Ballot Chameleon: Events Change, Constitutions Don’t
When we go to the polls this fall and we get to the ballot proposal section, we can’t make our decisions solely based on current events.
These constitutional amendments and city charter shifts could hold for decades, through all sorts of conflicts.
In Detroit, there are four ballot proposals for people to decide on in addition to six statewide proposals. These city proposals are mostly clarifications and amendments to the city’s governing document, the charter.
An example of current events affecting city laws came during the charter revision process that started in 2010. People were caught up on the Kilpatrick scandal, they wished, at that time, that the law department had more power over the scandalized mayor.
The decision to give city attorney’s independent power was supposed to provide some sort of insurance to make sure this never happened again.
But that backfired when a new situation arose. The State and the City entered into a consent, or turnaround, agreement and when the city’s top lawyer, using her new found power, tried to stop it, there was nothing the Mayor or the Council could do about it.
Now the question on the ballot is whether the charter says that city lawyers have this power or not. It’s a clarifying question that has been seen through current-event shades.
That goes to show us that the amendments proposed this November can’t be changed on an issue by issue basis. They have to stick through all sorts of police weather and economic shifts. They have to be versatile.
Just because it’s unpopular for a city attorney to have power right now after the Crystal Crittendon consent fiasco, the scene may change next year.
So when we vote on these long-term decisions this on Election Day, we have to keep in mind: things won’t always be like this. These people won’t always be in power. Times change. Are these laws versatile?
Remember when former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was getting into all that trouble? There was much talk about the city charter then, how the law department was powerless to control the mayor, how the charter had to be updated. The talk ramped up into action and an elected charter revision commission worked for two years to revise the city’s law book.
Now, two years later, the new and supposedly improved charter is taking affect, big time.
But a lot has changed since Kilpatrick’s mess and the revised charter is giving the law department the power to act independently of a new kind of Mayor: one caught in a financial crisis and trying to keep the city afloat with state funds—and state mandated financial experts to the tune of controversy. There are those who believe the city could do without state mandated experts taking over city finances.
The new charter has city’s law department separate from the executive branch so that neither the Mayor nor the City Council can give city law officials orders. What’s more, the law department has the power to remove elected officials from office if they violate the charter. The mayor and the council can also remove law officials.
The stakes were raised last week for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and City Council members. Threats from state treasury officials are putting city leaders in with a financial time bomb: Drop the lawsuit that's holding up the consent agreement or loose $80 million in revenue sharing, a state treasury official threatened. The threat came in a letter to Jack Martin, the state appointed financial guru to head the conditions of the stalled consent agreement.
That spells stalemate for Bing, the Council and Law Department.
Bing and the Council are set to meet behind closed doors today to figure out what their options are.
What’s interesting to me is why the state is so eager to force the city to drop the lawsuit. The state and the mayor contend that the city doesn’t have enough time to wait for a legal battle to play out.
But it seems like that state is worried the lawsuit really might just void the legality of the consent agreement. Why else would state officials be so forceful in making the city drop the lawsuit—a lawsuit that they claim hold no water?
A question for city leaders is: is the law bendable under the weight of an impeding financial crisis?
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