Placing the collective interests of residents first: an interloper’s support for proposed Charter
By Ashley Nickels, Ph.D.
On Tuesday, Aug. 8, Flint residents will vote on whether or not to adopt revisions to their city charter for the first time since 1974. As an encouraged interloper, an outsider, a political scientist, I have followed Flint’s charter review and revision process since its origins in 2014. I have attended advisory meetings and listened in at question and answer forums. I have reviewed the proposed charter. If I could vote, I would vote yes. [A commentary by First Ward Councilman Eric Mays offering a differing viewpoint is available here.]
A city charter is a legal document that, in many ways, determines the shape and character of a city. In Michigan, the Home Rule Act, Act 279 of 1909, gives local governments the power to determine how and by what means to govern. The charter not only outlines the form of government, e.g. strong mayor, it provides the legal framework for ensuring accountability, transparency, and—of particular importance to many flint residents—community control.
In November, 2014, voters rejected proposals to simply amend the 1974 charter by eliminating the ombudsman’s office or decreasing the number of executive offices as put forth by the arrogantly named Blue Ribbon Committee on Governance. Instead, residents voted to support revising the charter; a decision that led to next month’s ballot vote.
According to the Home Rule Act, once the charter revision was approved by voters, commissioners had to be elected within 60 days; commissioners had to be at least three year residents of the city and not be city employees, neither elected nor appointed.
After years of emergency managers, who had the power to disregard the city charter, residents were optimistic about the chance at government reform and charter change or were simply frustrated with the status quo. Regardless of their motivations, on May 5, 2015, nine commissioners were elected to Flint’s Charter Review Commission: Cleora Magee, chair, John Cherry, vice chair, Victoria McKenze, Charles Metcalf, Heidi Phaneuf, Jim Richardson, Marsha Wesley, and Barry Williams. Brain Larkin was also elected, but was replaced by Quincy Murphy, when Larkin stepped down after being appointed head of Flint’s Planning and Development Department.
For two years, elected commissioners met to discuss best practices, research forms of government, and listen to residents across the city to revise the outdated document. The commissioners tackled challenging issues: should the city move to a city manager form of government, as recommended by Darnell Earley’s Blue Ribbon group? Should the city reduce the number of wards, as recommended in 2010 by Mayor Walling? How could the charter address the pressing concerns about government transparency and accountability voiced by city residents?
As commissioner Jim Richardson stated at the July 20 Charter Forum at Asbury Church on Davison Road, the commission sought to “involve citizens” and get “out into the community.” The commissioners met regularly for two full years, hosting twelve community advisory council meetings and eight large-scale community forums at venues throughout the city.
The commission did not work under the process of majority rules, but instead sought consensus. Their process was one of listening, discussion, and deliberation. The commissioners welcomed difficult dialogues and open, transparent debate about the future of the city. As Cleora Magee noted at the July 20 meeting, “we worked really hard and we went through a lot with each other.” She continued, “We had some hard decisions to make. We went through some hard times trying to come together on things, but we came to a consensus,” adding in closing, “And this is the document we have come up with.”
The commissioners set out to meet four goals: to make the local officials, be they elected or appointed, more accountable to city residents of the city; to increase transparency; to promote greater public involvement in local decision making; and, thereby to create a more effective local government.
I recognize, however, that there is uncertainty over the new document. Is it yet another form of state intervention? Is it an attack on the mayor? Why should I care about the charter, when I still do not have water?
No, it is not another form of state intervention. No, it is not an attack on the mayor. On the contrary, a city charter can be a tool for strengthening local government and promoting the collective interests of residents.
For one, the proposed charter, as the commissioners have noted, bars the “raiding the water and sewer fund,” a troubling practice that led to high water rates and poor infrastructure. Also, while the charter does impose more checks and balances on both mayor and city council, it keeps the city’s strong mayor and nine ward system intact. Moreover, the charter makes some minor, but important adjustments to the city attorney’s office, the ombudsperson’s office, and to administrative reporting requirements, as well as the budget process. One of the most important changes, in my view, is the change in the election cycle, transitioning all city elections to Gubernatorial election years with the intent of increasing voter turnout.
At their core, these changes were proposed to enhance community control.
At the city council meeting on July 24, city council president Kerry Nelson voiced reservations, noting that even if passed little will change as RTAB still in place. Per EM Order 20, from April 29, 2015, which was amended and adopted the RTAB on January 22, 2016, RTAB will “ensure that the City is in full compliance with Public Act 436, all Emergency Manager Orders, local ordinances, and applicable state and federal laws;” meaning that all decisions made by the EM, such as the elimination of the Ombudsperson’s office, stand unless specifically addressed by the state-appointed oversight board.
Despite this hurdle, from my perspective, the proposed charter both symbolically and practically reaffirms the city’s autonomy from the state, giving residents the power to not only vote on their representatives, but the power to shape how those representative make decisions.
Let’s be clear, I have no skin in the game. This is both a blessing and a curse. I do not have to live the consequences of a yes or no vote. It also means that I do not have any allegiances; I have nothing to win or lose. Enough people have asked me for my opinion, that it seemed worthy of a full commentary. While the document’s ‘legalese’ might be mind-numbingly boring, its purpose is clear: treat local government like a democracy rather than a business, placing the collective interests of residents first.
Ashley Nickels is an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. Her book under contract from Temple University Press, titled Power, Participation and Protest: Impact of Municipal Takeover in Flint, Michigan is expected out next year.