Voters to decide Aug. 3 if City Charter should be reviewed, revised
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Along with candidates running for Mayor and City Council, there will be another very important race on the city primary election ballot this year, one that hasn't gotten as much notice.
The biggest deal coming up of which few are probably aware is the question of whether to revise the Dearborn City Charter.
And, if voters decide in the August 3 primary election that our charter should be revised, we would then elect a nine-member Charter Revision Commission in November to spend the next couple years doing the work. This would produce another slew of candidates for a temporary elected position that many have never heard of.
Residents who want to run for positions on the Charter Commission have already filed petitions to become candidates, even before it's actually known whether voters will approve creation of the Charter Commission.
If voters on August 3 say YES to revising the charter, the candidates will appear on the November ballot. If voters on August 3 say NO to revising the charter, never mind, there won't be an election for Charter Commission, even though candidates have filed.
Those are just the rules of the road this year, odd or illogical as they might seem.
Now, let's review what this is all about.
WHAT IS THE CITY CHARTER? Let’s start with the basics.
A charter is a document developed and, importantly, voted on by the residents of a home rule city. In simplest terms, it sets the framework for the city’s government. It determines how the government it is set up, what is permissible and not, and so on.
It is a cross between the city’s own Constitution and a simple rulebook. It sets the rules of operation, subject to limits set by state government in the Home Rule Cities Act.
The charter is a long and, unless you’re an extreme policy wonk, boring document. It has 55 pages, and the first six alone are just the table of contents. But, for the sake of this discussion, if you’ve stayed with it this far, you might want to have a look at the current Dearborn City Charter. Click here to view our charter.
You’ll see that it really is an important document. It sets the powers for the mayor and the council. It outlines our taxation. It provides for how our elections work, that we have a strong mayor form of government, how elected officials are replaced if a vacancy occurs, and much, much, much more.
WHY CHARTERS NEED UPDATING, AND HOW IT'S DONE Times change, and charters, like a state’s constitution, have mechanisms built in for changing with the times. The charter itself states that individual sections of the charter can be amended, removed, or added by a vote of Dearborn residents. Residents themselves can put a charter amendment question on the ballot, by petition. The City Council can also put amendments on the ballot, but it’s important to know that neither the Council nor the Mayor have the power to change the Dearborn City Charter. That is reserved for the residents.
I should differentiate here between charter amendments and revisions. An amendment changes just one section of the document. A revision rewrites the whole thing, not necessarily changing the basic structure, but updating bits and pieces throughout.
After enough time passes, it’s possible that the charter could need more than piecemeal changes patching holes and updating sections through the amendment process.
The Dearborn City Charter anticipates this possibility, and won’t wait for city officials to decide that might be necessary. The charter that took effect January 1, 2008 specifies in Section 19.5 that, on the city primary election ballot in 2021, the question shall be put to voters whether a general revision of the entire document should occur. So there is no decision to be made whether or not to put this before voters. The City Council must put it on the August 3 ballot.
If voters say no to that question, the current charter remains in place, still able to be amended a little at a time as the voters deem necessary. The charter states that the question of a full review/revision would then next appear on the ballot in 2033, unless the City Council with at least five votes or a citizen petition calls for the question to be put on the ballot sooner.
If voters say yes, that begins a detailed process that will take probably at least two years.
First, a nine-member Charter Commission would be elected in November. Candidates who have an interest in their city government and their community have already stepped forward to run for the commission, and filed necessary paperwork by July 20.
These are, presumably, be civic-minded individuals willing to devote time over a couple years in several open, public meetings to study, discuss, hear from the public and decide on what portions of the charter should be changed. The work can be busy, and thankless, and probably will come with a $50 per meeting stipend (that was the case in 2005).
The Charter Commission would hold hearings and decide what, if anything, needs to be changed. After a long process that would take many meetings, the Charter Commission would vote to put a revised charter before voters, maybe in 2023. Voters then would give their collective thumbs up or down to the proposed revised charter.
If voters say yes the proposal revised charter, it is adopted and goes into effect. If, however, voters reject the proposed new document, the Charter Commission can either disband without further action and let the current charter stand, or, more likely, it would make some changes and put it before voters again.
The Charter Commission’s revised charter can be put before city voters no more than three times. If it fails to get approval in three tries, we stick with the current charter. If a revised charter isn’t approved within three years of the commission being formed, we also continue with the 2008 charter.
CHARTER REVISION DOESN'T HAPPEN OFTEN
A full revision of the Dearborn City Charter occurs rarely. The last time voters said yes to wanting a revised charter was in 2005. The time before that, I believe, was 1977. Following the process I described, voters said yes in the 2005 city primary election to starting the process. That November, a nine-member commission was elected (there were 40 candidates!), which wound up being chaired by current Councilman David Bazzy, who did a very good job on the Charter Commission. The Charter Commission worked for nearly two years on the revisions, before putting the proposed new Dearborn City Charter on a ballot in November 2007. Voters said yes to the new charter, and it took effect January 1, 2008.
If you have any questions, or are interested in discussing this subject, feel free to contact me.