Commentary: It’s not the city charter…it’s the people
By Paul Rozycki
After several weeks of high profile hearings, criminal charges, and the governor guzzling Flint’s water, perhaps the greatest risk for the average citizen has been the danger of being poked in the eye by someone pointing a finger at someone else, as the Flint water crisis unfolds. Whatever the resolution of the criminal charges, studies, and investigations, others are looking to Flint’s future with a different spyglass. The Flint Charter Review Commission is doing just that.
About a year ago, before the water issue hit full stride, Flint voters elected a nine-person Charter Review Commission and gave them the duty of reviewing the current Flint charter and recommending additions, corrections and changes to the basic governing document that has guided the city since 1974.
Few dramatic changes?
So far, there are no indications of any dramatic changes in the works. The one big issue that was raised at the time of the commissioners’ election—a possible move away from a strong mayor form of government and back to a city manager form—seems to have fallen by the wayside. In spite of recommendations from an earlier ‘blue ribbon committee’ for a move to a city manager, support for the current strong mayor form seems unchanged.
But even without massive changes to the charter there are still important issues at stake, particularly as the city’s governing power shifts back to local control.
The commission’s most recent community meeting, held last month at Asbury United Methodist Church, dealt with the organization and structure of the city council. Though one might expect that the topic would only attract political science nerds and others with nothing better to do, the meeting was well attended by an active cross-section of the community and it generated a list of solid suggestions for the commission.
Council choices: elections, terms, roles?
So what are the choices in putting together a city council for Flint?
First, how large should the council be? We currently have nine wards—but that number was set when we were a city of nearly 200,000. We are now barely half that size. Should we have a smaller city council? For the most part, the groups discussing the issue suggested no change, though there were some who thought that reducing the council to seven wards would be a good idea. Though reducing the size of the council might save a little money, the feeling was that having more representatives, closer to the voters, was worth the cost. (The Charter Review Commission presented comparisons to other city councils, which ranged in size from 5 to 11.)
Second, how should they be elected? Right now they are all elected from nine wards, equal in population, which are drawn every 10 years, after the census. Though many were fine with that arrangement, some argued for having several of the council members elected at large, with the idea that they would be more inclined to take a city-wide view of issues. Others also suggested that when the new ward boundaries are drawn, it should be done by a non-partisan committee to avoid gerrymandering districts to favor one candidate over another.
Third, how long should their terms be? Right now council members are elected for four-year terms, in the years when the mayor is not up for election. Some argued for keeping the current arrangement, as a ‘check and balance’ between the mayor and the council. Others suggested that having the council election in the same year as the mayoral election would strengthen the ‘strong mayor’ and minimize conflict between the mayor and council. A few groups also suggested that the city return to having two-year terms for the council to increase the voters’ power. Similarly, there were also a few suggestions that there should be term limits for the council members. There are none now.
Finally, when it came to the duties of the council, the list began as one might expect. Certainly they should be involved with approving the budget, at least some mayoral appointments and delivering constituent services to their respective wards. But some wanted to give the council power for investigating other officials and the power to be involved in city planning.
Surprise: no surprises
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that there were no surprises. For all the turmoil that Flint has been through in the last several years, there seems to be no desire for large, dramatic changes in our city charter. The changes suggested were relatively minor tweaks around the edges—maybe a slightly smaller council, maybe elected a little differently, maybe slightly different terms and maybe a clearer definition of roles. And maybe even those changes aren’t necessary.
The modest suggestions offered probably reflect the honest judgement that Flint’s problems don’t arise from some particular flaw in our charter, and the cure won’t come from some magical ‘fix’ in the charter. Dedicated and involved people can make any form of government work fairly well, and indifferent and incompetent people can foul up any organization.
But the real lesson is that the meeting (and the whole process) reflects the dedication and commitment of Flint’s citizens. Both the commission and those who took the time to attend community meetings deserve thanks and credit for their efforts. The subject matter was hardly an exciting or thrilling topic to fill a pleasant spring evening, but the commitment of the charter commissioners (Cleora Magee, Chair; John Cherry, Vice-Chair; Quincy Murphy, Victoria McKenze, Charles Metcalf, Heidi Phaneuf, Jim Richardson, Marsha Wesley and Barry Williams) and those who filled the meeting hall at Asbury Methodist Church said more about the spirit of Flint than any particular paragraph added to, or subtracted from, our governing document.
And in the end, that’s probably more important.
Future Charter Review Commission meetings are planned in the next several months, and the full schedule (and many other details) can be accessed through the City of Flint website or www.flintcitycharter.com.
EVM columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.