Sparring ramps up as controversial Detroit charter plan goes to Aug. 3 ballot

Detroit — The state Supreme Court has ruled a controversial proposal to revamp Detroit's charter can go before voters next week, heightening contention over the plan and confusion over what it will do. 

The high court's Thursday order overturns a series of lower court decisions on the initiative that has faced intense opposition from groups spending tens of thousands on television ads, radio spots, billboards and mailings that argue it would send Detroit into a second bankruptcy. 

But the voter-empaneled Detroit Charter Revision Commission counters it spent three years painstakingly crafting the plan in partnership with the community and Detroiters' Bill of Rights Coalition to incorporate the needs of residents.

"I want folks to be able to trust what I am telling them, I am not trying to steer people wrong," said Charter Commissioner Denzel McCampbell, who also is vying to unseat Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey. 

Kyle Lefere, Lacey Lefere and Elsey Lefere stop during their walk to get information on Proposal P from Joie Canty while canvassing on Parkside Street in Detroit on July 29, 2021.

McCampbell said he and other charter members are going door-to-door to educate residents about what the revised charter could offer Detroiters. 

"We feel it is well within our duty to educate folks about what is in the charter," he said. "We had a budget that would have sent out mailers, that would have done radio and newspaper ads, the whole gambit of communications to let folks know what the revised charter is and what is in it, and the City Council and the administration severely reduced our request."

The commission this spring accused Detroit's elected leaders of "voter suppression" on claims they failed to properly fund distribution of the sweeping set of suggested government reforms dealing with water access, affordable transit and housing, strengthened oversight and responsible contracting ahead of the Aug. 3 primary.

Commissioners had said they needed close to $370,000 to carry out the educational campaign, including 400,000 booklets and 250,000 mailers as well as social media, television and radio ads, field staff and poll workers.

Detroit's Deputy Mayor Conrad Matt has noted the commission was given $300,000 in the last fiscal budget — a figure adopted by the City Council, down from $576,000 proposed under Mayor Mike Duggan's budget plan. 

The city approved a supplemental allocation of $129,000 to fund the work of the commission, and Detroit's Office of the Chief Financial Officer in April recommended directing another $159,000 toward the panel, which the City Council approved.

Some of the measures tied to Proposal P include access to free broadband internet, changes in police policies and training, and providing residents with amnesty for water and sewer fees. 

It would also call for a master plan for the transit system and the establishment of an environmental justice health fund to mitigate negative health impacts of pollution on residents.

The Detroiters' Bill of Rights Coalition and charter commissioners have said more than 500 recommendations from 300 organizations in the city — including the People’s Platform, Black Lives Matter Detroit, We the People and Detroit Action — were taken into account in drafting the plan. 

"Prop P is really answering a question about equity in the city of Detroit," said Erada Oleita, Detroit organizer for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, one of the groups involved. "What does basic human rights look like? It's the right to move, the right to have water, food, access to resources."

Breaking the silence

The Supreme Court's Thursday decision, which remands the case back to Wayne County Circuit Court, comes as lawyers argued Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's silence on the amendment meant it could not proceed to the ballot. Typically, charter amendment proposals proceed to the ballot after earning approval from the governor and are rejected for the ballot if the governor vetoes them. 

But justices ruled in a 4-3 order that the law governing charter amendments must be read against the backdrop of state constitutional language vesting locals with control over city charters — a provision of home rule control. 

"When read together these constitutional provisions lead us to conclude that, in the face of the statute's silence as to the effect of the governor's objection to a proposed charter revision, we cannot interpret such silence as requiring gubernatorial approval before a charter revision is submitted to the electors or as granting the governor a veto power that cannot be overridden," according to the decision by the court's four Democratic-nominated justices.  

Republican-nominated justices David Viviano, Elizabeth Clement and Brian Zahra dissented, arguing a full review of applicable laws indicates a charter change cannot go to voters without the governor's signature.

"The clear implication of the statute's text, when read in its historical context is that the governor's veto power concerning charters proposed by a charter commission is absolute," Viviano wrote in a statement joined by Zahra. 

The city continued printing ballots with the proposal on it while the case awaited the decision from the high court.

That decision comes nearly six months after Detroit's Office of the Chief Financial Officer said revisions proposed would spur an "imminent fiscal crisis" that would send the city $3.4 billion into debt within four years.

