By Paul Rozycki
In light of recent terrorist threats at Bishop Airport, criminal indictments of state water officials, continuing squabbles between the Flint City Council and the mayor over the source of Flint’s water, the hype over a $50 million election in Georgia, and endless tweets from the president, this August’s election in Flint may seem of little consequence.
Perhaps by comparison it is. And I suspect that unfortunately the voter turnout will reflect that. August primaries don’t usually gather much attention or many voters—especially when we are not electing a governor or a president.
However, this Aug. 8 voters in Flint will face two major questions. Who should represent each ward on the city council and should the new city charter be approved? Normally neither of those issues generate much energy or excitement. But they are both critically important for Flint and its future, especially as it continues the slow, uncertain, process of emerging from emergency managers, state supervision and the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB).
City Council primary
The city council contests have produced 29 candidates (nine incumbents and 20 challengers)—one of the largest field of office seekers in years. In three wards (the 1st, 4th and 5th) there are only two candidates and there is no need for a primary election in those wards. However in the other six wards multiple challengers have filed, and the top two finishers in the August primary will face off in the November election. Over the next month, take the time to learn about the city council candidates in your ward. East Village Magazine has already published a listing of all the names of those running, (in the May issue and website, coming in hard copy July 6), Tom Sumner’s radio program (WFOV, 92.1) will have interviewed nearly all of the candidates by election day and those interviews will be archived and available for any who want to listen to them (www.tomsumnerprogram.com). Look for community groups to sponsor forums for the candidates as well.
With the ever-changing challenge of Flint’s water crisis, and the possibility of a mayoral recall, the near future seems likely to be a tumultuous time for the city of Flint and the city council. More than ever we need level-headed leadership.
A new city charter?
The second major issue facing the voters will be the opportunity to approve a new charter for the city.
The current city charter was last revised in 1974, when Flint’s population was a nearly 200,000, we had almost 80,000 well paid GM jobs in the county, and it seemed that the city would do nothing but expand and prosper.
We are clearly in a very different time, and it’s not hard to make a case that the charter created for the 1970s deserves a new look and revision.
For as important as it is, the charter commission has received relatively little public attention for their efforts. Whatever one’s view of the charter, those who served on the commission deserve thanks for taking on a complex and tedious task that could only appeal to political science professors and policy geeks. The commissioners, who have worked long and hard the last two years to produce the new charter are: Cleora Magee, chair, John Cherry, vice chair, Quincy Murphy*, Victoria McKenze, Charles Metcalf, Heidi Phaneuf, Jim Richardson, Marsha Wesley and Barry Williams. (*Murphy replaced Brian Larkin, who resigned from the position after he was appointed to head Flint’s Planning and Development Department.)
The 77-page document obviously covers much detail of the operation of the city’s government. However, in brief, the key elements are as follows:
What hasn’t changed:
In spite of earlier speculation that the commission might recommend a change from a strong-mayor to a city manager form of government, the proposed charter retains the strong mayor form, and keeps a nine-member council, representing the nine wards of the city.
What has changed:
The proposed new city charter would:
– Create a panel to enforce and define ethical behavior for city employees.
– Require clear statement of qualifications expected of city employees.
– Require both the mayor and council to be elected to four-year terms, in the same year as gubernatorial elections.
– Restructure executive departments to require a department of law, human resources, and finance, and allow the mayor to create another five departments for a total of eight. The mayor would also be allowed to appoint up to five additional members of his or her executive staff.
– ‘Reinvigorate, empower, and grant independence to Office of Ombudsman’, which has not been active for a number of years.
– Clarify the role of the city council and require regular reporting from the mayor to the council.
– Eliminate raiding of water funds, require a more structured and open budgeting process, better budget monitoring, and improved estimates of city revenues.
– Create an assistance program to provide for more affordable water and sewer fees.
– Mandate a transparent accounting of water funds.
– Require voter approval before city assets are privatized.
To be sure, the above list is only a brief summary of the charter’s key points, and it’s worth taking the time to look at the whole document at <flintcitycharter.com/>. For more information, Harold Ford’s article in the March EVM (and the website) summarizes much of the key history and background of Flint’s city charters.
The election’s importance
While the election of the city council and the approval of a new charter might seem to be separate and isolated issues, they share a common connection.
The charter is very important for Flint. But despite any debate over the pros and cons of a new charter, in the final analysis, it is the people that matter. If we elect good, hard-working, dedicated officials, they can make most charters or organizations work reasonably well. If we elect incompetent, uninformed, self-serving officials they can foul up even the best organization and most well written charters.
No piece of paper or document can guarantee one outcome or prevent the other.
It’s up to us.
Be sure to vote Aug. 8.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.