by Harold C. Ford
A draft of the first Flint city charter revision in 43 years was reviewed by about 100 Flint citizens at a 4 ½–hour community meeting Feb. 25 at Flint’s Bethel United Methodist Church. The draft represented two years of work by the nine-member City of Flint Charter Review Commission.
The revised charter would establish a board to enforce ethical standards and set in place a financial overhaul requiring clear budget timelines and a ban on raiding restricting funds. What it would not do is change the city’s existing strong mayor-council structure.
After a period of state and public review concluding March 6, commission members hope the proposed charter will be ready to go to voters Aug. 8. The revision is the fifth in the city’s 162-year history since incorporation in 1855.
Following the Feb. 25 meeting with citizens, commission vice-chairperson John Cherry told East Village Magazine, “I anticipate there will be changes; I have no idea how major they’ll be.” Asked about the likelihood of changes being done in time for the Aug. 8 election, he responded with an emphatic, “Yes! Because if we don’t, were going to miss the deadline for the ballot.”
The Charter Review Commission expects to submit its 77-page charter document to the Michigan Attorney General’s office in early March for review. “The reason is that the Attorney General’s office has to review the entire charter that we are proposing to make sure that it doesn’t violate any state law,” commission member Jim Richardson said during a presentation to the Central Park Neighborhood Association Feb. 9. “Our goal is to place a proposed charter on the ballot for the voters to act on Aug. 8.”
First ward city councilman Eric Mays, the only member of the council at the Feb. 25 meeting, told EVM, “I know that they (commission members) worked hard. They made some changes; some of them I agree with, some of them I don’t.”
Mays urged the commission to take its time and aim to get on the ballot in November rather than August. “They want to have two shots at it—August and November,” he said. “I would probably go one-shot, get it right, and do it by November. By the time they get to August, I’ll go yea or nay and tell the people I represent what I think.”
On being the only member of the City Council at the culminating event of the public feedback period, Mays said: “I’ve been attending the Charter Revision Commission meetings back and forth. I’m a different kind of councilperson; I’m not disappointed in being different. This is important and it’s our duty to pay attention. I wish other council people had been here, but I’ll take the honor of being the only one that’s educated at this point.”
The commission’s draft revision does not include changes to the existing strong mayor-council form of government. Nor does it change the current ward-council structure. Already-existing wards and a nine-person city council are retained in the draft revision, Richardson stated.
“When we looked at all of the things and heard community feedback…there was an extreme amount of divergent points of view around those two issues and they were quite striking in many respects,” reported Richardson. “The amount of change and improvement it would make to government would not be enough of a return in response to the amount of disruption that it would generate.”
In addition to Cherry and Richardson, members of the commission, elected by City of Flint residents in May, 2015, are Cleora McGee, chairperson; Quincy Murphy; Victoria McKenze; Charles Metcalf; Heidi Phaneuf; Marsha Wesley; and Barry Williams.
At the forefront of the commission’s proposed changes to Flint’s 43-year old charter are ethics, office qualifications, and finance. According to Richardson, the principles that guided the commission in its work were: government accountability; government transparency; public involvement in government; and effective government. A commission document about the proposed changes advises, “These changes all reflect those values.”
According to Richardson, provisions for ethical standards are largely absent from Flint’s current charter, adopted in 1974. The revised charter would prohibit illegal activities, the use of government resources for personal benefits, and participation in activities where government officials have a conflict of interest.
A new board would be created to enforce ethical standards. “We have created an Ethics and Accountability Board because you can have ethical standards but you have to have a way to be able to call folks out,” said Richardson. “The purpose of this (board) is to be able to do evaluations of where they think there has been violations of ethical standards,” he added. “The (board) also has the power to take action, including legal action, and referral for criminal behavior.”
The proposed Ethics and Accountability Board would be comprised of eleven persons. Each councilperson would pick one citizen from their ward as a member; the mayor would choose two more. Further, the board would appoint Flint’s ombudsman. “Our intent was to create some political distance or insulation,” Richardson said.
“I’m also looking at the Ethics Committee,” Mays said. “I just want to make sure that we have a mechanism in place to truly make sure that they have the time to do their work. I’m still looking at whether or not the enforcement aspect of the charter has the teeth I wanted to see.”
Under the heading “Qualified Appointees,” a commission document about proposed changes explains: “The most recent water crisis was just one example of people without the proper knowledge making decisions that affect City residents. The new charter would require that prior to any appointments being made, qualifications would need to be set forth in ordinance and appointees would be required to demonstrate that they have those qualifications.”
Richardson called this “another big change.” He explained: “We have a long history about these positions being patronage positions. You put your friend into these spots.” The importance of requiring job descriptions via ordinance, reasoned Richardson, “is that when a piece comes through as an ordinance , it requires a notification, a comment time period on the part of the public, and establishes it, in essence, as a city law. So it’s not easily changed and the attempt in that is to work towards creating professionalization of key positions.”
