Last-minute tweaks to document leave observers guessing
Published: May 25, 2011
It's often said that the two things people don't want to see being made are sausage and laws. In the case of the Detroit Charter Review Commission, though, it might be better to use headcheese as analogy, because the commissioners made a decision following a public hearing Saturday that has many scratchin' their noggins in bewilderment.
For those who aren't all that familiar with esoteric foods, headcheese is a jellied loaf made from edible parts of the head, feet and other similarly distasteful animal parts.
And for those who are equally in the dark about what's going on with the Charter Commission, we can tell you this much: With a deadline upon them, the commissioners unexpectedly jammed a new structure for City Council into the draft of a document that, if approved by voters, will serve as a kind of constitution for the city.
It is possible that, by the time you read this, the members of the Charter Commission will have come to their senses and reversed the surprise 4-3 vote to reduce the City Council from nine to seven members, with five representing districts and two elected at large. Previously, the commission had adhered to a model approved by voters calling for a nine-member council (the current number) with seven representing districts and two elected at large.
Two of the commission members had left Saturday's meeting by the time the vote regarding the council structure was taken, about six hours into a marathon session, the last of its two scheduled public hearings on the draft proposal.
The change, in a document that won't go to voters until November, amounts to a last-minute overhaul of a key issue.
Why last minute? Because the plan is to send the draft document to the state's governor and attorney general for their review May 31. They have 90 days to comment on the plan, with an eye toward any possible conflicts with state law.
Once the guv and AG are done, the charter comes back to the commission, which will then incorporate any recommended changes it chooses to make.
Which means that voters will have only about two months to evaluate the proposed charter before going to the polls on Nov. 8. (The city clerk's office must post the final version of the charter that will go before voters at least 70 days before the election.)
That's not a whole lot of time to give careful consideration to a document that, as described by the commission itself, is intended to do much:
"The Charter is to the City of Detroit what the constitution [sic] is to the United States of America. It establishes the structure of our government and embodies our values as a people. Simply stated, it provides a blueprint for city government and expresses its underlying fundamental values. The Charter is also a document of its time — a document that should address the issues confronting Detroit residents. Accordingly, the Charter is as much an aspirational statement of community values as it is a practical guide to running city government."
There will be a lot to chew on, and not much time for mastication. On the other hand, two months seems generous compared to three weeks of draft discussions.
Up until Saturday, the elected commissioners have earned generally high marks for the job they've done. But they've put themselves in an awfully tight box as their deadline.
As David D. Whitaker, director of the City Council's Research and Analysis division pointed out in a recent memo, the initial draft (released May 6) has a number of important proposals that should be receiving careful consideration. But the time to do that is short.
"The Commission's schedule only provides limited opportunity for comment and revision of such a complex, technical and important document that is intended to define the structure of city government," Whitaker wrote. Whitaker, while acknowledging the "monumental task" confronting commission members, expresses concern about potential court cases that could arise if gray areas aren't cleared up.
In addition to the time squeeze, city officials have a lot of other things they are dealing with — chief among them a massive budget crisis that has to be solved quickly if imposition of an emergency financial manager is to be avoided.
"It is unfortunate that the release of the draft charter comes at a time when this Council, and City government as a whole, is in the midst of critical budget deliberations and when there is only a two week window to digest and react to the proposed [charter] changes."
For the most part, Detroit's news media (including this rag) haven't been paying all that much attention to what's been going on with the Charter Commission. But even for those who have been following it closely, Saturday's vote on changes to the council makeup seemed to come out of left field.
The reasoning among the four commission members who supported the change is that it's intended to shrink the size of city government — not an inconsequential goal considering the depths of the financial crisis being faced.
For starters, it flies in the face of Proposal D, which more than 70 percent of the city's voters approved less than two years ago. That measure calls for a nine-member council, with seven representing districts and two selected at-large.
But there are other criticisms of the commission's move.
Vince Keenan, a specialist in voter education who founded the nonprofit group publius.org, is among those following the work of the commission closely. He points out that reducing the size of council contradicts what the commission itself described as the "best practice" of having each councilmember represent a district containing about 60,000 people. Even with council members from seven districts, that number would be about 100,000 based on the city's current population. With just five districts, that number jumps above 140,000 people represented by one council member.
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