Minnesota Supreme Court sides with city on ballot question appeals

Updated: September 1, 2016 - 11:08 am

Minimum wage and police insurance questions won’t appear on the ballot

The Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the City of Minneapolis on two appeals concerning two potential questions for the November ballot.

Voters won’t directly decide on either setting a $15 minimum wage or whether police should be required to hold professional liability insurance. The justices struck down a lower court decision on the former and upheld a lower court ruling on the latter.

Both issues were fast-tracked to the state’s highest court so a decision could be made before a deadline for printing general election ballots. Hennepin County indicated that deadline was the end of this week.

The public will have to wait to read the full opinions, which will be released at a later date, “so as not to impair the orderly election process,” the decisions state. The Supreme Court heard arguments in both cases on Tuesday.

While there was strong support on the City Council for raising the city’s minimum wage, a majority of Council members earlier this month heeded the advice of City Attorney Susan Segal and voted against putting a proposed charter amendment on the ballot. Segal said a minimum wage was not a “proper subject” for the city’s charter, and so several Council members instead moved ahead with plans to study a potential ordinance.

Petitioners associated with three Minneapolis organizations — 15 Now Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, or CTUL — sued and won a favorable ruling in Hennepin County District Court. The city appealed, and the Supreme Court found the district court had erred in its judgment.

The justices found that state law allows for ordinances to be submitted by citizens via petition, but that “the Minneapolis City Charter doesn’t include such a provision.” The decision continues: “The Minneapolis City Charter instead vests in the City Council ‘the City’s general legislative and policymaking authority.’”

In a separate decision also made in early August, the City Council voted to keep off the ballot a charter amendment that would have required all Minneapolis Police officers to carry professional liability insurance. Supporters of the proposal sued to get the question on the ballot and lost in Hennepin County District Court.

Considering the appeal, the Supreme Court decided “the proposed liability-insurance amendment is preempted by state law and, therefore, is improper and cannot be included in the Minneapolis City Charter.”

Parties react

“We are very pleased that the Minnesota Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, affirmed the fact that the Minneapolis city charter squarely places with the City Council the responsibility for legislating and that state law does not allow legislating through the charter amendment process,” Segal wrote in a press release issued after the decision. “This has never been about the merits of a minimum wage increase, but rather the proper process and venue for such a policy to be considered.”

Segal also expressed satisfaction with the unanimous decision in the police liability insurance case, highlighting the justice’s ruling that the “proposal should not go on the ballot because it is in conflict with state law.”

David Bicking, the appellant in that case and a former member of the police Civilian Review Board, said the proposal was vetted with lawyers and insurance experts to make sure it was tailored to an area of law on which state statutes were “silent.”

“We remain 100-percent confident that it is legal in every respect,” Bicking said. “It treats an area of law the state has very clearly not dealt with.”

The proposal aimed to reduce cases of misconduct by requiring police to carry additional insurance beyond coverage provided by the city and putting officers on the hook when they violate department rules or the law.

“We’re talking about things like kicking someone who is handcuffed and subdued,” Bicking said. “Obviously, (it includes) unjustified shootings, but (also) a whole range of activities where the officer is clearly violating the rules. In those cases, the city and the taxpayer should not be responsible for (paying settlements).”

Bicking said he holds out hope the Supreme Court might reconsider the case based on the extremely tight timeline supporters of the charter amendment proposal were required to meet to submit legal documents ahead of the Tuesday hearing. He said the decision issued Wednesday was “political.”

“At every level of our government … nothing will be done for police accountability,” he said. “Everything is resisted.”

Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police union, said the union was “happy to put this issue to rest.”

“Hopefully, this will shut down future attempts by this anti-police group,” Kroll said.

Push for an ordinance

While disappointed in a Supreme Court decision he said “took away a fundamental tool of direct democracy,” NOC Executive Director Anthony Newby said in the wake of the ruling he and other supporters of the $15 minimum wage would turn their attention to getting a city ordinance passed, and soon. They’ll push City Council members to speed up their timeline and consider an ordinance this year instead of sometime in 2017, Newby said.

“A crisis of this magnitude should mandate swift and decisive action,” he said, referring to the wide gaps in wages and quality of living in Minneapolis.

The organization had promised a massive grassroots campaign in support of the charter amendment. Newby said that effort would be redirected to pressure City Council members and the mayor to support a $15 minimum wage ordinance.

“Elections are happening (in 2017) and we think this will most likely be a decisive election priority for all members of the City Council (and) the mayor’s office,” he said.

The local chapter of the Service Employees International Union released a statement Wednesday evening framing the higher minimum wage as a tool to be used against income inequality.

“The Mayor and City Council members have a chance to take this energy and use it to craft an ordinance that will make Minneapolis a world class city for all families, something that will begin to close the painful gaps facing our city,” the statement read. “We will be advocating for them to complete that process and pass an ordinance as soon as reasonably possible.”