Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is Minneapolis Ungovernable?

Is Minneapolis ungovernable?  Increasingly critics, usually conservative,  point to a host of factors
suggesting that the city has become ungovernable.  The culprit in this indictment is party or partisanship.  While the ungovernability charge may be overblown, it does speak to an issue than no one is talking about in this year’s mayoral election–how the city is changing and why a rethinking of the structure of city government may be desirable and necessary to accommodate these changes.
The symptoms of ungovernability are many.  Look to the endless and overdue completion  of the construction on Nicollet Mall, or the increased traffic jams downtown caused by ill-planned or coordinated road construction.  There are racial disparities in educational outcomes, the persistent segregation, high taxes, the economic imbalance among races and across neighborhoods, and what some would allege are a police department out of control, or at least a police department where the mayor and the police chief seem out of sync.  And then some would point to a mayoral election four years ago producing 38 candidates, or on a policy level, adoption of a $15 per hour minimum wage.  For some, these and other examples point to a city out of control, one needing limits placed on its ability to legislate as was the aim by Republican state legislative bills this past session.
Many of these examples do point to problems within Minneapolis, but they may be symptoms of deeper issues.  For Republicans and conservative critics the problem is single-party DFL rule.  There is some truth to the concern that single-party dominance fails to provide sufficient checks on political excess and perhaps it might be good if the city elected one or two Republicans to the city council or even the state legislature.  If the latter, then perhaps Republicans might have more interest in the city because a member of their own party would be advocating for Minneapolis.  Yet Minneapolis is not completely single-party rule; the DFL is generationally divided between the old  Baby Boomer farmer labor party and the Millennial identity politics parties.  Yes, Minneapolis is a leaning left city, but simply to argue that it is ungovernable because of that is not accurate.
Many of the other problems that Minneapolis has are not unique to it.  Road repair and construction coordination is a regional issue in Minnesota and it demands better planning across jurisdictions.  The concerns about policing in Minneapolis are not new.  Lincoln Steffens’ 1904 The Shame of the Cities lists even back then Minneapolis and its police department to be corrupt or poorly managed.  Problems of segregation and the racial disparities across many benchmarks are metropolitan- if not state-wide; the suburbs and failed state policies are as much if not more to blame  than anything Minneapolis has done.  The symptoms of ungovernability some point to are not the fault of Minneapolis and may light in the need to rethink and expand regional governance or coordination as once was the dream of the Met Council.
Finally, one can also assert that the city is not ungovernable.  But most national accounts,  the city works and produces a quality of life that is outstanding for most residents.  It has a strong economy, great parks, a vibrant arts sector, and many decent neighborhoods.  Yes, many–especially the poor and people of color are being left behind–but that is not unique to Minneapolis.  This is the sad story of how race, class, and gender divide America and how neither the Democrats nor Republicans nationally over the last 30-40 years have done much to address these issues in a satisfactory way.  The failures of Minneapolis are the failures of the United States.
But if Minneapolis is ungovernable perhaps it is time to reconsider the structure of the city government.  More or less, the basic structure of the city government has not changed in a half of century of not more.  By charter, it is a city with a weak mayor and a strong city council.  The basic duties of the two have not changed over time, but the challenges facing the city have grown ever more complex in the last half century.  The complexities arising from changing demographics, economic conditions,and generations.  The population alone now is the largest it has been since the early 1970s, and there are more cars in the city and around it ever.  Minneapolis is now the economic hub of 16th largest metropolitan statistical area in the US, and the population surrounding the city is greater than it has ever been.  In many ways, Minneapolis faces pressures and challenges it has never  previously confronted, yet it is still trying to do that with a political structure that may be dated.
The solution is not clear but a serious charter revision may be in order.  Perhaps the city should consider creating a stronger mayor form of government, or even consider a city manager option.  There may be other options too.  But the simple answer is that Minneapolis may wish to rethink how it governs itself, assessing whether the structure it presently has is the one it needs to face the present and future needs of the city and its people.

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