Several Minneapolis City Council members accused Mayor Jacob Frey of misusing his pandemic emergency powers to approve a $359,000 contract with Agape Movement to try to reopen the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, which has been a semi-autonomous zone controlled by activists since George Floyd was murdered there last May. The council also threatened to yank Frey’s emergency pandemic powers.
City public works employees and dozens of Agape “outreach workers” descended on George Floyd Square at about 4:30 a.m. June 3 and tried to reopen it to traffic. The city has increasingly turned to community groups like Agape as it seeks to avoid confrontations between police and activists like those who are occupying George Floyd Square.
Council President Lisa Bender said she confirmed last week that the no-bid contract with Agape was approved under the mayor’s executive authority under the coronavirus pandemic emergency, which has normally been used for protective equipment, emergency materials and rental assistance.
Frey was not at the Thursday council meeting where the contract was discussed — and he hasn’t been at council meetings for months, Bender said. Council Member Jeremy Schroeder questioned why the mayor wasn’t there to answer questions about why the contract didn’t go through the regular council approval process.
Bender has previously said the mayor has the responsibility and authority to decide how to deal with the intersection, and if he doesn’t, the council will make the decision for him. Frey said council members said they wanted the intersection reopened without a heavy police presence, and it was; and to work with the council members in that area, and they did.
“They excuse themselves from being at all involved in this very difficult scenario and now after the fact they want to criticize for what they asked for,” Frey said. “It’s good political theater but it is not in dispute that the contract contained several specific pandemic (provisions).”
City Attorney Jim Rowader, who was nominated for the job by Frey, said his office worked on the Agape contract with the City Coordinator’s Office. There was a need for “operational secrecy” due to “safety concerns” associated with the attempt to reopen the intersection, he told the council.
The contract requires Agape workers to also do pandemic outreach, in addition to “a number of community building, health and safety services associated with re-opening of 38th and Chicago,” according to contract language.
Schroeder replied that 38th and Chicago has nothing to do with the pandemic, and he questioned whether Frey’s action was legal: “That frankly seems like quite a stretch.”
Rowader said he wasn’t prepared or inclined to discuss the legal advice his office gave without “considerable thought and care to the pros and cons of doing that in open session.”
He added: “I’m confident that it’s not a stretch, but we can certainly work with the other departments to provide more detail,” in a closed session, he said. Meaning out of public view.
Bender said the typical contract amount that comes to the council for approval is $175,000, which is also the threshold at which contracts require council approval. Given Frey’s move, she said she’s inclined to end the emergency procurement process that Frey used. Bender said that she has repeatedly offered council assistance with the reopening conundrum.
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham blasted Frey’s move. He said the city has also misused the Office of Violence Prevention’s “violence interrupters” for everything from handling rowdy protests to funeral security. The council created the Office of Violence Prevention.
“It is not meant to be a wholesale replacement to whatever MPD doesn’t want to do,” Cunningham said.
He said having Agape workers try to reopen the intersection hurts their credibility — they are mostly ex-gang members.
“They’re being seen as cops because the city is asking them to behave as cops,” Cunningham said. “It is causing tremendous harm.”
Council Member Steve Fletcher, who called the use of pandemic powers for the Agape contract a “scandal,” said Frey avoided the council because he knew it wouldn’t approve the contract. He said the mayor calling the reopening a community-led move was also a scandal.
“We have a problem here,” he said, “and it’s something the mayor needs to answer for.”
Activists put barricades back in place, and the intersection remains closed to traffic despite repeated efforts by the city to open it with a new roundabout.
Frey said city focused on removing the concrete barriers as safely as possible, saving art and retaining space for a future permanent Floyd memorial, which the city is working with the community on.
“We knew that it was not gonna happen all at once,” he said.
He said the city is still negotiating with Meet on the Street, a group of activists who manage the square.
“I wanna give them a whole lot of credit,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of bringing these issues to the forefront.”
The City Council also approved $5 million to cover police overtime.
Updated at 6 p.m. Thursday