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Judge rejects Minneapolis ballot language on policing

MINNEAPOLIS — A judge struck down ballot language Tuesday that aimed to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new agency, saying the wording was misleading, unworkable, and lacked details necessary for voters to make informed choices.

“The court finds that the current ballot language is vague, ambiguous and incapable of implementation, and is insufficient to identify the amendment clearly,” Hennepin County District Judge Jamie Anderson wrote. “It is unreasonable and misleading.”

Anderson issued the order just ahead of a looming deadline for ballots to go to the printer.

The proposed amendment to the city charter, approved by the City Council last month, would have asked voters whether to replace the police force with a new but mostly undefined Department of Public Safety that “could include” police officers. It would have removed a mandate that the city have a police department and provide at least minimum staffing levels based on population. The council instead of the mayor would control the new entity.

The proposal had its roots in the “defund the police” movement that gained steam after last summer’s  police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Supporters said the ballot question would not abolish policing in Minneapolis, just remove charter requirements that they argued blocked moves toward more police accountability and racial justice. But critics, including Mayor Jacob Frey, said it left out crucial details of how policing in the city would look going forward.

The City Council was preparing to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss drafting new language. The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, which is behind the proposal, urged its supporters to stand firm and contact their council members immediately “to make sure our elected officials know we still expect to vote on fair and balanced language this fall.”

Frey, whose veto of the rejected wording was overridden, said the language “failed to meet the most basic standards of transparency. Now, the Council has another opportunity to deliver language that accurately and fairly reflects both what the petitioners submitted and includes essential information for Minneapolis voters at the ballot box.”

The judge wrote that the proposal was likely to create chaos if it took effect as intended just one month after the November city election.

“If the Police Department ceases to exist on December 2, 2021, and the new Department of Public Safety is not fully created and functioning, the routine activities done to keep Minneapolis residents safe, including responding to 911 calls and making arrests of those charged with violent felonies, will be interrupted,” Anderson wrote. “Not only is this likely to create a chaotic situation in Minneapolis, it is likely to create dangerous situations in neighborhoods within the City.”

The injunction to keep the language off the ballot was sought by former City Council Member Don Samuels, his wife, Sondra, and businessman Bruce Dachis. Their attorney, Joseph Anthony, called Anderson’s ruling a “courageous and correct decision.” He said the council members who supported the language intentionally kept it vague in hopes that more people would vote for it.

“Basically what the judge said was, you’ve got to make it clear so that people can see what they’re voting on,” Anthony said.

It was the second time this summer that the city was sued over the ballot question. The judge earlier rejected an explanatory note that city officials had sought to include on the ballot to highlight some of the proposal’s effects, saying the note could have been read as either an endorsement or a warning.

The proposal has caused concerns among some centrist Democratic leaders that it could harm the party not just locally but nationwide, as Republicans use fears over public safety to try to woo back suburban swing voters. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov Tim Walz spoke out against the measure last month, while two prominent progressives, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison, endorsed it last week.