Detroit charter commission appeals ruling, calls for restoring proposal on ballot

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Detroit Charter Revision Commission is appealing a ruling that pulled a proposal from the August ballot that asks voters to approve changes to the city charter.

Attorneys for the commission filed emergency appeals late Thursday in the state Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court in a bid to get the measure, called Proposal P, on the Aug. 3 ballot.

"The citizens of the city of Detroit wanted the charter commission to create and propose a revised charter," the attorneys wrote in their filing. "The charter commission did just that, and to deny the citizens of Detroit the opportunity to vote on their revised charter would be a great injustice and, more to the point, contrary to the law."

The judge in Wednesday's ruling said Whitmer declined to approve the charter revisions drafted and placing it before voters without her blessing would violate the Home Rule City Act. 

Attorneys for the commission seek action before Tuesday in order for absentee voter ballots to be available by June 19.

The Detroit City Clerk's Office confirmed Wednesday that August ballots have not yet been printed.

“We feel the law is clear; the charter should be on the Aug. 3 ballot. We were disappointed in Judge Kenny’s decision,” said Commissioner Denzel McCampbell, who also is a candidate in the primary for Detroit City Clerk. 

McCampbell restated the position of Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval wasn’t needed for Proposal P to go before voters. 

“For Detroit community members this has been a three-year process that folks put a lot of work into and Detroiters should have a say about whether they want a revised charter,” he said. “This should not be an effort that ends in a courtroom. This should be left up to the decision of the voters of Detroit.”

Representatives for the city clerk and Mayor Mike Duggan's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday night.

The appeal came a day after Wayne County Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny's decision to decertify the ballot proposal. 

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 Home Rule Act states charter revisions need to be submitted to the governor for approval or disapproval before being certified. While the act provides three methods for charter amendments and revisions, there's no way to override in the event of a governor's disapproval, Kenny said.

"To contend that the governor’s approval is not necessary for a revision of the charter rather than an amendment makes the submission of the draft to the governor for approval an empty and useless gesture if the failure to gain approval of the revision is of no consequence," Kenny stated in his ruling.

Kenny entered the order in response to two lawsuits filed last week against Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey seeking to prevent the Detroit Election Commission from printing ballots that include Proposal P. 

The proposal has faced criticism from the Duggan administration and Whitmer, who have warned that the costs of implementing the charter provisions would send the city back in to bankruptcy and prompt active oversight by its Financial Review Commission.

In April, the governor sent a letter to charter commissioners flagging concerns with the plan and concluding that she could not support it. Officials have offered dueling takes on whether it's lawful to put the measure before voters without her support. 

The Detroit Election Commission on May 13 in a split vote advanced Proposal P to the ballot, with City Council president Brenda Jones and Winfrey voting to move it, and Lawrence Garcia, the city's corporation counsel, voting no. 

Days later and after the ballot submission deadline, the Charter Revision Commission sent revisions of its proposal to the governor for review, Kenny's ruling noted. 

This week, Whitmer told the commission she would not review the revisions.

In their appeal Thursday, attorneys for the commission argued that under the Home Rule City Act, "if the Governor approves of the revisions, she signs it. ...The governor's letter incorporated the Attorney General’s review, which noted that the Charter Revision Commission did not need her approval before submitting the revised charter to the electors."

The attorneys also said the Circuit Court incorrectly interpreted the act and a provision "does not deny the city the power to enact a charter if the governor objects to it. ... The statute neither states that 'approval' is required for advancement, nor that objections end the process, thereby terminating the constitutional right of electors to amend their charter."

Meanwhile, the ballot wording is finalized under state election law, and the revised charter did not have to be complete at the same time, the commission lawyers said.

Their appeal also noted Detroit voters impaneled the commission in 2018 to address quality-of-life issues.

"Now, the very citizens who wanted the general revisions in the first place finally have a chance to vote on whether the substance of the revisions should be approved. This is the citizens' last chance due to the Charter Revision Commissions' expiring term," the attorneys said.

"If plaintiffs are given the preliminary injunction they seek, this court would effectively be nullifying two elections' results and eviscerating three years of hard work and public resources that the Charter Revision Commission expended on behalf of the public. The public — as it has clearly voiced its opinion through the ballot box —would be harmed by entry of a preliminary injunction."

McCampbell claimed there’s been a concerted effort “to deny Detroiters the right to weigh in on this charter after all of this work.”

“I would count this as voter suppression efforts. Detroiters should have a say on the ballot,” he said Thursday. “As a charter commission, we’re going to do all we can do to ensure that have that say.”

The commission, he added, is focused on its appeals but is exploring all other possible options.