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CRC Column

The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about. 
-Lent Upson, 1st Executive Director of CRC  

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The Proposed Detroit City Charter
October 2011
Memorandum 1110

The Charter Revision Commission, elected in November 2009, has proposed a new charter for the City of Detroit to be presented to Detroit voters at the November 8, 2011 election. The proposed charter does not represent a significant break with the past, but rather a revision of the present charter, which was adopted in 1997. If the proposed charter is approved, it will take effect on January 1, 2012. If the ballot question fails at the November 8 election, the commission may resubmit a revised draft or the same charter at a subsequent election. The three-year life of the Charter Commission will expire in May 2012. If the question also fails at a second election, the 1997 Charter will remain in effect. Voters would then be asked in 2018 whether to call for a Charter Revision Commission.

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The 1963 Michigan Constitution provides that the electors of every city have the right and responsibility of home rule. That right is enshrined in the city charter, which is written by locally elected charter commissioners, approved by the Governor, and adopted by the voters, within constraints established by Article VII, Section 22 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution and state statutes including the Home Rule Cities Act (PA 279 of 1909).

A city charter establishes the form of city government (strong mayor, weak mayor, and council/manager are common forms of city government) and the critical (and often state-mandated) processes associated with elections, budgeting, accounting, and planning. Charters establish key departments, but should allow sufficient flexibility in organizational structure for elected officials to meet changing conditions and needs. While some would argue that municipal charters are not intended to mandate programs, local charters (and state constitutions including Michiganís) have been used to establish specific programs valued by voters, enshrining and protecting those programs from change by elected officials.

Detroit Charter History

City residents in Michigan have not always enjoyed the right to establish their own governmental structure and rules. Prior to the 1908 Michigan Constitution, city charters were written by the state and imposed on local communities: Detroitís charters of 1802, 1815, and 1857 were written by the state legislature. In 1918, Detroit electors adopted the cityís first home rule charter with a strong mayor form of government and a City Council with nine members elected at-large on a nonpartisan basis (the cityís previous, state mandated, legislative body had 42 members, with two elected from each of 21 wards, on a partisan basis). The second Detroit-developed home rule charter replaced the first on July 1, 1974. The current Detroit City Charter was approved by voters on November 5, 1996 and became effective on January 1, 1997. This charter requires that the issue of charter revision be submitted to the voters at the gubernatorial primary of 2018 and every fourth gubernatorial primary thereafter and provides that the issue of charter revision may also be submitted to the voters at other times in the manner provided by law. Accordingly, the Detroit City Council determined by a three-fifths vote to place the issue of charter revision on the ballot on May 5, 2009, and the electors of the City of Detroit voted to create a Charter Revision Commission to rewrite the 1997 charter. At the following general election on November 3, the nine members of the Commission were elected.

There were a number of reasons why Detroiters were ready to revisit the charter. High profile elected and appointed city officials had been charged with (and subsequently convicted of) criminal offenses, and the existing charter provisions for removing city officials from office proved to be ineffective. Vacant and dilapidated houses, storefronts, and factories littered the city, and some areas that were formerly neighborhoods had become largely vacant fields. The 2010 census would reveal that the cityís population had declined from over 1.8 million in 1950 to about 714,000 in 2010, and that the number of city residents had declined by a fourth just in the prior decade.

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