Looking out for Pookie

Odd antics with the Detroit Charter Review Commission

Jun 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

News Hits has witnessed some odd meetings over the years, but not many have pushed the weird-meter into the red zone the way last Saturday's gathering of the Detroit Charter Review Commission did.

It started with Commissioner Rose Mary C. Robinson refusing to declare herself present when the roll was called, saying that she had concerns that the meeting might be in violation of the open meetings act.

Was this a continuation of the previous week's public hearing, or a new one, and had it been properly announced beforehand were questions Robinson raised. Commission Chair Jenice Mitchell Ford's declaration that all was proper didn't suffice. Eventually, after saying that she'd been assured by the commission counsel that all was on the up and up, Robinson consented to have her presence at the meeting officially recognized.

Things kicked off with a public hearing, with several residents voicing concerns that the proposed new charter — with some number of City Council members being elected from districts (instead of at large, as they all are now) — was opening the door to what they feared would become a widening chasm between two Detroits.

The downtown, midtown and Wayne State areas — well represented with lots of financial clout — would be allowed to prosper and benefit from adequate services while other neighborhoods across the city would continue to deteriorate.

The plan, said resident Tyrone Travis, is to "create a white downtown."

Those concerns found a sympathetic ear with Commissioner Reggie Reg Davis, a former radio personality who gave up his seat behind the mic to take the nonpaying Charter Commission job (and make an unsuccessful run for the state House).

Sounding much like someone contemplating another stab at public office, Davis talked about being the commission member representing the city's downtrodden: "the working poor forced to ride buses, the young men returning home from prison, the have-nots."

In short, the people not living, as he said, in downtown or midtown or Corktown.

Saying he was there to look out for the interests of "Pookie and Ray-Ray," Davis attempted to have the commission consider changing the proposed number of City Council members from seven (with five representing districts and two elected at large) to 11, with nine representing districts.

Only a week before, Davis had joined a 4-3 majority in voting to reduce the number of council members from nine to seven. Now he was trying to get 11, saying that the larger number — with candidates representing smaller districts — would open the door wider for more grassroots activists without big financial backers to find their way onto council.

With Davis unable to find support for that position, much parliamentary maneuvering ensued — with Davis playing a decisive role — to clear the way for another vote on the nine-member council.

"You just sold out Pookie and Ray-Ray," someone in the audience shouted out.

With two commissioners absent, the nine-member configuration — approved of by voters in a 2009 ballot measure — was approved on a 4-3 vote, with Davis joining the opposition.

Another major concern expressed during the public hearing portion of Saturday's meeting concerned the timing of all this. Making major changes and clarifying language up until the last minute, the commission was seeking to have a final draft of the charter ready to send to the governor and attorney general for review on Tuesday, May 31.

"What's the hurry?" asked resident Les Little, echoing the concern of others that the initial release of the draft charter less than three weeks earlier didn't give the community an adequate amount of time to consider and debate the proposed changes in a document that serves as the primary guiding force for city government.

Commission Chair Ford responded by saying, "There is no rush, but there is an impetus to have the city not have to fund a special election."

To make it onto the Nov. 8 ballot, the draft charter would have to be in the hands of the City Clerk by Aug. 30. And with the guv and AG allowed 90 days to review the proposed charter to ensure its elements are in compliance with state law — and give the commission a chance to make final changes if there are problems — the document had to be delivered to their offices Tuesday.

So, it appears that the stage is now set to have a public vote on the revised charter in November, with 70 days available for public debate about the document.

It could be a contentious election. Among the hot-button issues is a proposal to change the Board of Police Commissioners from a five-member oversight body composed entirely of mayoral appointees to an 11-member board with four members appointed by the mayor and seven elected members.

On Saturday, Mayor Dave Bing's office went on record as opposing that provision, expressing concern that the proposed new structure would unduly "politicize" police oversight. That, combined with concerns about a proposed provision that would give council new power to approve mayoral appointees to several department head positions, creates a situation where the mayor might oppose the revised charter.

Even if that doesn't happen, there's no guarantee voters will approve the proposed new charter. If they do give it a thumbs-down, what's next?

Well, it would be possible to hold a special election — at significant expense to the financially struggling city — before the end of the Charter Revision Commission's tenure in May 2012.

Or the commissioners could prepare one last version of a revised charter before the commission is disbanded, with that document going before voters in August 2012, when primary elections will be held.

And since voters are allowed three cracks at approving a new charter, the commission could hold (and lose) a special election and then piggyback on that August primary.

Hold on, folks. This strange ride on the twisting road to a new charter is far from over.