Council votes to block $15 minimum wage ballot measure

Community organizers held a rally outside City Hall before the Council's Committee of the Whole was scheduled to vote on two proposed charter amendments — one establishing a $15 minimum wage in the city and another requiring police officers to carry professional liability insurance. Photo by Carter Jones

While expressing strong support for increasing wages in the city, the City Council’s Committee of the Whole voted Wednesday against allowing a proposed charter amendment on the ballot this fall that would let voters decide to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Council members cited an advisory legal opinion from City Attorney Susan Segal arguing that the proposal is not a “proper subject” for the city’s charter since it doesn’t allow for ordinances via citizen petitions.

The vote came during an emotionally charged meeting in City Council chambers that drew a packed crowd supportive of increasing the city’s minimum wage. Protesters chanted throughout the meeting and interrupted proceedings over the lunch hour, prompting the Council to take a short recess. Some carried signs reading: “Don’t let City Hall steal your vote!”

The vote on blocking the measure from the ballot was 10-2. Council Members Cam Gordon (Ward 2) and Alondra Cano (Ward 9) voted no, arguing the city’s residents should have the opportunity to vote on the issue. City Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 10) was absent due to a funeral. The Council took a final vote Friday to keep the measure off the ballot.

Council Members Jacob Frey (Ward 3), Lisa Bender (Ward 10) and Abdi Warsame (Ward 6) brought forward an alternative measure that would get the ball rolling on establishing an ordinance raising the wage that would be voted on by the Council in 2017.

The staff direction directs the City Coordinator’s office to recommend a minimum wage policy after reviewing policies from other cities and working with stakeholders for Council consideration by the second quarter of 2017. A plan for community engagement is due to the Council by Oct. 5, 2016.

“I am confident we can establish a higher minimum wage in Minneapolis next year,” Frey said.

Warsame said the Council should take an approach similar to the way the city crafted the paid sick time ordinance. A work group made up of a variety of stakeholders made recommendations to the Council for the policy, which requires employers with at least six workers in Minneapolis to provide up to 48 hours of paid sick time annually. The ordinance goes into effect July 1, 2017.

The Council committee also voted 9-1 to not allow a proposed charter amendment requiring police officers to carry professional liability insurance on the ballot, concurring with a legal opinion from Segal arguing the proposal conflicts with state law. Another Council vote Friday affirmed that decision.

Once again, the vote was greeted with strong protests from people in attendance in the meeting. Some chanted “see you in court.”

Both campaigns — the $15 for Minneapolis coalition and the group pushing officers to carry professional liability insurance — have pledged to take legal action to get the proposals on the ballot in November.

15 Now Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) issued a statement after today’s vote saying the $15 for Minneapolis coalition is ready to file a lawsuit. The group has assembled a legal team that includes the National Employment Law Project and local attorneys.

Mike Griffin, a field director for NOC, was critical of the staff direction offered by Frey, Bender and Warsame for failing to mention $15 and lacking urgency.

Steven Suffridge, a member of CTUL and a long-time fast food worker, pleaded with Council members to take action before they took the vote.

“I don’t know much about government or how the government works but I know that we need this money,” he said. “We have to constantly find ways to make ends meet. We don’t get a chance to have the full opportunity that we deserve to be fully independent when we are not making enough money to survive. City Council members don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff like myself, my co-workers, and so many other people in Minneapolis.”

Council members who voted to block the proposed charter amendments faced a barrage of boos and hostile words when they explained how they came to their decision on the issue.

City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) called the proposed $15 minimum wage charter amendment issue one of the most difficult she’s faced during her Council tenure.

She said she’s faced a conflict between her “head and heart” on the issue, noting she strongly supports raising the minimum wage, but the vote ultimately was about whether it’s legal to use the charter as a vehicle to accomplish that goal — not the merits of increasing wages.

Glidden also credited community organizers with getting more Council members on board with establishing a city minimum wage.

“This is a huge turnaround for some of my council colleagues – who until recently were not open to a city minimum wage — and it is due to the voice and pressure of the community,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Community voice will be important as — public and private, worker and business — as we work together to develop a minimum wage ordinance. I will spend my energy to get the job done, as I know a majority of my constituents demand.”

Bender said it would have been the “politically easy” vote to allow the ballot measure, but ultimately not the right way to move ahead.

She said she has been in “awe” of the organizing work on the issue and wants to work with the coalition to raise the wage through the city ordinance process in a similar way to her efforts on the paid sick time ordinance.

Warsame stressed the importance of including small business owners in the process of crafting a proposal. “Other people deserve the opportunity to be involved,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cano and Gordon argued that the Council shouldn’t block voters from having their say.

Cano noted that the state’s minimum wage — even with the recent increases that took effect Aug. 1 for large and small employers — falls below the federal poverty level. She also pointed out that one in four Minneapolis residents are in poverty.

“How many Council members can make a living, feed their children and send them to school on that wage?” she asked.

Minnesota’s large employers must pay workers at least $9.50 an hour and small employers must pay at least $7.75 an hour.

Gordon said whatever happens, there will be legal action and ultimately a judge will determine the legality of amending the charter to raise the wage.

“My job is to air on the side of fairness and democracy and put it out there [for voters],” he said.

The City Council is expected to review a minimum wage study in September that examines the impact of raising the wage in Minneapolis and increasing it regionally in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. It will look at raising the wage to $12 and $15 — both phased in over a five-year period.