Charter chatter 

Last-minute tweaks to document leave observers guessing

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It's often said that the two things people don't want to see being made are sausage and laws. In the case of the Detroit Charter Review Commission, though, it might be better to use headcheese as analogy, because the commissioners made a decision following a public hearing Saturday that has many scratchin' their noggins in bewilderment.

For those who aren't all that familiar with esoteric foods, headcheese is a jellied loaf made from edible parts of the head, feet and other similarly distasteful animal parts.

And for those who are equally in the dark about what's going on with the Charter Commission, we can tell you this much: With a deadline upon them, the commissioners unexpectedly jammed a new structure for City Council into the draft of a document that, if approved by voters, will serve as a kind of constitution for the city.

It is possible that, by the time you read this, the members of the Charter Commission will have come to their senses and reversed the surprise 4-3 vote to reduce the City Council from nine to seven members, with five representing districts and two elected at large. Previously, the commission had adhered to a model approved by voters calling for a nine-member council (the current number) with seven representing districts and two elected at large.

Two of the commission members had left Saturday's meeting by the time the vote regarding the council structure was taken, about six hours into a marathon session, the last of its two scheduled public hearings on the draft proposal.

The change, in a document that won't go to voters until November, amounts to a last-minute overhaul of a key issue.

Why last minute? Because the plan is to send the draft document to the state's governor and attorney general for their review May 31. They have 90 days to comment on the plan, with an eye toward any possible conflicts with state law.

Once the guv and AG are done, the charter comes back to the commission, which will then incorporate any recommended changes it chooses to make.

Which means that voters will have only about two months to evaluate the proposed charter before going to the polls on Nov. 8. (The city clerk's office must post the final version of the charter that will go before voters at least 70 days before the election.)

That's not a whole lot of time to give careful consideration to a document that, as described by the commission itself, is intended to do much:

"The Charter is to the City of Detroit what the constitution [sic] is to the United States of America. It establishes the structure of our government and embodies our values as a people. Simply stated, it provides a blueprint for city government and expresses its underlying fundamental values. The Charter is also a document of its time — a document that should address the issues confronting Detroit residents. Accordingly, the Charter is as much an aspirational statement of community values as it is a practical guide to running city government."

There will be a lot to chew on, and not much time for mastication. On the other hand, two months seems generous compared to three weeks of draft discussions.

Up until Saturday, the elected commissioners have earned generally high marks for the job they've done. But they've put themselves in an awfully tight box as their deadline.

As David D. Whitaker, director of the City Council's Research and Analysis division pointed out in a recent memo, the initial draft (released May 6) has a number of important proposals that should be receiving careful consideration. But the time to do that is short.

"The Commission's schedule only provides limited opportunity for comment and revision of such a complex, technical and important document that is intended to define the structure of city government," Whitaker wrote. Whitaker, while acknowledging the "monumental task" confronting commission members, expresses concern about potential court cases that could arise if gray areas aren't cleared up.

In addition to the time squeeze, city officials have a lot of other things they are dealing with — chief among them a massive budget crisis that has to be solved quickly if imposition of an emergency financial manager is to be avoided.

"It is unfortunate that the release of the draft charter comes at a time when this Council, and City government as a whole, is in the midst of critical budget deliberations and when there is only a two week window to digest and react to the proposed [charter] changes."

For the most part, Detroit's news media (including this rag) haven't been paying all that much attention to what's been going on with the Charter Commission. But even for those who have been following it closely, Saturday's vote on changes to the council makeup seemed to come out of left field.

The reasoning among the four commission members who supported the change is that it's intended to shrink the size of city government — not an inconsequential goal considering the depths of the financial crisis being faced.

For starters, it flies in the face of Proposal D, which more than 70 percent of the city's voters approved less than two years ago. That measure calls for a nine-member council, with seven representing districts and two selected at-large.

But there are other criticisms of the commission's move.

Vince Keenan, a specialist in voter education who founded the nonprofit group publius.org, is among those following the work of the commission closely. He points out that reducing the size of council contradicts what the commission itself described as the "best practice" of having each councilmember represent a district containing about 60,000 people. Even with council members from seven districts, that number would be about 100,000 based on the city's current population. With just five districts, that number jumps above 140,000 people represented by one council member.

"I don't understand why they say best practices have a smaller ratio of constituents to district council members, and then increase that," says Keenan.

He say, too, that because council sets its own budget, there's no guarantee that they won't increase the size of their staffs, offsetting any savings to be gained from cutting the number of council members.

"I hope there is a way to reverse that decision, because months and months of work went into doing it one way, and then in 20 minutes they undid it," says Keenan.

He may get his hope. The commission was scheduled to meet again Tuesday evening, after MT goes to press, and possibly on Saturday, May 28, if work on the draft remains unfinished.

Detroit architect Alexander Derdelakos, who along with Jacqueline Bejma created a website in December to provide info about the commission, points out that, even though the city's population has fallen sharply since the last time the charter was revised in 1997, the council has had nine members since the early part of the 1900s, when the city's population was only around 200,000.

He described Saturday's vote as "pretty shocking."

