Detroit Charter Commission: Lack of funding to share proposal is 'voter suppression'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Charter commissioners are accusing Detroit's elected leaders of "voter suppression" on claims they've failed to properly fund the distribution of a sweeping set of proposed government reforms to city voters ahead of the August primary. 

A group of residents, activists and commission members gathered outside Detroit City Hall on Wednesday to call on city officials to allocate more dollars to print and translate revisions being recommended for Detroit's City Charter.

The document is the culmination of a three-year undertaking by the nine-member commission impaneled in 2018 by city voters to address quality of life issues including water access, affordable transit and housing, strengthened oversight and citizen participation and responsible contracting. 

Mayor Mike Duggan's administration has recommended $30,000 be used to translate and distribute the document, which is "unacceptable," Detroit Charter Commission Treasurer Barbara Wynder told reporters Wednesday.

"All of this is about voter suppression. You don't let people know and they won't be present when the time comes to say 'yea or nay.' We aren't here to suggest how the people should vote. We are here to suggest that people have a right to the information," Wynder said. "They are the taxpayers, they are the ones who funded this. The amount of money that the administration has proposed would be sufficient to print the document only and then become a souvenir in somebody's closet."

Vice Chairwoman Nicole Small said the document is "full of safeguards" and "proposals from the people that say 'We want a better government.'" The funding recommended, Small contends, equates to $13 per Detroiter and wouldn't be enough to educate one-tenth of the city's voters. 

Small said the commission needs $367,000 to carry out its educational campaign. In an April 6 budget request to the city, the commission said it needs $25,000 for a community engagement director from April to June; $12,000 to print 1,000 copies of the revisions; $88,000 to print 400,000 booklets; $17,500 for translation services; $120,000 for 250,000 mailers; $90,000 for ads on television, radio and social media; and another $14,500 for field staff and 50 poll workers. 

Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett noted Wednesday the charter commission was provided $300,000 in the current fiscal budget — a figure adopted by Detroit's City Council, down from $576,000 proposed under Duggan's budget plan. 

The city already has approved a supplemental allocation of $129,000 to fund the work of the commission and Detroit's Office of the Chief Financial Officer on April 16 proposed directing another $159,000 toward the panel. That request is pending before Detroit's council, he said. 

As of March 31, 2021, the commission has spent about $274,000 for the current fiscal year, CFO figures show. 

"They (the charter commission) have in front of them $279,000 which they're supposed to spend over the next three months," said Mallett, adding the administration believes "that is a reasonable amount."

"We want the charter commission to be able to complete its task and deliver the document that they've been promising to the people of the city of Detroit," he said. 

Duggan said Wednesday that he believes the additional funding will be enough to make the charter plan available on websites and cable television and in local libraries.

"We absolutely should do that. I'll work with them to do that," Duggan said. 

On voter suppression claims, Duggan, who is seeking a third term, noted he'll be working to get more voters out to the polls.

"I'm going to be on the ballot in August," he said. "The last thing I want is to suppress the vote. I want everybody out." 

The charter commission's call for a boost to its funding comes amid warnings from the Duggan administration that costs associated with the proposed charter changes would send the city into a second bankruptcy.

In February, Detroit's Office of the Chief Financial Officer said revisions proposed would spur an "imminent fiscal crisis" that would send the city $3.4 billion into debt within four years.

The commission ultimately submitted a revised version of the plan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel. Detroit finance officials reiterated worries on Monday with the city's Financial Review Commission, noting the current plan would still cost about $2 billion. The governor and Nessel's office told The News this week they remain in the midst of a 90-day review of the plan. If approved, revisions would go before Detroit voters in the summer's primary election. 

The city, under the terms of its bankruptcy agreement, must maintain a balanced budget. If it's unable to meet that requirement, Detroit can't sign off on its budget plan, nor can the state. The predicament would force the city back into active state oversight, Detroit's acting Chief Financial Officer Jay Rising told the Financial Review Commission on Monday. 

"I believe the amount of required spending under the charter exceeds available revenues and as a result, there's no way either one of us could pass a balanced budget," he said.

The Financial Review Commission was installed in 2014 as an oversight measure and given final say on all city budgets, collective bargaining agreements and contracts larger than $750,000. Detroit regained local control of its finances three years ago when it emerged from the strict oversight of the FRC. 

Steve Watson, deputy chief financial officer and budget director, told the Financial Review Commission on Monday that the city would have to cut police and fire, parks and all other city services by half to present a balanced budget, based on the impact of the charter plan.

"That would of course risk the city returning to service insolvency, a declining tax base, certainly state oversight, all the things that we saw in the run-up to the first bankruptcy," he said. 

Small has said that the administration's financial assertions are nothing more than "bullying tactics." 

Small said the commission assessed the fiscal impact on individual proposals in the plan, but it has not come up with an overall dollar amount. That, she said, would be premature and will be based on the actual revisions that ultimately are adopted and how it's implemented by Detroit's council. The charter, if approved, would go into effect in 2022, Small added.

"If the charter passes, it's up to the City Council to figure out the most feasible way to enforce that," she said. 

Mallett said it's not the city government's responsibility to mount a campaign for or against the plan, but Detroit officials have offered the commission access to the city's cable television channels and website to help disseminate details of the charter plan.

Council President Brenda Jones on Monday asked during Monday's Financial Review Commission meeting whether the charter commission had priced what it would cost for the new charter, but no amounts were immediately available.

Hayg Oshagan, a Wayne State University professor and member of City Council's Immigration Task Force, worked alongside charter members to draft the plan.

"What is at stake is the future of this city," he said. "The proposals in this charter revision are what we deserve, they are about how we want to live; with dignity, security and with basic human rights for all Detroiters."