11/06/2012 12:41 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Detroit Election 2012: 5 Proposals To Amend Charter Will Shape City's Future

Much has been written about the six statewide proposals this year that would ratify Public Act 4, the emergency manager law, and add five new constitutional amendments to Michigan's constitution.

But Detroit voters will have even more stilted language to sift through tomorrow -- no less than five citywide amendments to Detroit's charter, which was adopted on January 1, 2012. Detroit residents voted in 2009 to revise the charter, electing nine commissioners to shape the revisionary process.

"These are probably the first of many tweaks of amendments that we’re going to see on the ballot," said Vince Keenan, who runs Detroit's Publius voter education website. And he says there will be more as the city prepares for switching to a districted council system in 2013.

(Find out where you are registered to vote and get informed about your ballot with Publius, plus watch videos explaining Detroit's charter proposals that are up for vote on Tuesday)

Proposal M, which would decriminalize (NOT legalize) small amounts of marijuana within city limits, has garnered a surprising amount of publicity and support, considering the prolonged legal battle waged to keep this petition off of Detroit's voting ballots. Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Council member who now owns Crossroads Consulting and lectures at Wayne State University, says that she isn't personally opposed to the proposal.

"Marijuana is a lot like the alcohol," she told The Huffington Post. "Adults using their small amounts for personal use should be a personal decision."

Detroit police may choose not to enforce this measure, even if voters affirm the proposal at the polls. Cockrel said that the proposal's success would make for an interesting experiment. "At a certain point, going after the real dealers is where you are going to make inroads into the drugs that are really ravaging the city -- cocaine, crack and heroin," she said.

Both Cockrel and Keenan advised voters to look out for one amendment in particular -- Proposal C, which would give the city's top attorney the right to sue to enforce the charter, even if the mayor or council oppose the action. It's precisely the question of the city Law Department head's enumerated powers that led to the city's corporation counsel, Krystal Crittendon, filing a challenge to the state-imposed consent agreement last summer.

"I think it’s very interesting that after the controversy this year," said Keenan, "is that there isn't a reasonable alternative to ... expanding the powers of the corporation counsel. That's the option that we don’t have -- limit the powers of the corporation counsel."

Cockrel was also wary of granting the corporation counsel, who is appointed, the power to subvert the authority of elected government officials.

"Personally, I think it’s terrible public policy," said Cockrel. "A non-elected person in this kind of position, with this kind of extraordinary power, misses the point of what the corporation counsel’s job is supposed to be. As the city's chief lawyer and as the guardian of the charter, the first job is to be the city’s lawyer and to work with the Mayor’s office and City Council, and to represent the city in court in any kind of legal and administrative proceedings."

And Keenan said that passing Proposal C wouldn't end the power plays on display earlier this year between the Law Department and Detroit's elected leaders.

"I think the idea of the Law Department being able to go to court on its own interpretation is something that needs to be thought through a little more carefully," he remarked. "This proposal really only opens up more questions down the road."

Current Detroit City Council member Saunteel Jenkins told the Detroit Free Press the proposal wouldn't strengthen the legal powers of the city's top attorney.

"The language on the ballot is simply to clarify so that everybody will understand and it won't require costly litigation because people feel they are getting mixed signals," Jenkins said.

Cockrel had more faith in Proposal G, which would allow council members to create their own ordinances outlining which "gifts, gratuities and honoraria" city workers and elected officials can legally receive in connection to their jobs. While it might sound like a case of giving the foxes the keys to the henhouse, Cockrel believes the amendment makes good sense.

"The ordinance is so narrowly written now that it's not clear," she said. For example, a city council member could be in violation for accepting a cup of coffee. Or if a council member is married to someone who has done business with the city, it could technically be illegal to give their spouse a gift, she said. "It shouldn't be a situation."

During Cockrel's tenure on council, while they were considering casino proposals, the body passed a special ordinance doing the exact same thing that Proposal G suggests. "We passed a special ordinance. It had a sunset, and it said, categorically, that anyone who was associated with any vendor who applied for a casino license, couldn't buy anything for a council member or staff."

"We awarded three casinos and two stadiums and nobody went to jail," she added.

Cockrel sees disapproval over Proposal G as leftover animus from the tenure of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, currently being tried by the feds. "The system wasn't that broken before Kilpatrick came in," she argued. "Kilpatrick came in and abused the system, that understandably led to this reaction. But it's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Instead, Cockrel recommends that the council set a reasonable limit (such as $50) for gifts.

There will be two other local amendments featured on Detroiters' ballots. Proposal P would suspend a rule that bars recent retirees from taking work with the city during their first year of retirement. Notably, insiders say this would eliminate useful contributions from some long-term employees who have taken their pensions in hard-to-fill departments like the city's Assessor's Office.

Proposal E would establish minimum and maximum numbers of signatures needed to validate petitions when nominating candidates for local office.

Certainly, all the hype surrounding the presidential election may outshine proposals to amend the city's charter. But Keenan says those who vote on these proposals Tuesday have a unique responsibility -- even a privilege.

"Outside from the democratic obligation, the real reason [to vote] is because, this is the future of the city coming together. It's coming, in unglamorous ways through little charter amendments and tweaks," Keenan said.

"If you looked at the controversies that happened earlier this year, you see how these little things can make a big difference."

Also, like we said, there's a pot proposal.

Follow our Election Day liveblog throughout the day for poll data, photos, links, interviews, results and more. Have problems (or funny incidents) at the polls? Email us or tweet your anecdotes and photos to @HuffPostDetroit.

For all of HuffPost Detroit's coverage of Michigan politics and election news, see the Detroit politics page.



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