Stir It Up
Hard work in Detroit revising a charter, rethinking jobs
Published: October 26, 2011
One thing is clear after reading the eye-glazing proposed charter revision for the City of Detroit — we're rolling in sevens.
In 2009, Detroit voters approved Proposal D, which mandates that City Council members be elected in a hybrid system of seven districts and two at-large seats. One result of that is that in the revised charter almost every commission that represents citizens will have seven members either elected or selected from those districts. The number seven appears so many times in the text, I thought I was in a craps game. The charter calls for a seven-member Board of Ethics, Transportation Advisory Board, Board of Zoning Appeals, Historical Commission — you get the idea. If you roll a seven in craps, you're a winner, but it is not so clear if this charter will be a winner when Detroiters vote on Nov. 8. It may be a roll of the dice, but I'm inclined to go for it.
The charter is the basic framework for how city government runs — our Constitution so to speak. The revised charter we're considering now, Proposal C on the ballot, addresses three broad areas — ethics, council by districts and green initiatives — in addition to several smaller changes and numerous tweaks. The smaller changes may not have less impact; they just don't seem to fall into any larger categories.
However Tom Barrow, a Detroit accountant who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1985, 1989 and 2009, sees a theme for many of the smaller changes. His organization, Citizens for Detroit's Future (CFDF), calls them "numerous and humiliating modifications which would fundamentally alter our political structure, diminish the power of our city council and the city's residents, and more closely make Detroit look like a suburban community."
"They're using these little titillating things like green initiatives and recycling, but we can already do that under our current charter," Barrow says.
Objections by CFDF and other community groups, such as We the People, Hood Research and Bagley Community Council, seem to fit into some well-worn Detroit paranoia about power and self-governance in the city. John Bennett, a Detroit Police officer who runs the website Detroit Uncovered, also opposes the revised Charter.
"Early on, it looked like they were headed in the right direction, but I think they got political in the end," says Bennett. "They caved in to pressure from outside the commission. They had an opportunity to shrink city government and they didn't take the opportunity."
Last week City Council President Charles Pugh urged voters to reject Proposal C because it doesn't give council enough power. However Charter Commission Chair Jenice Mitchell Ford, an attorney, chided Pugh for releasing his statement on city letterhead, saying it's against state law for public officials to take a position on a candidate or ballot question using taxpayer funds.
Council member Kwame Kenyatta is more evenhanded on the charter question. "I think it's inappropriate for me or any other council member or the mayor to crusade one way or the other," he says. "It's a conflict of interest. The people have to weigh in as to whether they think it's a benefit for them."
The revised charter does give City Council a little more power than it currently has while retaining a strong mayor system. For instance, under the current charter, the only mayoral appointments the council confirms is the corporation counsel. Under the revised charter, the council has power to approve the chief of police, the fire commissioner, director of planning and economic development and director of human resources.
But the charter gives the council no role in choosing department heads and bars members from directly requesting services from departments. Meanwhile, the idea behind a council elected by districts is to make members more accountable in neighborhoods. Holding members accountable while curbing their influence on services like this puts them in a bind. (By the way, since voters mandated council by districts in 2009, there'll be districts whether Proposal C passes or not.)
Another CFDF claim is that the revised charter gives the mayor a veto over referendums initiated by citizen petitions. Barrow says that Sections 12-107 and 4-117 add up to veto power. But Lamont Satchel, Charter Commission general counsel, says no. "Initiatives and referendums are regulated by state law," he says.
Satchel also refutes another claim from the Barrow camp. In regard to the budget process, Section 8-205 of the current charter reads in part, "The city council may request supporting data for each appropriation as it deems necessary." That sentence has been removed in the revised version.
"That denudes [sic] City Council from getting the information it needs," Barrow says.
Satchel counters that requesting data is "an inherent power that City Council has," and the wording was removed to clean up the document.
The CFDF claims section 9-801, "City Sponsored Insurance Assistance," which requires the corporation counsel to advise city council and the mayor on legalities regarding a possible city-sponsored auto and property insurance system within 60 days of the effective date of the charter, is bait to get voters to support a bad charter. In the end, CFDF says, "the framers know well that it is settled that a municipality violates state law by owning an insurance company."
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