For the past three last three years, the Detroit Charter Commission has been drafting a new set of bylaws for the city.
The city charter explains how everything in Detroit’s government is structured, addressing topics such as how long is the mayor’s term or who’s in charge of repairing the city sidewalks. It’s the legal foundation for the whole city and all its services.
“[The charter] serves as a ‘constitution’ for the local government, much as the Constitution for the United States of America serves as a guide for the states.” —Barbara Wynder, Detroit Charter Revision Commission
“[The charter] serves as a ‘constitution’ for the local government, much as the Constitution for the United States of America serves as a guide for the states,” says Barbara Wynder, who was among those elected to make amendments to the city charter after Detroiters voted to establish a Charter Revision Commission in 2018.
Wynder and other commissioners continued to meet through the pandemic. The commission heard from citizen focus groups to workshop ideas and translate them into policy. Wynder says that’s a big part of the revision process.
“It gives the people the authority to write what they want, whatever that might be,” she says.
The commission finished its revisions earlier this year. And there’s a lot to the new charter. There’s a declaration of citizens’ rights, new measures on policing and the public internet, others on youth employment programs, water affordability and contracting requirements. There’s a task force on reparations and another one on environmental justice. Wynder says the new 145-page charter is worth adopting.
“None of what we have proposed is cost-prohibitive. It requires some reevaluation of priorities, and an analysis and progressive thinking,” she says.
Mayor Mike Duggan and others disagree. They say it would be too expensive to follow the new rules and overspending would put Detroit back under state oversight. The city’s top attorney Lawrence Garcia voted against the charter on the city’s Election Commission in May.
“I think the law prohibits placing the question on the ballot,” he said.
Garcia’s vote failed and the charter question was certified as Proposal P. But the proposal has been on unstable footing throughout the process to put the question on the ballot. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rejected a version of the charter, citing many of Duggan’s financial concerns along with her own legal issues. That decision was cited by a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the proposal. The Detroit Charter Revision Commission filed dual emergency appeals to push Proposal P forward to voters after a Wayne County Circuit judge ordered to keep the ballot question off the city’s primary ballot.
After the Michigan Court of Appeals struck down Detroit’s Proposal P in early June, the state’s high court stopped a decision to remove the measure from the August primary ahead of the June 4 ballot printing deadline. And on Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the placement of the Aug. 3 ballot question to adopt a new city charter. The ruling comes as activists raise concerns about the influx of advertisements against Proposal P.
Some critics say the proposed charter is too bureaucratic and creates too many new procedures for its progressive goals to ever be realized. Former Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel says the document bypasses the work of elected officials.
“[It] almost seems like a political science exercise to come up with this sort of novel, different approach,” she says.
Renard Monczunski, an organizer with the Detroit People’s Platform, raised concerns about the charter process during public comment of the Elections Commission May session when the vote took place to put Proposal P on the ballot.
“There has been an agenda to subvert the will of the people by sabotaging this charter at every point,” he told the panel at the time.
Supporters of the new charter have a short time to inform the public about the document. Opponents are campaigning against Proposal P with ads on television and billboards. In any case, most voters will have to decide for themselves ahead of Detroit’s Aug. 3 primary.
Listen: Detroiters will have their say on whether to adopt a new city charter.