Detroit's controversial charter revision plan, Proposal P, fails

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — A controversial charter revision plan that sought to expand oversight in Detroit city government and enhance resident quality of life failed Tuesday. 

With 100% of precincts reporting, 67% of 69,403 voters rejected Proposal P, the wide-ranging plan that outlined 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.

Richard Mack, campaign chair, speaks during a rally in Detroit on June 24, 2021 at IBEW Local 58 union hall as they met with organizers and volunteers about promoting Proposal P.

It called 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 proposed an office of veterans affairs and immigrant affairs, and an office of economic justice and consumer empowerment. 

The initiative 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. The commission and coalitions that supported it contended the plan would have refocused 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, argued some provisions would have created legal and operational challenges and confusion among residents. They contended 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 proposal appear on Tuesday's ballot, overturning decisions of lower courts. 

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

It also would have authorized 47 new elected positions and created 102 new appointed positions.

Detroiter Durrel Douglas, 34, said Tuesday before polls closed that he was voting in favor of the proposal the city needs to refocus municipal government.

“The new municipal offices around immigration, the task force looking at reparations, the opportunity to sort of change the way the police chief is chosen,” said Douglas, a community advocate. “These are all really progressive ideas that I think can sort of set Detroit up to become that shining city that other cities look to when you think progressive.”

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, 72, a community activist and retired United Methodist pastor, said Tuesday that Proposal P "really represents a process that's been very democratic, with hundreds of meetings over several years, of people participating on a range of issues.” 

Kyle Lefere, Lacey Lefere and Elsey Lefere, 1, stop during their walk to get information for Proposal P from Joie Canty while canvassing on Parkside Street in Detroit on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

Not all voters were in favor of the proposal.

"I had to vote no on that," said Robert Plant, 70, a retired General Motors employee. "(The proposal calls for) all these changes, but there’s no need to for all that."

Detroiter Steven Hawring, owner of Hexagon Creative, said he opposed Proposal P because it would be impossible for the city to afford.

"All of the money would be put into bureaucratic unneeded oversight commissions that would result in slowdowns and cuts to current services," he said.

In city government, the proposal focused on the creation of wage and standard boards and instituting "responsible contracting" requirements for city contracts.

Legal provisions of concern, critics noted, were the reestablishment of a local residency requirement for new hires to live within 20 miles of city boundaries and another condition that firefighters live within city boundaries, which is not legal under state law. 

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.

Chief Financial Officer Jay Rising's office said if the revised charter was approved the city's four-year financial plan would no longer be balanced.

The charter commission disagreed, saying the claims against the plan were "bullying tactics" and that it estimated the plan would have cost $7 million a year to implement.

A yard sign along Parkside street for Proposal P in Detroit on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

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.

Staff Writers Sarah Rahal, George Hunter and Hani Albarghouthi contributed.