Detroit charter commission OKs updated revisions to send to governor

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Charter Revision Commission on Tuesday approved changes to its charter revision plan after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rejected an initial proposal, citing "legal deficiencies."

"We were definitely going to take a look at the comments we got back from the governor and Attorney General's Office to make any changes that we deemed appropriate," Commissioner Denzel McCampbell told The Detroit News after the vote during a virtual meeting.

The updates were expected to be forwarded to Whitmer's office soon, McCampbell said. Whitmer's office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Carol Weaver, chair of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission, speaks during a press conference with community members in front of Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit on April 28.

The governor, in an April 30 letter to the commission, concluded provisions of the revised charter could spur another financial crisis and send Detroit back into active oversight of the Financial Review Commission that was installed as part of the city's bankruptcy.

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.

The charter revision proposal is the result of three years of work by the nine-member commission, which was impaneled in 2018 by Detroit voters to address quality-of-life issues, such as water access, affordable transit, affordable housing and responsible contracting. 

An analysis of the plan conducted by Attorney General Dana Nessel's office noted the charter commission could make changes to address Whitmer's objections and then resubmit a modified plan for her approval. 

The commission also could opt to submit the proposed charter to city voters for approval notwithstanding Whitmer's objections, Nessel's office said. The charter commission's legal counsel agreed. But Detroit's Corporation Counsel has argued the governor has to support the plan for it to go before city voters. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Wednesday the commission has already "missed the (Tuesday) deadline to make changes."

"In this case, they've taken so long with all the bickering and fighting. The charter commission goes out of business by state law on Aug. 7," Duggan said. "So there's all this scrambling, but I'll leave it to the lawyers to sort out but it appears to me they've missed the deadline to make any changes." 

Detroit Charter Commission Vice-Chair Nicole Small told The Detroit News Wednesday that the commission posed the ballot question "Shall the City of Detroit Home Rule Charter proposed by the Detroit Charter Revision Commission be adopted?" on May 6, well before the Tuesday deadline.

Winfrey in a letter dated Monday to Lamont Satchel, general counsel for the charter commission, said the question only lacks Whitmer’s approval.

Satchel did not respond to a request for comment from The News Wednesday.

More:Commission leader condemns Whitmer's rejection of revised Detroit charter plan

More:Whitmer rejects Detroit's Charter revision plan, cites 'legal deficiencies'

For subscribers:Editorial: Whitmer does Detroit a favor in rejecting charter

In response to Whitmer's letter, Charter Commission Chair Carol Weaver said this month that the commission would review and address the governor's comments and relevant legal objections. 

Many of the concerns, Weaver said, pertain to "minor clarifications in the language."

The commission "stressed all along that we didn’t view them as deep or severe deficiencies," McCampbell said Tuesday.

Among the revisions was clarifying language on needing voter approval to privatize or merge Detroit's transportation services while also ensuring the city can introduce new technologies on its own, he said.

Some community members who spoke during the meeting supported the commission's efforts.

"We now know that few, if any, of the charter revisions contain serious legal deficiencies, as many folks would have had voters believing these past few weeks," Wendy Caldwell told the commission. "And now we are even more confident that what we will put forth can be upheld by our local government according to state and federal law."

Detroit's Election Commission is expected to hold a virtual meeting on Thursday to certify candidates and the charter proposal for the primary ballot, the office of City Clerk Janice Winfrey confirmed.

Weaver and other commissioners have rejected the claims from the city and Whitmer that costs associated with the plan would lead to financial hardship, calling them "inherently unreliable and inaccurate."

During their meeting Tuesday, commissioners also approved having its general counsel draft a letter to Whitmer objecting to a financial impact analysis completed by Duggan's administration, McCampbell said.

Late last month, the commission convened a news conference to argue that the city has failed to properly fund the distribution of materials explaining the sweeping set of proposed government reforms to voters ahead of the election. The move, they say, is a form of "voter suppression."

Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett has said the commission was given $300,000 in the current fiscal budget, a figure adopted by Detroit's City Council and less than $576,000 proposed by Duggan.

The city later approved a supplemental allocation of $129,000 to fund the work of the commission, and Detroit's Office of the Chief Financial Officer proposed, and council later approved, directing another $159,000 toward the panel. 

The August primary will be the final election to take place during the Detroit Charter Commission's term. 

Nessel's review concluded that the proposed charter includes provisions that are inconsistent with requirements of the Home Rule City Act and other applicable state and federal laws. 

In February, the city CFO's office said revisions proposed at that time would spur an "imminent fiscal crisis" that would plunge Detroit $3.4 billion into debt within four years.

The commission ultimately submitted a revised version of the plan to Whitmer and Nessel. 

The city, under the terms of its bankruptcy agreement, must maintain a balanced budget. If it is unable to meet that requirement, Detroit can't sign off on its budget plan, nor can the state. It would also cause the Financial Review Commission to step back in.

If approved, the charter would go into effect in 2022.

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.