High court halts lower court decision to remove Detroit charter plan from Aug. 3 ballot

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Michigan Supreme Court has halted a lower court's decision to throw a charter revision plan off the city's Aug. 3 ballot.

The high court, in a Friday ruling, noted it's still reviewing whether to take up or expedite an appeal of a Thursday opinion from the state Court of Appeals that affirmed the measure should come off the primary ballot.

The Supreme Court's order was released hours after community, labor and faith-based leaders convened a news conference alongside City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López and Charter Commissioner Denzel McCampbell to urge the high court to hear the case.

The group made the call during a virtual news conference a day after the appeals court sided with a lower court's ruling that keeps the measure, Proposal P, off the ballot. 

The charter commission filed a set of appeals last week in the state appeals court and supreme court after Wayne County Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny decertified the initiative

The charter commission late Thursday filed another emergency appeal with the high court along with a request for the Supreme Court to expedite a decision on whether to take up the case.

"We believe firmly that Proposal P should be placed on the ballot and that denying Detroiters the right to vote on Proposal P is an act of voter suppression," Castañeda-López said. "I was appalled to see the mayor and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer come out with a report that was incredibly misleading and untruthful."

City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López gathered virtually with community, labor and faith leaders calling on the Michigan Supreme Court to return a charter proposal to voters on Friday, June 4, 2021.

The proposal, which seeks to make permanent changes to the city charter, was developed in part by the Detroiter Bill of Rights Coalition. The coalition, composed of environmental, immigrant, disability advocates, along with housing, water and transit experts seeks to “embed Detroiters fundamental human and civil rights into the charter” through the proposal.

More than a dozen leaders spoke Friday for over an hour, including Wayne State University Law professor Peter Hammer and media professor Hayg Oshagan, Black Lives Matter supporters, Janice Gates of Equitable Internet Initiative, Justin Onwenu of the Sierra Club, Tawana Petty representing Data for Black Lives, and Normal Hemphill of We The People of Detroit.

The charter proposal has faced criticism from Mayor Mike Duggan's administration and Gov. Gretchen 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.

Detroit's top financial officials initially estimated the revisions would cost $3.4 billion over four years, then $2 billion, after the commission revised its plan. CFO Jay Rising's office has said if the revised charter is approved in August, as drafted, the city's four-year financial plan will no longer be balanced.

McCampbell said Friday charter group members commissioned their own cost analysis of the plan, pegging the financial impact closer to $7 million per year, he contends. 

Charter commission members debated the financial impacts during a Detroit's City Council and Financial Review Commission meetings last month. 

"This charter is setting up the structure and a priority for the city," McCampbell said. "This is not a document that mandates spending, that's up to the mayor's office and the city council, but we did meet together with many other community members to ensure that we had the document that was answering the needs of our residents that was confronting the problems that our folks are facing."

The charter revisions focus on increasing access to public transportation and broadband internet, water affordability, increased transparency, accountability and policing reforms. 

"We know this case will cause a ripple effect across the United States," Petty said. "What is happening to us, is part of a larger trend of voter suppression in Black and Brown communities across the U.S." 

However, Allen Lewis, president of the Detroit Retired City Employees Association said the proposal puts city retirees and services at risk.

"Our retirees deserve better than this. We will not support a charter that could put Detroit back into bankruptcy and our pensions back on the chopping block," Lewis said in a statement Friday. "That’s why the Detroit Retired City Employees Association is standing strong for Detroit’s pensioners and against this proposal."

The case

Kenny decertified the ballot proposal May 26, noting Whitmer declined to approve the charter revisions drafted. Placing them before voters without her blessing, he said, would violate the Home Rule City Act.

The 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 found.

Charter commissioners have noted Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office and the charter commission's legal counsel have taken the position that Whitmer’s approval isn't needed for Proposal P to go before voters. 

The Court of Appeals agreed with Kenny's assessment that Proposal P was illegally placed on the ballot in violation of the act. 

The charter commission's attorneys, in their appeals, sought quick action in the high court and appeals court in order for absentee voter ballots to be available by June 19.

As of Friday, the ballots had not been printed, the office of Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey confirmed.

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

Mark Burton, an attorney for Honigman, who advocated against Detroit ballots being printed with Proposal P on behalf of the Rev. Horace Sheffield and several residents, said while the work of proposing changes to the charter is appreciated, but it must be done right "and according to law, and in this case, it wasn't."

In April, the governor sent a letter to charter commissioners flagging concerns with the plan and concluding that she could not support it. 

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 in support. Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia voted no. 

Days later and after the ballot submission deadline, the charter commission sent revisions of its plan back to the governor for further review, but she declined.

Attorneys for the charter commission have noted Detroit voters impaneled the commission in 2018 to address quality-of-life issues and the August election is the last chance for voters to act due to the commission's expiring term.

Wayne State professor Hammer said during Friday's press conference that the law is a reflection of power, and therefore "the fight over the Detroit city charter is really a fight over race. It's a fight about democracy and it's a fight about the future."

He said a group of WSU law professors, who wrote the brief to the court of appeals, argue that the right to embrace voting isn't being addressed.

"... it's an important fight to fight because it's really a fight about the future," Hammer said. "We need new ideas, we need new policies and new approaches to put people and not property at the center of development, the new city charter does just that."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_