What's exactly in Detroit's Proposal P? What to know about the charter changes

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — City voters on Tuesday will decide on a charter revision plan that seeks to expand oversight in Detroit government and enhance resident quality of life.

Among its wide-ranging provisions, the proposal outlines a new process for the selection of the city's top attorney and police chief and would create a voter-installed fire department oversight board. 

It calls for the establishment of a department of disability affairs and department of environmental justice and sustainability as well as a task force on reparations and African American justice. It proposes an office of veterans affairs and immigrant affairs, and an office of economic justice and consumer empowerment. 

The initiative, called Proposal P, was crafted over three years by an elected nine-member Detroit Charter Revision Commission with support from a coalition of environmental and human rights groups. 

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said Proposal P is personal for her.

The commission and coalitions that support it contend the plan will refocus city government with a greater emphasis on quality of life issues including affordable water and transit, increased oversight and policing reforms.

But opponents, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's administration, argue some provisions would create legal and operational challenges, confusion among residents. They contend that the costs associated with implementing the recommendations would send the city back into bankruptcy. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also said she did not support the proposal and refused to give her stamp of approval this spring. 

The Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that the revision plan appear on the Aug. 3 ballot, overturning decisions of lower courts. 

Under the plan, the mayor would have less autonomy in certain appointments, including Detroit's corporation counsel and the city's police chief. The top lawyer would be named under a joint appointment of the mayor and council. The city's top cop would be selected by the mayor — as is the procedure today — but, with the changes, the selection would need majority support of three votes cast by the mayor, council and Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners. 

Under the 2012 charter process, the Board of Police Commissioners would provide a list of candidates to the mayor, the mayor selects a candidate and takes it to the city council to be approved. However, under the new revision, the three entities would each have one vote. And the interviewing process of candidates must be done under the Open Meetings Act.

It would restructure the police and fire departments, create a new department of disability affairs, new department of environmental justice and sustainability, a task force on reparations and African American justice, an office of veterans affairs and immigrant affairs and an office of economic justice and consumer empowerment.

The charter plan also would authorize 47 new elected positions and create 102 new appointed positions.

To address quality of life, it proposes a reduced, income-based fare system for public transportation and new transportation standards. It provides for a reduced income-based affordable water rate system, a water bill assistance fund and an environmental justice health fund. Other aspects of the plan seek free sidewalk maintenance, free public internet, affordable housing and a property overassessment relief program.

In city government, it focuses on binding arbitration to be available to all government negotiations for labor relations, creates wage and standard boards, institutes "responsible contracting" requirements for city contracts and relates retirement provisions to adjustments in pension benefits.

It would seek to eliminate "qualified immunity" in police officer evaluations, return water management under the city rather than partnering with the Great Lakes Water Authority, and provide proportional funding for oversight agencies.

The proposal also wants to put more responsibility on the mayor's office and major city boards by mandating how meetings should take place and when.

"They're creating an expectation for people in Detroit that will not be met," contends Sheila Cockrel, executive director of CitizenDetroit and a former Detroit council member who does not support the plan. "What's really hard about explaining it is people aren't even going to understand how screwed up it is until the city tries to operate under it."

But Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said the proposal is more personal for her. She cited stories her mother has told about growing up on the west side of the city and witnessing the 1967 uprising.

"It was unclean and it was unsafe because of public health conditions," she said of the city. "Detroiters are saying the same thing nearly 50-plus decades later that they want clean, safe, affordable housing and that's what proposal P is about."

Legal provisions of concern, critics note, are the re-establishment of a local residency requirement for new hires to live within 20 miles of city boundaries and that firefighters must live within city boundaries, which is not legal under state law. 

There's also a revision in the plan giving up to 14 years for residents to protest their tax assessments. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan only gives up to one year.

Detroit's top financial officials initially estimated the revisions would cost $3.4 billion over four years, then $2 billion, after charter commissioners made revisions to the 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.

The charter commission disagrees, saying the claims against the plan are "bullying tactics" and that it has estimated the plan could cost $7 million a year to implement.

The city charter, which defines how government is structured, its powers and responsibilities, is typically presented to voters every 16 years. However, in 2012, the timetable set by the 1997 charter was not amended and brought another charter revision question on the ballot just six years after the last had been adopted.

The 2012 charter included more than 140 revisions. This year, the commission added 65 provisions with new mandates.

If Proposal P is rejected by voters the current charter will remain in effect and a new commission question would automatically appear on the 2034 ballot.

Cockrel said what's at risk under the plan is the city's strong form of governance between the mayor and council.

"Charters are about creating governance structures and what are the checks and balances in place to make sure that the basic services get delivered fairly adequately to residents," she said. "The way this is set up, the lines of authority are going to be blurred between the new departments they're creating and this independent commission, which have supervise authority over police and fire, along with the role the mayor and council play."

But U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, stressed residents voted in 2018 to open the charter up for revisions. 

"After three-and-a-half years, we elected a Charter Revision Commission, participated in neighborhood engagement, provided input, and finalized the proposed revisions," Tlaib said. "Proposal P is the People’s Charter submitted for and by Detroiters."

View the full plan here


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