Flint’s budgeting process is targeted for a major overhaul in the proposed charter. “The current charter is very non-descriptive about how budgeting happens,” Richardson reported. “We want to see that there is a more open and transparent approach towards budgeting and reporting back expenditures on a regular basis.”
Thus, with the advent of the fiscal year July 1, the revised charter would require specific budgetary steps in September, December, March, and June. “We’re putting in this charter a prescriptive timetable for when budget pieces need to happen, giving it a longer timeframe when certain parts of preparation of the budget have to be done and made known,” Richardson explained.
Further, the charter provides for “revenue projection.” Richardson said, “We want there to be some folks who say with as much certainty as they can that here is the amount of revenue that the city can expect to be receiving in the next year.” Quarterly reports would be required from key people inside and outside of city government who must find unanimous agreement on both income and expenditure projections.
Finally, the charter revision dictates that the city cannot raid restricted funds. “If you got a water fund, you can’t go in there and grab out the money that may be a little extra,” Richardson said. “Water payments have been used as a way to increase additional tax dollars.”
Election streamlining, better insurance options
Dozens of other changes are provided for in the commission’s draft proposed charter. Article 2 would streamline the election cycle such that the mayor and the city council would be elected to four-year terms in the same year as the election for Michigan’s governor. “You can’t run for mayor and continue to hold the seat on the city council,” Richardson explained.
Mays said he is opposed to “holding the council and the mayor’s race at the same time versus staggered times.” He also voiced concern about an absentee mayor being replaced by the city council president rather than the city administrator in the revised charter. “That kind of troubles me,” he said.
New language in Article 1 would enable the city council and the city administration to seek out alternative and less expensive insurance for city residents to insure their homes and automobiles. Richardson urged that city leaders study what other municipalities have done in Michigan to lower insurance costs for their residents.
The aforementioned changes and others in the proposed charter revision can be found at flintcitycharter.com. Richardson welcomed questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Analysis and historical perspective
That Flint should endeavor to revise its charter for only the fourth time in its 162-year history should hardly surprise any student of government. After all, the charter is for the City of Flint what the Constitution is for the United States. And the United States has amended its constitution 27 times in the 228 years since its adoption in 1789.
At its website, the National League of Cities provides rationale for charter revision:
“Occasionally, a city will seek to revise its charter. There are several reasons to do so, since the charter affects everything the city government does. It provides the basis for most municipal regulatory functions and for the delivery of municipal services.”
“The United States has one of the greatest complexity of local government laws in the world,” according to the report “Revising City Charters in New York State.” The Census Bureau, which tabulates governments at all levels in the US every five years, finds there are nearly 90,000 units of government in the United States; and nearly 20,000 are local municipalities including cities, towns, and villages. Thus, sheer numbers dictate that charter revision is a fact of political life in American democracy.
Local government in the United States: an overview
The US Constitution does not mention local governments. Rather, state governments provide for local government. In Michigan, the Home Rule City Act, enacted by the Legislature in 1909 provides the framework by which a city may become incorporated and set up its own government with a city charter. It also provides the framework for revising a charter. That includes allowing up to three votes on a proposed charter revision. If all goes as planned, the Flint Charter Review Commission intends for the first vote on their Draft Flint City Charter to take place on Aug. 8.
Flint City Charter Timeline:
- 1855: Flint incorporated as a city under its first charter.
- 1888: Flint adopted its second city charter.
- 1929: Flint adopted a new city charter with a council-manager form of government.
- 1973: A charter revision commission elected to review & revise Flint’s 1929 city charter.
- 1974: Current Flint city charter adopted with a strong mayor form of government.
- 2014: Blue Ribbon Committee on Governance appointed by Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley recommended changes in Flint’s city charter.
- Nov 2014: By a vote of 56% to 44%, Flint voters approved a ballot proposal to review the city charter; voters also rejected elimination of executive department requirements, elimination of Civil Service Commission, and elimination of Flint’s Ombudsman; voters approved best budget practices and reduction of mayoral staff appointments from ten to five.
- May 2015: 9-member Flint Charter Review Commission elected by Flint voters: John Cherry; Jim Richardson; Cleora MaGee; Victoria McKenze; Charles Metcalfe; Heidi Phaneuf; Marsha Wesley; Barry Williams; Brian Larkin (Since then, Larkin left the commission and was replaced by Quincy Murphy.)
- February 25, 2017: Charter Review Commission community meeting.
- March 2017: Draft of Flint city charter revisions to be submitted to Michigan Attorney General.
- August 8, 2017: Revised Flint city charter expected to be on ballot for voter approval.
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.