, David Wheeler and Phil Willkie. Click here for an overview of the race.