Detroit Election Commission votes to put charter revision proposal on Aug. 3 ballot

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's Election Commission voted Thursday to place controversial proposed revisions to the city's charter before Detroit voters on Aug. 3. 

The Detroit Charter Revision Commission's plan, coined Proposal P, has faced criticism from the administration of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer who have warned that costs associated with implementing its various provisions would send the city back into bankruptcy and prompt active oversight by its Financial Review Commission.

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 Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

The commission voted 2-1 in favor of adding the proposal to the ballot as submitted to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey on March 11. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Winfrey voted yes. Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia voted no.

Detroit Charter Commission Vice Chair Nicole Small said the approval allows the commission to focus its attention on getting the word out to residents. 

The uncertainty over the Election Commission's response "was a dark cloud looming," she said. 

"People were wondering 'Is it even going to be on the ballot?' Now we don't have to explain that away, we can just focus on the engagement," she said. 

The 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. 

The measure was approved for the ballot days after charter commissioners voted to amend its revisions in response to a letter from Whitmer, who cited "legal deficiencies" in the original draft.

Garcia, who also serves as legal counsel for the Election Commission, argued Thursday that placing the revised plan on the ballot without Whitmer's approval was unlawful. He also noted that as recently as Tuesday the charter commission was "continuing to revise its (charter) revision," rendering it unclear what voters will be asked to decide in the primary. 

The charter commission, after approving changes on Tuesday, said it would submit the latest version to Whitmer soon. A spokeswoman for Whitmer could not be immediately reached Thursday. 

The request from the charter commission, Garcia added, isn't proper, because "we don't know as (election) commissioners what they want on the ballot."

The Detroit Charter Revision Commission adopted its charter plan on Feb. 27. On March 5, the proposal was sent to Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel for review. Whitmer issued a letter rejecting the plan on April 30.

An analysis of the plan conducted by 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. Lamont Satchel, an attorney for the charter commission, agreed.

But Garcia maintains Whitmer has to support the plan for it to go before voters. 

Satchel stressed Thursday that the Election Commission's role is to determine whether the ballot question, not the contents of the plan, is proper.

He also argued Garcia is disputing Nessel's opinion that the charter commission has a right to put the plan before voters regardless of Whitmer's objections.

"I don't think it has the level of clarity and in-depth analysis you would expect before you make such a monumental decision to tell the people of Detroit after three years that they have no right to vote on their charter to make that decision," he said. 

The August primary is the final election during the Detroit Charter Commission's term.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said the administration did not have an immediate position on the measure heading for the ballot.

"We need to review which version of the charter has been placed on the ballot before we reach any conclusions," Roach said in an email to The Detroit News. 

In response to Whitmer's letter, Charter Commission Chair Carol Weaver this month said commissioners would review and address the governor's comments and relevant legal objections, noting many pertain to "minor clarifications in the language."

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, charter commission members have said. 

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."

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.

During the Tuesday meeting, charter commissioners asked Satchel to draft a letter to Whitmer objecting to a financial impact analysis completed by Duggan's administration.

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.

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

Separately, the Election Commission certified 10 candidates for the mayoral race, including Duggan, Myya Jones, Arthur Tyus, Anthony Adams, D. Etta Wilcoxon, Charleta McInnis, Tom Barrow, Danetta Simpson, Jasahn Larsosa and Kiawana Brown.

There will be four candidates in the race for clerk; Winfrey and Beverly Kindle-Walker, Denzel McCampbell and Michael Ri'chard. 

At-large council candidates are incumbent Janee' Ayers, Jermain Jones, Nicole Small, Coleman Young II and Mary Waters. 

The race for City Council in District 1 includes incumbent James Tate and challengers Quincy Coleman, Darryl Brown and Krystal Larsosa.

The District 7 council race has six candidates: Regina Ross, JoAnna Underwood, Angy Webb, Fred Durhal, John Bennett and William Davis. 

The District 4 race has seven candidates; Toson Knight, M.L. Elrick, Anemashaun Bomani, Virgil Smith, Latisha Johnson, Kenneth Snapp and Daivon Reeder. 

There will be no primary for the police commission or Districts 2, 3, 5 and 6 City Council races.