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Minneapolis judge strikes police-reform ballot question

An appeal to Minnesota's Supreme Court is the last chance to get changes to the Minneapolis Police Department on the 2021 ballot.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A Hennepin County judge on Tuesday tossed a ballot initiative that would enable reorganization of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Judge Jamie Anderson, a Hennepin County Judge appointed by Republican former governor Tim Pawlenty, found that the Minneapolis City Council’s second draft of a proposed ballot question for November’s municipal elections was “unreasonable and misleading.” 

The ballot question, if approved, would have removed existing charter requirements of the police department, notably its near-total deference to the city’s mayor and a requirement that it employ a certain number of officers proportional to the city’s population — currently around 730. It would replace that structure with a public safety department under the control of the 13-member City Council which could, but would not necessarily, employ sworn peace officers. 

The question was drafted by the City Council following the successful petition of Yes 4 Minneapolis, an activist group formed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Former councilmember and ballot-question opponent Don Samuels, his wife and nonprofit CEO Sondra Samuels and real estate developer Bruce Dachis sued to stop the question from appearing, arguing that its failure to identify the new department’s funding mechanisms and its claim to “replace” the police department without guaranteeing that it would include police officers were misleading. 

Anderson sided with Dachis and the Samuels twice over, prompting rewrites of the question, before striking the question for a third time on Tuesday. “The Court is certain that the New Ballot Question does not meet the requirement of identifying the essential purpose of the amendment, thereby rendering it insufficient to clearly identify the amendment,” Anderson wrote. 

She also granted the Samuels and Dachis’ request for an injunction preventing voting on the question.

“Though the issue is ripe for political debate, the Court does not and will not weigh in on whether the underlying charter amendment is good policy,” Anderson wrote. “However, the Court is tasked with determining the public policy considerations regarding the allowance of a question to be posed to voters on a ballot in an election when that question is misleading and fails to identify the essential purpose of the amendment. Clearly it is not good public policy to ask voters to vote, either in favor of or against, an insufficiently identified and misleading question on the ballot.”

Ballots are already being printed for the Nov. 2 election, including the most recent draft of the ballot question. Anderson ordered that ballots with the question could be used, but should be accompanied by a notice informing voters that the question's results would not be reported.

City Attorney Jim Rowader promised an 11th-hour appeal. “The City Attorney’s Office is focused on a speedy appellate process to ensure all voters have the opportunity to make known their positions on this critical issue as part of the municipal election this year,” he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Rowader’s office, Casper Hill, said the city’s appeal was already in progress, with a petition for accelerated review due to be filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court Wednesday morning. 

Attorneys for the Samuels, Dachis and for Yes 4 Minneapolis did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Tuesday evening. Yes 4 Minneapolis did, however, take to Twitter to decry the decision.

“We who seek justice and safety for all, in the city where George Floyd was murdered will not be silenced because a judge, a mayor, a charter commission, the Police Federation, or corporate developer money have attempted to thwart democracy,” the group tweeted, tagging their post #LetThePeopleVote. 

In his own tweet, Don Samuels said the court hard ordered Minneapolis to "REFUND THE POLICE" and he congratulated the “Minneapolis 8,” a group of plaintiffs in one of his other suits against the city demanding that it hire more police officers. 

This year is set to be a barnburner in Minneapolis city elections, with embattled Mayor Jacob Frey campaigning against 16 opponents in a ranked-choice election. All 13 City Council seats are also up for election, including that of Council President Lisa Bender, who announced earlier this year she would not be running for reelection.

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