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Mayor Frey under fire for $359K Agape contract awarded via emergency COVID order

Some council members called it a "misuse" of his powers, but the mayor pushed back.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on April 20, 2021.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on April 20, 2021.

Some Minneapolis City Council members are explicitly calling out Mayor Jacob Frey for his decision to approve a $359,000 contract related to the clearing of George Floyd Square under the city's COVID-19 emergency procurement order, rather than going through the City Council.

"I think it is a scandal," said Ward 3 Council Member Steve Fletcher during the June 17 City Council meeting. "This is a misuse of the COVID-19 authorization. It is not appropriate as a COVID-19 expenditure, and it is something that should have come through council."

Frey's office, in a written statement, dismissed the criticism in the meeting as "political theater," saying "the work is being managed by our Health Department and many of deliverables are COVID-specific."

Here's a closer look at the dispute.

'We have a problem here'

The issue was thrust into the spotlight during Thursday's virtual meeting when several council members questioned the method Frey's office used to direct funds to Agape Movement for their help reopening George Floyd Square to vehicle traffic.

The mayor had publicly described the reopening as a "community-led initiative" driven by Agape Movement. But the group had actually been awarded this $359,000 contract with the city. 

During Thursday's City Council meeting, City Council President Lisa Bender, of Ward 10, said the Agape contract was approved through the mayor's emergency procurement powers related to COVID-19. This cut out the City Council from having any input, despite the contract's value being well above the $175,000 threshold that would normally require council approval.

"First, claiming that [the George Floyd Square reopening] was the independent initiative of a community group ... that we turned out to be paying is a scandal in itself," Fletcher said during the meeting. "And then trying to pay them through COVID-19 expenditures is a scandal. We have a problem here. And it's something that needs to be addressed, and it's something that the mayor needs to answer for."

The mayor was not in attendance during Thursday's meeting. Instead, City Attorney Jim Rowader provided answers. He said the scope of the Agape Movement contract "included language regarding pandemic response, and responding to conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic."

He also cited timing, logistics and a desire for "some initial operational secrecy" as reasons they chose to approve the contract through the emergency procurement order. 

"That, frankly seems like quite a stretch," Ward 11 Council Member Jeremy Schroeder respond. "38th and Chicago has become a location after the police murdered George Floyd, and that had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic." 

Rowader said the emergency order provides "plenty of space, particularly in these unprecedented times ... so I'm confident that it's not a stretch."  In response to separate questions, he also said he was not prepared to discuss in an open session whether there are potential legal risks to the decision, or what he would recommend the City Council do as a next step.

Council Member Phillippe Cunningham, meanwhile, expressed concern about the Agape contract being assigned to the city's Health Department, calling it "part of a broader issue of misuse of Office of Violence Prevention resources."

"Our Health Department should not be expected to fill in the gaps for whatever MPD does not want to do or is politically unpopular," Cunningham said in a statement sent out by himself, Bender, Fletcher and Schroeder following the meeting.

Schroeder, during the meeting, said bluntly he wanted to know why the contract "did not go through the council process, and how it related to the COVID emergency."

"The whole point of having the mayor here - who hasn't been here for months - is to answer questions like these," he said. The group's later release noted Frey has not attended a council meeting to discuss his emergency powers since Feb. 12, 2021.

Frey's office, in its statement Thursday afternoon, pushed back.

“Council President Bender and the other council members making false, after-the-fact critiques are the same local officials who excused themselves from any meaningful work while insisting Mayor Frey exercise his authority to re-open the intersection. The mayor worked with Council Vice President [Andrea] Jenkins and Council Member [Alondra] Cano to advance a non-police response that does precisely that. ... These city council members who have been sitting on the sidelines are encouraged to stop the theatrics and start doing the serious work of government.”

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon was among those who expressed a desire to end the emergency order, with Bender noting she is inclined to "end the procurement regulation that is in place, or restrict it."

Said Bender, in a statement following the meeting:

"After over a year of discussions about the future of 38th and Chicago, there was ample time to bring a contract of this size and scope through the transparent City Council approval process. The mayor chose to exploit emergency executive authority intended for COVID-19 expenses to approve this no-bid contract at the last minute, outside of public view, while issuing confusing mixed messages about whether he or the non-profit organization was making decisions,” 

No other council members spoke during the portion of the meeting where the Agape Movement contract was discussed, including Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and Ward 9 Council Member Alondra Cano – who are the mayor's allies on the council.

They did however speak to the Star Tribune, taking umbrage with the criticisms coming from some of their fellow council members. Andrew Johnson was the only council member absent from Thursday's meeting.

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