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New Detroit charter headed to August primary ballot

The Detroit skyline as seen from across the Detroit River.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Detroit’s Election Commission voted Thursday to put the question of a revised city charter on the August ballot.

The charter revision question has been controversial, and sparked a battle between Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and charter commissioners. Duggan argues some of the proposed changes would drain city finances, and put it back under state control.

The election commission voted 2-1 to advance the question, known as Proposal P, to the ballot. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and City Clerk Janice Winfrey voted yes, with corporation counsel Lawrence Garcia voting no.

Garcia argued the question shouldn’t make the ballot because Governor Gretchen Whitmer objected to certain provisions as being in conflict with state law. And he said charter commissioners failed to submit their final revisions before the May 11 deadline.

They [charter commission] did not indicate what version of their charter they wanted the voters to consider and vote up or down,” Garcia said. “They have, since making that request, changed the document from the form it was in at the time they made the request. So which version should voters in Detroit consider and potentially vote on in August? It is a moving target.”

But charter commissioners and their supporters say the commission was simply obligated to submit a request to put the question on the ballot by May 11, not a final document. And they say there’s no legal requirement that the Governor approve all charter provisions (a position that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office agreed with, at the same time that it found numerous “legal deficiencies” with some of the commission’s proposed revisions).

Charter commission attorney Lamont Satchel called Garcia’s legal arguments “strained” and disingenuous. “Are you telling me that the city, and the people, have to accede to the demands of the policy of a governor before they can put their charter on the ballot?” Satchel said. “That is not the case.”

Charter commission members continue to revise their proposed changes, which have the potential to radically transform how Detroit is governed. The proposal submitted to Governor Whitmer would curb mayoral power, adjust how the city determines what constitutes affordable housing, and make more development projects eligible for the city’s community benefits ordinance, among other things.

The State Attorney General’s office found that provisions such as limiting the city’s ability to cut pensions, increasing spending on a variety of initiatives, and changing its agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority could push it back into deficit territory and state control. The analysis also suggested that allowing the city to adjust utility rates would be against the law, and a proposed Wages and Standards board to support workers would be unlawful.

The matter may “end up playing out in the courtroom,” Winfrey said during the election commission meeting, noting that Garcia has brought up the possibility of a lawsuit to prevent the charter revisions from going on the ballot.

Charter commission members released this statement after the election commission vote:

“The 2018 Detroit Charter Revision Commission is pleased that two members of the Detroit Election Commission, Council President Brenda Jones and Election Commision Chairwoman Janice Winfrey, rejected Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia's disturbing interpretation and rejection of the written decision of Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Attorney General that allows the revised Detroit City Charter to be placed on the August 3, 2021 ballot. We thank the Election Commission for their work and Election Commissioners Jones and Winfrey for recognizing that the Charter Commission submitted the ballot question appropriately and on time. The Charter Commission will continue its work of educating the residents on this forward-thinking, people-centered revised charter that embraces all citizens and puts the collective interest of citizens above politics and self-interest.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.