In a Nutshell:
- After three years of work, the Detroit Charter Review Commission proposed a revised city charter that was to be presented to city voters in the August 3, 2021, primary election.
- On May 26, Wayne County Circuit Court ruled that the proposed charter revision question cannot be placed on the August primary ballot.
- A full listing of the major milestones of the Commission’s work and related activities appears below.
The nine-member Detroit Charter Revision Commission, elected in November of 2018, proposed a revised city charter for Detroit that was to be presented to voters at the August 3, 2021, primary election. A city charter can be thought of as a city’s constitution providing the basic framework of a municipality. It defines how city government is organized, its powers, and its responsibilities. The current charter was adopted in 2012.
The proposed charter represents an unprecedented break with the past in its scope and breadth of changes.
Charter Revision Commission
The Detroit Charter Revision Commission is an elected body voted on by the citizens of Detroit to construct and revise a document designed to provide the mechanism for accomplishing the myriad of tasks assigned to city officials to govern. The charter commissioners were charged with determining what structure and form of government will address present needs and challenges, how to communicate a blueprint for responsible governance and set citizen-based governmental priorities, and how to articulate a practical vision for a better city as proposed by its citizens.
Three essential responsibilities of the Charter Revision Commission included:
- Assigning powers and duties to city officials and the branches of government.
- Outlining functions of city operations and the types of services to be provided.
- Determining how citizens interact with their government.
The revision process was informed by public input where the commissioners allowed the public to submit proposals for charter revisions in a variety of areas. The commission invited and accepted public participation at every phase of the revision process.
The Detroit Charter Revision Commission embarked on a three-year process holding over 200 formal and informal community meetings and conversations with interested parties and stakeholders. That process resulted in approximately 315 proposed revisions for the Commission’s consideration, many addressing topics related to increased transparency, equity, representation, and citizen involvement in city government.
Even though home rule city charters are written by locally elected charter commissioners with the input of the public, city charters must be consistent with state requirements and abide by the legal restraints in state law, and the state and U.S. Constitutions. The Home Rule City Act requires that all Michigan municipalities submit their proposed charter to the Governor for review before a public vote. The Commission submitted its work to Governor Whitmer on March 5, communicating the desire for massive reforms in the structure and functions of Detroit’s government.
Changes proposed by the Charter Revision Commission to the existing charter can be broadly categorized as expansive and ambitious progressive governmental and policy reforms that would address quality-of-life issues. Some of these changes include the redefinition of elected and appointed positions; structures and processes to ensure increased representation and equity for Detroit residents; increased access to city services and programs; a re-imagining of policing and police training; and strategies to increase citizen involvement and government transparency on several social justice and economic development issues.
On April 30, Governor Whitmer submitted her official response and review of the proposed 145-page charter and rejected it. The Attorney General, on whose opinion the Governor’s decision was based, determined that the proposed draft had “substantial and extensive legal deficiencies.” The Attorney General laid out two options for the Commission to address the objections and move forward. The first option was for the Commission to make changes to the document to address the Governor’s objections and resubmit a modified charter for the Governor’s consideration. The second option was to submit the proposed charter to voters for approval notwithstanding the Governor’s objections.
On May 11, the Commission approved changes to its work in response to the Governor’s objections, and shortly thereafter, resubmitted the draft charter to the Governor for review. On May 24, the Governor responded, “I decline to conduct further review because of the legal questions doing so at this time could raise and because of the practical difficulties that could follow.”
On May 26, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge ordered the charter revision question to be removed from the August 3 primary ballot. This came after two lawsuits were filed against the Detroit Election Commission and City Clerk Janice Winfrey arguing they “improperly” approved the charter changes when the Election Commission’s members voted to put the revisions on the ballot. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny wrote in his opinion, “In the absence of approval from the governor, the proposed charter revision cannot be placed on the ballot and submitted to the voters.” There is still potential for an appeal to be filed on this ruling.
The timeline below presents the major milestones of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission’s work and the process of drafting a revised charter.
The Detroit Charter Revision Commission was scheduled to vote on final revisions June 8 launching the start of their education campaign. The fiscal impact of the proposed charter has been hotly contested as the City’s analysis projects an added cost of $500 million a year to implement changes. On the other hand, the Charter Revision Commission has provided their own independent analysis and concluded that mandated charter expenditures would fall well below the $500 million mark. During a presentation to the Detroit Financial Review Commission on May 24, Commissioner Richard Mack cited an added cost of $7 million per year to implement mandated changes.
Over the next couple of weeks, there should be a clearer picture of the question’s qualifications for the ballot. If a higher court reverses the Circuit Court opinion and allows the question to be placed on the ballot, watch for a full Citizens Research Council report providing in-depth analysis of the most significant revisions proposed by the Charter Revision Commission.