The Detroit Charter Revision Commission is filing dual emergency appeals to push Proposal P forward to voters on August 3 after a Wayne County Circuit judge ordered to keep the ballot question off the city’s primary ballot.
On Thursday, attorneys for the commission urged the Court of Appeals to reverse Wayne County Chief Judge Timothy Kenny’s decision to decertify the charter proposal, requesting action before June 1 when election officials are expected to print ballots.
“Detroiters should have a say.” — Denzel McCampbell, Charter Revision Commissioner
“The two elections and three years of work will be all for naught if the Circuit Court’s order removing the charter proposal from the ballot is allowed to stand,” attorneys for the commission wrote in their appeals filing.
In conjunction with its appeals request, the commission filed an emergency application to bypass the Court of Appeals and take the case directly to the Michigan Supreme Court before the same June deadline. The Detroit Charter Revision Commission is set to dissolve on August 6.
“The citizens of the City of Detroit wanted the Charter Commission to create and propose a revised Charter. The Charter Commission did just that, and to deny the citizens of Detroit the opportunity to vote on their revised Charter would be a great injustice and, more to the point, contrary to the law,” attorneys for the commission wrote in their appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Revised Charter is Three Years in the Making
In 2018, Detroit voters elected nine members to serve on the Charter Revision Commission. The panel has since worked on drafting a new charter document, which outlines the city’s governance structure, with the intent to better the lives of those that live within the municipality.
“It’s been three years of work,” said Charter Revision Commissioner Denzel McCampbell. “Over 500 individuals proposed revisions to the charter. Hours and hours of work by community members on this charter.”
“Detroiters should have a say,” he added.
Legal Challenges Abound
Earlier this month, the Wayne County Circuit Court merged two lawsuits seeking to block the charter proposal from appearing before voters. The complaints against City Clerk Janice Winfrey and the Detroit Charter Revision Commission were brought on by Reverand Horace Sheffield III and Rodrick Harbin, alongside Allen Lewis and Ingrid White. Attorneys from Dykema Gossett and Honigman law firms, who represented the plaintiffs, argue the charter question could not proceed based on Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s failure to approve the document.
In an April letter to the commission, Whitmer cited “substantial and extensive legal deficiencies” as part of her decision to reject the charter.
“If the proposed revisions cause a financial crisis, the [Financial Review Commission] could then revoke the city of Detroit’s and the Detroit Public School Community District’s waiver, requiring the FRC to regain full oversight over the city’s and school district’s finances,” Whitmer wrote. “A financial crisis could have adverse consequences for residents, businesses, and persons who receive a pension from the city.”
Whitmer has indicated that she will not review other versions of the charter. But attorneys for the Charter Revision Commission argue that the governor’s approval is not required under the Michigan Home Rule City Act. The Michigan Attorney General’s office has also supported that stance in a legal analysis directed to the commission.
“The text of Section 22 does not include a requirement for the Governor’s approval of a proposed charter as a prerequisite for a charter commission to submit it for approval by the city’s voters,” wrote Assistant Attorney General George Elworth. “I have not found such a requirement elsewhere in the HRCA or in any other statute or case thus far in my research.”
Lack of Clarity Around Charter Version
Besides the legal question over the requirement of the governor’s approval, there is also a debate on what document the Charter Revision Commission is putting forth to voters. Following the governor’s legal analysis, the commission adopted changes to address defects in language. Many of those amendments were made on the same day the Detroit Elections Commission approved Proposal P.
Clerk Winfrey indicated that an earlier version of the document had been submitted for approval and would proceed to voters, though it would not contain the recent amendments. Commissioners and their lawyers argue that the body retains the right to further revise and amend the charter even after the August primary filing deadline, a position Judge Kenny refutes.
“No Michigan law authorizes such a power to a Charter Revision Commission,” Kenny wrote in his May 26 decision. “Irreparable harm will come to the voters of Detroit if they do not have sufficient time to review the proposed Charter revisions or know which version they are being asked to review.”
Charter Challenged By Local Officials
Advocates of the commission and progressive activists have called for Detroit to adopt the proposed charter, which would overhaul the city’s governance and add new policies on policing, public broadband and water affordability.
“Detroiters should have a say on whether they want to adopt it and not have this effort be ended in the courtroom,” McCampbell said.
McCampbell, who is also seeking to unseat Winfrey as city clerk this election year, believes Mayor Mike Duggan and others in his administration have deliberately worked to squash the charter.
“We’re seeing patterns of voter suppression and voting rights attacks across the country,” McCampbell said. “It’s sad that we’re seeing something similar here in the city of Detroit.”
While Duggan is not a part of the current legal battle, he and members of his administration have opposed the charter effort. Duggan’s office has indicated that adopting the new charter would cost the city $2 billion over four years. Commissioners say his office and other city departments passed on opportunities to participate in revision meetings over the three years, only to come out against the effort as it headed to voters.
Earlier in May, Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia urged members of Detroit City Council to claw back funding for the charter commission, which would have supported efforts to educate voters. Garcia was the sole vote in the Detroit Election Commission against adopting Proposal P.
Duggan and Whitmer’s financial objections are mirrored by the Detroit Regional Chamber, which is opposing the proposed charter following the Wayne County Circuit Court decision.
“Over the past few years, Detroiters worked hard to show the world that the City is a great place where businesses and workers can succeed, with a well-functioning city government,” said Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Sandy Baruah in a statement. “The charter adds cumbersome bureaucracy that will curtail both economic development efforts and efficient service delivery to residents. This additional bureaucracy will also hamper the city’s ability to accelerate out of the pandemic shutdowns and make the most of the American Rescue Plan resources.”