Why the revision of Detroit’s city charter is so contentious

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A municipality’s charter is comparable to its constitution and Detroit’s proposed changes would overhaul city government. (Shutterstock photo)

The legally embattled Proposal P would reshape the way the City of Detroit’s government operates, according to an independent analysis by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Related: Freedom ain’t free: A look at Detroit’s proposed City Charter changes

While Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration says the proposed changes would bankrupt Detroit’s government, the nonpartisan analysis by the Citizens Research Council says it’s too soon to determine the real cost of the measure. 

For now, Detroiters will vote on Proposal P on Aug. 3. That could change. The Michigan Supreme Court is still reviewing whether to rule on earlier decisions by lower courts to take it off the ballot. 

Proposal P would revise the City’s Charter. A municipality’s charter is comparable to its constitution. It defines the organization, powers and procedures of the local government.  Read the current City Charter here. 

The nine-member Detroit Charter Revision Commission, elected in November 2018,  held over 200 formal and informal community meetings and conversations in the past three years to review the City Charter. 

Major break with the past

The commission produced a revised charter that represents a major break with the past in its scope and breadth of changes, according to the CRC. The nonpartisan nonprofit specializes in analyzing policy issues that state and local governments face. It studied the 151-page proposed charter revisions, making it one of the few neutral analyses of Proposal P. 

You can read the proposed revised charter here

The proposal  has some underlying themes, or principles, said Eric Lupher, CRC president. 

“This was a body of people, at least a majority of them, who felt that there are two Detroits,” Lupher said, referring to the charter commission.  “Downtown, Midtown — certain parts are doing well. But the neighborhoods, the general population, aren’t enjoying that prosperity.”

To address that imbalance, the revised charter advocates more than 100 changes to address everything from crumbling sidewalks, water shutoffs and a citywide recycling program, to affordable housing measures, immigration rights and City contract procedures. 

Here are some of the key proposed changes: 

Creates 120 newly elected or appointed positions in City government. 

The main way the revised charter would attempt to address Detroit’s imbalances is to get more Detroiters involved in local government. 

Many new positions would be part of commissions that would work with directors of City departments that would carry out various policies.  “A number of commissions would work  hand-in-hand with directors of different City departments,” Lupher said. 

A number of issues would be addressed:

  • Improve public transportation, including reducing fares for lower-income residents, students, seniors and veterans. 
  • Examine affordable housing issues and create a new definition of “average median income” based on Detroiters income. Currently, AMI levels are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
  • Set up a moratorium on water shutoffs to residences and establish water rates based on income. 
  • Improve public broadband access.
  • Create a task force to examine  “reparations and African-American justice.”
  • Examine City contract procedures in an effort to hire more Detroiters.
  • Form an immigrant and refugees commission.
  • Develop a comprehensive environmental health policy.

The CRC doesn’t determine whether the approach will work or fail, but passage would certainly add “extra cogs” in City government, Lupher said. 

Dilute the “strong mayor” form of Detroit government 

Detroit has long had what’s known as a “strong mayor” form of government. It means the mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power. The existing charter gives the mayor a large degree of control and responsibility. “This dilitues that power,” mainly through the new commissions and other positions, Lupher said. 

 Major police change

“They don’t use the term ‘defund the police,’ but there are certain elements of change, and you can sort of read between the lines,” regarding the measures regarding Detroit police, Lupher said.

There are changes regarding qualified immunity, a legal status that  protects a government official from lawsuits. The revised charter also calls for more public databases regarding police conduct, more transparent reviews to City Council and the Mayor, more restrictive use of surveillance technology, and annual psychological exams for officers.

What is the real cost?

The fiscal impact of the proposed charter is hotly contested. The CRC finds that it’s too soon to determine the real cost because it’s unknown how the City would enact the potential changes. 

In April, the Duggan administration released a “fiscal impact study” declaring the changes would bankrupt the City, costing as much as $2 billion over four years. The City estimates the charter changes would cost $488 million in the first year, about half Detroit’s  current annual budget. The projections are similar for the next couple years, with the charter requiring 46-47 percent of anticipated revenue. “We would be on the road to a second bankruptcy,” according to the City study

“Our take is the mayor’s office really focused on what would be the worst-case scenario,” Lupher said.

The Charter Revision Commission came up with its own independent analysis from Michigan State University, which says the new policies would cost only $7 million a year. Read that analysis here. The MSU study “really took the best-case scenario,” Lupher said. 

“The truth lies somewhere in between.”

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