The commission later voted to ultimately submit a revised version of the plan to Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel. With the changes, Duggan's financial team still claimed it would cost about $2 billion.

The city, under the terms of its bankruptcy agreement, must maintain a balanced budget. If it's unable to meet that requirement, Detroit can't sign off on its budget plan, nor can the state. The predicament would force the city back into active state oversight, Detroit's acting Chief Financial Officer Jay Rising has warned.

Whitmer disapproved of the commission's charter proposal, citing "substantial and extensive legal deficiencies" and later declined to review revisions of the draft. 

The governor and Duggan have also cautioned the costs of adopting the charter provisions would financially devastate the city. Following the Supreme Court ruling Thursday, Duggan declined to comment through his spokesman, John Roach. 

But charter commissioners have countered that the city's claims about the dire financial costs and other problems with the proposal are just "bullying tactics."

McCampbell has noted the charter group commissioned its own cost analysis of the plan, pegging the financial impact closer to $7 million per year.

City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said Thursday that the charter commission is viewed as a "threat," and it's sparked debate over its fiscal responsibility and the need to educate residents.

However, given the opposition and multiple council members who don't support Proposal P, "we've seen apathy. Disinformation is one piece, but simply doing nothing is another way of negatively contributing."

Councilman Scott Benson, however, said it's unfortunate that Detroiters will have to vote on a "policy that is incomplete," adding he respects the Supreme Court's decision.

"While I also respect the members of the Charter Commission, that body produced bad public policy through one of the most embarrassing public policy processes in the city's history," he said in a statement. "Those are high stakes. Now, potentially, voters will vote on this proposal without ever seeing it; and it will chart the course of our city for the foreseeable future."

Accusations of silencing

Taylor Harrell, a member of the grassroots group Detroit Action, which helped provide input on the plan, said outreach has been challenging. 

"People have done all they can in their power, I mean groups, to educate, but I do think there has been a real big push in silencing us, which has been greater," Harrell said during a Thursday afternoon news conference. "The commission was asking for dollars to be spent on an education campaign — not to tell people whether or not to vote yes or no — but simply apprise them about what the charter is. But they were shut down by a majority of the council."

The Committee to Protect Detroit's Future, an entity formed to oppose Proposal P, has raised more than $85,000, $75,000 of which was from DTE Energy and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan, from mid-May to July 18, according to financial statements. Other contributors included the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit, the Allen Law Group and the Iconic-Anchor Bar LLC.

In a statement Thursday, the Coalition to Protect Detroit's Future said: "The only people who will benefit from this decision on Proposal P are the lawyers that will litigate this for years to come. Proposal P is a problem for people in Detroit."

A separate entity called Detroiters Protecting Our Future advertised against Proposal P using billboards, radio ads and direct mail, which Castañeda-López contends is all "dark money."

"It's ludicrous to say money has no influence," Castañeda-López said. "Today is a great step in the face of opposition that’s spreading misinformation."

Charlie Beckham, who has worked in five different mayoral administrations in the city, doesn't support it, saying: "I think it has a detrimental impact on the city and it locks us into policies and financial impacts without enough frequency to go back and look at them."

The Rev. Horace Sheffield, who filed the lawsuit against Proposal P, said Thursday that opponents will continue to challenge the plan one voter at a time.

"We're going ahead with our game plan to win the referendum by vote," Sheffield told The News. "We're not even sure which charter proposal is on the ballot after the back and forth of the revisions and we challenged the clarity of that process.

"The only surprise that I've had is that it's taken (the Supreme Court) so long to do their job." 

Regardless, Detroiter Lindsey Mason said she intends to vote for the plan. 

"I believe the people, meaning the Detroit City Charter, need to have more of a say-so as it relates to a voice for the people of the city of Detroit," said Mason, 55. 

But John George, co-founder and executive director of Blight Busters in Detroit's Brightmoor, isn't fully on board. 

"It seems like an all or nothing proposal, and what I mean by that is there are a number of things in the proposal that could be handled without a charter revision," said George, 63. "I really don't know if in that fact Proposal P passes, that A, the city can afford it, and B, if the pensioners won't be further hurt. But again there are some parts of the proposal that I do like."