By Paul Rozycki
Last August Flint voters set the city on a new course when they approved the city’s new charter—the first since 1974. In the turmoil over the Flint water crisis, successive emergency managers, and recall elections, the charter sometimes seemed lost in the shuffle. Yet, the Charter Commission produced a significant and important document.
Over a period of many months the Commission met with community groups on at least eight separate occasions, gathering citizen responses and incorporating them into the final document. However, for as significant as the 83-page charter is, it remained a surprisingly low-level issue. In the end, the voters did approve the new charter by a nearly two to one vote. Today, as the city moves beyond emergency managers and the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), the importance of the new charter looms larger than ever.
After an attempted mayoral recall, and the election of five new members to the city council, the city is returning to genuine self-governance. But even as the city is getting back to running its own affairs, and the council seems to be (hopefully) more focused on real city problems, the charter, which took effect the first of the year, appears to be left in the background.
What didn’t change with the new charter?
There were some major changes, and some major things that stayed the same with the new charter.
Two things didn’t change.
Unlike some predictions, Flint kept the strong-mayor form of government. Some expected that there would be a proposal for a city-manager, as had been recommended by a ‘blue ribbon’ committee, as it was before 1974.
The new charter also kept a nine-member, ward based council. Because of the city’s declining population, some advocated a smaller council or electing some council members at-large.
What did change?
But there were also major changes in the new charter.
Briefly, some of the major provisions of the new charter are:
- Creating a new ethics board, and stronger enforcement powers.
- A strengthening of the Office of the Ombudsperson.
- Elimination of the ability to raid the water and sewer fund for other purposes.
- Creation of minimum qualifications for department heads, established by ordinance.
- Improved access to information for both the public and the city council.
- A change in the election cycle for city officials, to the same year as governor’s elections.
To be sure, there are many other changes in the new document, and there is much detail to the major changes listed above. Some of those will take some time – such as the election changes for local officials. Instead of taking place in the “off year” cycle, elections for city officials would take place in the same year the governor is elected. In 2019 officials would be elected for a three-year term and then fall in line with the governor’s election cycle in 2022.
But other aspects could, and should, take place as soon as the charter became law in January of this year.
Creation of Ethics and Accountability Board
Perhaps most important of these is the creation of an Ethics and Accountability Board, whose most important duty would be to choose an ombudsperson.
The Office of the Ombudsperson would have the authority to enforce the charter, apply ethics requirements, investigate complaints, and conduct performance audits. To assure its independence, the office would have a minimum budget of $250,000 from the city’s general fund, and not rely on appropriations from the council.
In choosing the ombudsperson, the board would be key to the implementation and enforcement of the new charter. The board would consist of 11 members– two chosen, at large, by the mayor, and one chosen from each of the city’s nine wards, by the council member. The council must approve all appointments after a public hearing. The members are eligible to serve two six-year terms, which are staggered so not all of the board is up at the same time.
So far, there have been no members appointed to the board and only one nomination.
According to local attorney and community activist, Terry Bankert, “I am concerned that the mayor and the City Council do not intend to recognize the 2017 charter and its differences from the 1974 charter.”
Bankert expressed concern that the mayor or her supporters might offer amendments to the charter that might delay or modify its implementation. He said, “There are multiple issues the public should focus on. The Ethics and Accountability Board… is just one category.”
He plans to meet with several attorneys with the intent of talking legal action in court if no progress is made on implementing the charter, particularly the creation of the Ethics and Accountability Board. Bankert served as city clerk in 1983, was appointed ombudsman in 1987, and was a candidate for the 7th Ward council seat in 2005.
The implementation is important not only because the voters approved it last year, and not only because the city is a very different city than it was in 1974. It’s important because of one major issue that cuts across all levels of government – trust, or the lack of it. So many things have undermined our trust in government, not the least of which is the Flint water crisis.
No single document will solve all the problems of Flint, and no single action will restore the trust in government. But the voters chose a new charter as a good faith effort to solve some of those problems. A good first step to rebuild that trust is for the elected city officials to carry out the wishes of the voters, and begin to apply the new city charter without delay.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.