Among other things, if the reduction in the size of council sticks, other changes will be required because a number of other bodies — such as the city Planning Commission and the like — are supposed to be composed of at least seven members, with one representing each district, and two at large members. But if there are only five council districts ... well, you see the problem.

On the other hand, much of the work done by the commission has been praiseworthy. Thanks to felonious Kwame Kilpatrick and a few high-profile cases involving previous City Council members (paging Monica Conyers), a lot of attention has been paid to ways to ferret out wrongdoing.

Barring any more last-minute changes of significance, the draft charter will propose creating the Office of Inspector General, which will be responsible for "rooting out waste, abuse, fraud and corruption."

The commission, however, didn't propose where the money to pay for such an office will come from — except to say that money to sufficiently fund it must be appropriated annually. That's an important question, considering that the mayor and council are looking for ways to slash the current budget. On the other hand, if the IG's office is effective, countless millions could be saved.

The draft charter also seeks to clean up city government in other ways. There are beefed-up ethics standards — as well as plans to create a Board of Ethics. Also included in the draft are new financial disclosures requirements, new rules for lobbyists and contractors, and rules clearly defining how officials can be removed from office.

As Commission Chair Jenice Mitchell Ford was previously quoted saying, "This charter has gone from Lassie to Cujo."

In other words, it has some real teeth.

The question now is, how much headcheese will we have to chew on?

For that, we'll have to see exactly what's in the final version of this all-important document.


Cop watch

Speaking of the new charter, one of the proposals holding the most potential for controversy involves the Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the Police Department.

As currently structured, the board has five members — all appointed by the mayor. Critics contend that because the mayor also appoints the police chief, he's not going to want people on the board who are inclined to be overly critical of the department.

There's also the issue of the federal consent decrees the department has long been operating under. As activist Ron Scott, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality previously pointed out, if the commission were truly effective, problems involving the use of excessive force and other issues would never have gotten so out of control that the feds found it necessary to step in.

Scott and other reformers were recommending that police commissioners be elected rather than appointed. The Charter Commission, seeking a Solomonic compromise, is proposing a hybrid situation with four commissioners appointed by the mayor and seven elected members.

As with other commissions, the proposed reduction of council districts from seven to five would appear to necessitate a change in this structure if the change made last Saturday makes it into the final draft.

Even dull-eyed readers will have noticed the contradiction inherent in more than doubling the size of the police commission while at the same time reducing the size of council.

Consider that another piece of headcheese to chew on.

Another significant change that's proposed for the commission is the role it plays in selecting any new chief of police. As it is now, that's a decision that's left exclusively to the mayor. Under the proposed charter, however, the Board of Police Commissioners would "conduct a professional search and provide the mayor with a list of qualified candidates to chose from." In addition, the council would have to approve the mayor's selection before the new chief could be installed. (In fact, the new charter gives council a new power to confirm other mayoral appointees including fire commissioner, and the directors of Planning and Development, Human Resources and the corporation counsel.)

Critics of the plan are expressing concern that the only qualification required of police commission candidates is that they be residents of the city.

For police officer and blogger John Bennett, no matter how many laudable provisions may be in the proposed charter, the unrestricted election of police commissioners would be cause for him to oppose it.

"I am absolutely paralyzed by what I see as bad policy on your part as it relates to your Board of Police Commissioners proposal to elect Board Members. I can't fathom what would cause you to want to do this and I have to ask among the many forums you held over the last year did you study whether this was being done in other cities and if in fact it works," he states in a message to Charter Commission members posted on his blog, Detroit Uncovered.

In fact, as best we can tell, the proposed structure would be unique to Detroit.

Among Bennett's concerns: There are no criteria or parameters included in this proposal that will prevent the newly elected seven members, who will be the majority, from creating policy that will put the police and citizens at risk. The way the proposal is currently constructed, someone just coming home from prison who had been incarcerated due to the work of Detroit Police Officers could be voted in as an authority over the police department and those officers.

On the other side is Mohamed Okdie, a former chair of the Police Commission. In his view, if Detroiters want to elect a convicted felon to the commission, then so be it. That's the way things work in a democracy: People get to choose who represents them.

Okdie's beef with the proposal is that it contains any mayoral appointees at all. He thinks the entire board should be elected. He also thinks that 11 members is too many.

"In a nutshell, these numbers make the decision-making much more cumbersome, and the injection of the mayor's appointees into the mix makes matters worse."

The way Okdie sees it, the Charter Commission "took something that already wasn't working and made it worse."

For his part, although he shares some of Okdie's concerns, Scott tells News Hits that the proposed compromise is that one he can live with.

If the proposal stands, it is possible to envision some pretty wild election scenarios. The city's drug kingpins might form a covert sort of political action committee to back candidates that would come down hard on the department. Much more likely, though, would be for the cop unions to pony up to support police-friendly candidates.

Ah, democracy. It is a beautiful thing, even with the headcheese.


The May 9 charter draft, a summary of major changes, the current charter and other documents are at 2009dcrc.org. See Bejma and Derdelakos' detroitcharter.com.

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