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Will Judge Order Hodges to Let Minneapolis Taxpayers See Budget?

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges blamed her refusal to submit a detailed $1.4 billion city budget by August 15 as required by law on the demands of her job following the police shooting of Justine Damond and the explosion at Minnehaha Academy.

Since then it’s been revealed that Hodges found time to attend a Hollywood fundraiser with Garrison Keillor during the crisis, opening her up to ridicule by a Star Tribune columnist, among others.

 

The mayor’s fundraiser was at the Wilshire Country Club, where one can see the Hollywood sign from several golf holes, if one can afford the $70,000 membership fee. One could also spot such stars as Halle Berry and Mark Wahlberg, as well as the “area’s most distinguished business leaders and citizens.”

Just don’t wear a mock turtleneck to the club. They’re banned.

But there’s still one elected official in Minneapolis who stands up for local property taxpayers. Carol Becker, a member of the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, has sued the city in an effort to force Hodges to immediately release a detailed budget so citizens can scrutinize it before a September public hearing. Becker put it on the line at a court hearing on Friday.

“My contention is that this is a budget,” Becker said, holding up a large white three-ring binder, “and this is not,” she said, lifting a copy of the 8-page document Hodges filed on Aug. 15.

Becker argued that Hodges violated the City Charter by not filing a detailed, recommended budget by the deadline.

Hodges is planning to release a detailed budget on Sept. 12, a day before the Board of Estimate’s public hearing.

Becker said that leaves citizens insufficient time to digest the document.

Hodges skipped the courtroom showdown with Becker, but sent a posse of staff. Attorneys for the city told Judge Mary Vasaly argued the handful of pages submitted by Hodges ought to be good enough for taxpayers and interested parties.

Assistant City Attorney Sarah McLaren said the City Charter only requires summaries and outlines of Hodges’ budget recommendation, and the mayor is under no obligation by law to produce anything more.

“The plain language of the charter discusses a high-level document that may not contain all of the detail a member of the public might want,” she said.

Vasaly interjected, “You believe that what she’s already provided meets the charter requirement for what a budget is?”

McLaren said yes, but historically Minneapolis mayors “have gone above and beyond the requirements of the charter” in order to exert influence on the budget that’s approved later in the year.

Minneapolis taxpayers may get the bare minimum before the September 13 public hearing. But afterward? Hodges plans to pull out all the stops and submit a detailed budget like her predecessors!

Hodges will go “above and beyond” on Sept. 12, McLaren said, and the Board of Estimate and Taxation could hold another public hearing after Sept. 13 to give citizens more time to comment, since the board isn’t required to set the maximum property tax levy until Sept. 30.

Besides, McLaren argued, mayors in the past have released budgets later than Aug. 15 after major public safety incidents, and citizens will have plenty of opportunity to read the budget and respond before next year’s budget is approved by the City Council in December.

Yet there’s still a chance Hodges’ will make history, thanks to Becker’s tenacity.

Becker said she wants the judge to set a precedent for Minneapolis mayors.

“I want to have a precedent that a little seven-pager is not a budget,” she said, “so I don’t have to come year after year and beg for a budget.”

One thing’s for sure. The judge’s decision will be out long before Hodges’ comprehensive budget document.

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