Park Board independence amendment unconstitutional, judge rules

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August 31, 2009 // UPDATED 5:08 pm - September 10, 2009
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
The decision means voters in November will not be asked whether to make the board “a separate and independent governmental unit of the state.”

A proposed charter amendment to increase the financial independence of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is unconstitutional, a Hennepin County District judge ruled today.

Judge Cara Lee Neville’s decision largely came down to one issue: How separate and new of a governmental unit would the Park Board become?

The charter amendment, as presented by the petitioners, would deem the Park Board “a separate and independent governmental unit of the state of Minnesota.” More than 17,000 people signed a petition to get the amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot, but the City Council, citing a city attorney’s memorandum, decided not to move forward. Asking the city charter to create a new independent governmental unit is beyond its powers, Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder argued.

But during a court hearing on Sept. 3, petitioners’ attorney Fred Morrison argued the city looked too deeply into something that really came down to semantics. What the proposed charter amendment actually would do, Morrison said, is to expand the Park Board’s authority within its current semi-independent, within-the-city position.

Ultimately, Neville sided with the city.

“The language of the petition which was circulated clearly states the intent of the proposed amendment is to create a ‘separate and independent governmental unit of the State of Minnesota,’” she said in a memorandum. “Only the legislature however has the constitutional authority to create a ‘state governmental unit.’

Neville said city charters can make changes to city departments, but this seemed to be going beyond that.

“The proper entity to create another state governmental unit is the legislature,” Neville wrote.

The petitioners also had argued that if any part of the proposed charter amendment were considered unconstitutional, the parts that are deemed OK should be retained and still go before voters. But Neville said that after all the unconstitutional parts are chopped off, a very different question would end up before voters. The 17,086 signatories wouldn’t necessarily back that question; therefore, Neville said, it should not go before voters.

The petitioners are expected to appeal the decision, although they’re running out of time. The state-mandated cutoff date for ballot changes is Sept. 11.

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or at twitter.com/sctraudes.